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Female libido, Responsive Desire & Sexual Cues

Updated: May 5

Female libido or sexual desire is complex. It may be tempting to think that sexual desire in women should be spontaneous and consistant. However the truth is that female libido is more nuanced. Every woman has her own unique libido due to her own sexual story and factors that affect sex drive negatively or positively.

As a passionate women's health doctor, I take a holistic approach to female sexual desire.

Female libido, Responsive Desire & Sexual Cues, dr deb brunt, otepoti integrative health

Let's start with some definitions.

What is Female Libido?

Female libido is a term for the physical and mental energy associated with sexual desire. It is often characterized as an urge or impulse to engage in sexual activity, which may be spontaneous or responsive. It is often used interchangably with sexual desire.

What is Female Sexual Desire?

Female sexual desire can be described as the motivation to seek out and willingness to engage in solo or partnered sexual experiences (Dawson 2014). A woman's libido or desire is unique to her, influenced by a variety of environmental, social, hormonal and physiological factors.

Sexual desire can be either spontaneous or responsive, and this can change from day to day, month to month and year to year. It can also change with the duration of a relationship, especially long term monogamous relationships where both romantic love, emotional intimacy and erotic desire are expected.

Esther Perel, sex therapist asks an important question about sexual desire.

"Can we want what we already have?" - Esther Perel

What is Spontaneous Desire?

Spontaneous desire is considered an "unbidden" urge to experience sexual pleasure. It has been called 'the wanting that comes before the wanting'.

This type of desire is often considered the societal norm or expectation and appears to come "out of the blue," although people who experience spontaneous desire are easily responsive to their sexual cues, have accelerators that are on and brakes that are off.

For many women often sexual desire is spontaneous during the early stages of a relationship and moves to responsive desire longer term.

It often mirrors brain biochemistry shifts from excitement and novelty domapinergic systems more towards stable and connecting oxytocin systems.

What is Responsive Desire?

Responsive desire is when a woman's libido arises due to external factors such as erotic stimulation, sexual fantasy, foreplay or even just being in her partner’s presence.

Responsive desire starts with a willingness or receptiveness to engage sexually. It can be slow to blossom, but given the right conditions, touch, timing and place it can emerge.

Both types of sexual desire can be equally satisfactory but are arrived at differently.

While both types of desire are normal and valid, it's important to recognize that women often experience responsive desire more frequently than spontaneous desire.

Female libido, Responsive Desire & Sexual Cues, dr deb brunt, otepoti integrative health

What factors contribute to female libido or sexual desire?

Three factors that are important contributers to female libido or sexual desire include: intimacy, celebrated otherness, affirmation of desirability.


Intimacy is the depth of involvement in a relationship. It is your perception of closeness to your partner, that enables the openness to share your personal feelings. This sharing of feelings brings connection, a sense of being understood, affirmed and cared for.

Emotional intimacy acts as both an incentive and a reinforcer of sexual desire for women. This means often women experience sexual desire when they feel they have an intimate connection with their partner.

Celebrated Otherness

"Celebrated otherness" is a healthy distance and individuation from partner. Individuation is about being able to holding onto yourself while holding onto another. It is seeing both your partner and yourself as a full individuals, that your partner is different and separate to you and accepting of this.

It is in this otherness that desire thrives according to psychotherapist and relationship expert Esther Perel.

Sexual desire thrives in that space between the self and the other as this is where we find the unknown, novel and unexpected, we discover surprise and risk. - Esther Perel

Where there is too much attachment, fusion, togetherness there is a lack of space for novelty, adventure and surprise which ignites desire.

Affirmation of desirability

A number of studies show that women want to be sexually desired by their partners, and that feeling desired by their partner increases her desire for their partner.

Being an object of sexual desire is a core western societal conditioning of the female sexual self so is experiencing desirability from a partner is an important aspect of their sexual desire for many women.

Female libido, Responsive Desire & Sexual Cues

The Role of Accelerators and Brakes on Female Libido

Your may have heard that the brain is the biggest sex organ and I'm here to tell you this is true. What is going on in your brain on a day-to-day basis, how it is picking up on sexual cues and information and responding to them contributes in a big way to your sexual drive.

