When you crave sleep more than sex, you know you've let things slide. Here, how to get hot again, anytime, anyplace. Just like the old days. Picture this: I'm sitting at the kitchen table making loot bags for my daughter's birthday party when my husband arrives home earlier than expected. I'm in an oversize T-shirt and baggy sweatpants, my hair's in a knot with a pencil through it, but Patrick hugs me from behind and says, "Let's take off all our clothes and get into bed." Like me, Patrick has been up before the sun. Like me, Patrick has worked all day. And like me, Patrick is a little stressed about the logistics of having 30 people in our small apartment for the party this weekend. But unlike me, Patrick is ready to put all the other stuff aside and make love. I'll go along, but inside I'm going over who RSVP'd and whether serving minipizzas is just asking for trouble on my new rug. My husband is kissing my eyelids and I hear myself groaning, but if truth be told, my key is nowhere near my ignition, and my engine has no intention of heating up.
Let's face it, whether you have children or not, life is hectic. Besides being parents now, my husband and I are two working people with two offices, two sets of in-laws, and two needy pets. So even early in our marriage we were scheduling moments for passion. But it felt different then. Whether in the kitchen or in line for the movies, I was always aroused. Being too tired or stressed was irrelevant the minute I could get close enough to hear my husband breathe. My engine was always running and I was always ready to go. Well, I'm still in love, still excited by the sound of my husband's voice, yet somewhere along the way, I have become so preoccupied and overrun with the details of the day, I never feel I have enough time to relax before having to shift gears into desire mode. I've lost the anticipation and excitement of sexual intimacy, and for a moment there in the kitchen, I panicked, thinking I might just have to learn to live without it for the rest of my life. After Patrick fell asleep that night, I lay in bed with my heart pounding. I made a list of all the things Patrick and I do together that do excite me -- walking to the subway in the morning, playing backgammon, watching a movie in the middle of a Saturday while our daughter naps, talking to him from inside the shower while he's shaving. Emotionally, we were doing great. Our foundation was stronger than ever. But I had to ask myself, why, if everything seemed so right, was my sex drive in neutral? I had to find out.
What Is Arousal?
Sex books seemed a good place to start, and the next morning I borrowed the Kinsey Report and got the clinical lowdown on arousal: When the female body begins to respond sexually, the vagina becomes congested with blood and lubricated; often the nipples become harder and erect; and the upper body may look flushed. General muscle tension builds as heart rate and blood pressure increase. When we are lucky, excitement begins in the body, and the head is quick to follow (like making love in the middle of the night). But if arousal were simply a matter of pushing the right buttons, we wouldn't need the Kinsey Institute or any other sex expert, would we? I decided to call a few for input. As it turns out, our capacity for arousal hinges on lots of things: our hormone level (especially during and after pregnancy), our general health and fitness, our upbringing, what our day was like, how inherently sexual we are.
"There's increasing evidence that women are wired to be different sexually. And some people are fundamentally more sexual," says sex therapist Linda De Villers, Ph.D., author of the forthcoming Love Skills. "People who are internally wired to be sexual aren't going to need as many sexual cues to get going -- they are sensation seekers with different neurotransmitters in their heads. If you were raised in a sex-positive environment and really value sex as a major way of expressing attachment to your partner, you also don't need a lot of cues. But if you have a lot of other passions or if you're preoccupied with something else like work, even in a good way, you'll need more cues. So you've got to look around and ask, How sexy is the environment? And how much pressure is there to have sex? When the cues are seen as pressure, sex is no longer fun. And having children under age 5 is not associated with a great sex life. There just are real drops when women have young children."
Wow, that last part was so good to hear. It had been harder to get turned on since I'd become a mother; I was reassured to know I was normal. "I don't want to perpetuate any gender myths, but the fact is, women have more on their plates than men do -- in fact, women are more overworked than men," says sex therapist Gina Ogden, Ph.D., author of Women Who