The idea of accelerators and brakes provides a helpful way to think about the factors that can increase or decrease your sexual desire.

Accelerators are anything that increases the likelihood for a woman to experience sexual excitement and pleasure, while brakes are any factor that might impede it.

Sexual Accelerator:

Accelerators include things that turn you on, light you up sexually and excite you. This includes:

  • foreplay,

  • self-pleasure,

  • using sex toys

  • dressing attractively

  • watching or reading sexual media

  • sexual fantasy

There are 4 groups of female sexual cues that function as accelerators for sexual desire.

1. Love/Emotions/Bonding Cues:

This is when you experience feelings of love and emotional connection and includes:

  • feeling loved, accepted and valued

  • feeling physically attracted to your partner

  • feeling emotionally connected to your partner

  • having shared values and passions

  • emotional intimacy or sharing thoughts and feelings with your partner.

2. Explicit or Erotic Sexual Cues

These cues generally are explicitly sexual and involves watching, reading or or hearing something sexy such as:

  • Watching or reading erotica

  • Touching and caressing your partner

  • Having sexual fantasies

  • Expressing your fantasies to your partner.

  • Talking about sex

3. Visual or Proximity Sexual Cues

These cues are when you see something exciting or attractive that then draws you to want a sexual connection with your partner but the cues themselves are not explicitly sexual.

  • Seeing your partner in an attractive way

  • Being around someone you find attractive or desirable

  • Feeling the presence of an attractive person.

  • seeing someone act confidantly or intelligently.

  • Flirting with someone or having someone flirt with you.

  • Certain places, moments, times of day or even locations can increase sexual desire.

4. Romatic or implicit cues

These cues evoke emotion and feeling or experiences such as:

  • Having music playing

  • Lighting candles

  • Wearing lingerie

  • Giving or receiving gifts

  • Using massage oils.

  • Watching a romantic comedy together.

Female libido, Responsive Desire & Sexual Cues, dr deb brunt, otepoti integrative health

Brakes of sexual desire

Brakes are the factors that hinder sexual desire and maintain a low libido. If you are experiencing a decreased sex drive it is useful to think about the things that are a complete turn off to sexual energy such as;

  • stress,

  • fatigue,

  • negative body image,

  • relationship conflicts

  • being time-poor

  • balancing many roles such as career, caregiver

  • being a caregiver to your partner

  • painful sex, vaginal dryness

  • fear of pregnancy or sexual transmitted infection (STI)

  • sexual trauma

  • medical conditions, or medications

  • poor mental health

  • perfectionism

  • experiencing non-pleasurable sex

When supporting women to achieve a healthy sex life, a holistic approach looks at what accelerators and brakes affect libido for you. Identifying these accelerators and brakes is crucial in cultivating healthy sexual desire.

Exploring Biological Factors: Hormones, Health, and Libido

Many people often think hormones = libido or sexual desire, and that low sexual desire always = low hormones, but the truth is that hormones are a single part of a very complex whole.

Hormones do contribute to libido, but so does connection to your sexual cues, your body, your mind and your relationship quality.

The intricate dance of hormones plays a pivotal role in female sexual desire. Hormonal changes throughout the menstrual cycle, pregnancy, and menopause can significantly impact libido.

For instance, estrogen and testosterone levels fluctuate, influencing desire and responsiveness. Many women find they are more easily aroused and experience spontaneous desire during the midde of their cycle when estrogen and testosterone are rising and high.

Likewise many women feel lower sexual desire when breastfeeding when alongside many biological and psychological shifts, as well as different phsyical demands, their estrogen levels are lower.

Many health conditions, medications, and lifestyle factors like diet and exercise can also impact libido or contribute to sexual dysfunction.

Hormone therapy can be a useful therapy for low desire during perimenopause and other times where hormones are low. Addressing hormonal imbalances is one step you can do to enhance overall well-being and improve libido or sex drive.

Learn about hormone replacement therapy and testsoterone gel use during for menopause

Cultural and Societal Impacts: Navigating External Influences

The societal landscape and cultural context in which women live profoundly influence their sexual desires.

Historically, women's sexuality has often been stigmatized or suppressed. In some countries choices about women's bodies and function continues to be controlled and decided by patriarchal structures.

These deep-rooted narratives can affect self-perception, body image, and confidence and subsequently have a negative influence on sexual desire and satisfactory sexual function.

Additionally a lack of self-determination and access to contraception can have negative effects on a woman's libido and sex life.

Open conversations, sexual education, and challenging restrictive norms are essential steps towards creating an environment where female desire can flourish.

Nurturing Sexual Desire: Top Tips for Empowerment

1. Prioritize Self-Care

Take time to care for yourself. Connect with your own body, care for it in loving ways, and discard negative body or self talk. Enjoy the sensuality of your own body through mindfully moisturing and caring for your body. A well loved body is one that can be open to sexual connection.

2. Know Your Own Body

If you don't already know what feels good and pleasurable, get to know your own body. Use a mirror to explore your vulva and clitoris, use your hand or sex toys to explore your own pleasure. It's so much easier to communicate to a partner how to give you pleasure if you know for yourself.

3. Communication is Key

Have an open dialogue with your partner about what your enjoy in your sexual experiences together, what turns you on, how you like to be touched, approached for sex, what you dislike and what turns you off. This communication fosters emotional intimacy, creating an environment where responsive desire can flourish.

4. Mindfulness and Stress Management

Engage in mindfulness techniques, meditation, or deep breathing to alleviate stress, one of the most common brakes on sexual desire.

5. Explore Your Fantasies

Embrace your erotic imagination and explore your own sexual fantasies. Sexual fantasies can add the spice and novelty you need in increase your desire for sex, kindling the flames of both spontaneous and responsive desire. Sharing and co-creating sexual fantasies with your partner can be incredibly sexy.

6. Body Positivity

Embrace and celebrate your body. Positive body image enhances confidence and contributes to a healthier self-concept, fueling desire.

7. Embrace Sensuality together

Engage in sensual activities that activate your body's accelerators, such as sensual massages, bathing or showering together, or enjoying a romantic dinner.

8. Intimacy Beyond Intercourse

Recognize that intimacy encompasses a spectrum of activities, from walking or cooking together, hand holding, cuddling to meaningful conversations. These connections can nurture responsive desire.

9. Seek Professional Guidance

If you experience persistant low libido, consult a women's sexual health doctor/sepcialist or sex therapists for personalized guidance and support.

The Takeaways: Understanding Female Libido

Our understanding of female sexual desire is enhanced when we recognise both spontaneous and responsive desire play vital roles.

Being patient with yourself, discovering your unique sexual cues and brakess, considering biological factors, and acknowledging the profound influence of culture and society, you can navigate this journey with authenticity and empowerment.

The path to a thriving libido and sexual relationship begins with self-acceptance and a willingness to explore your sexual desires.

I hope you found this informaton helpful, I'd love to support you further.

Dr Deb Brunt @ Ōtepoti Integrative Health would love to support you discover how to re-ignite your sexual desire.

Dr Deb Brunt is a specialist medical doctor (GP) and menopause doctor in Dunedin, New Zealand and also provides sexual health coaching internationally to support optimal sexual health so you can live your best life.

Frequently Asked Questions About Female Libido

What if I have no sexual desire?

Willingness to engage in sexual experiences, solo or partnered can be a great starting place if spontaneous sexual desire is not present. Try the tips above to engage receptive desire and if they are not helpful, get some additional support from your health professional.

What causes female desire?

There are many factors that can influence female desire, such as sexual cues, accelerators and brakes of sexual desire, hormones, culture and societal norms, mind-body connection, physical health conditions, medications and lifestyle.

Can libido be increased?

Yes! Libido can be increased through a holistic approach to sexual wellbeing. Try exploring the tips we discuss in this article including begining where you feel your need is greatest.

What books can I read about female libido or female sexual desire?

Both of the following books are fantastic and I would highly recommend you read both.


Dawson, S.J., Chivers, M.L. Gender Differences and Similarities in Sexual Desire. Curr Sex Health Rep 6, 211–219 (2014).

McCall K, Meston C. Cues resulting in desire for sexual activity in women. J Sex Med. 2006 Sep;3(5):838-852.

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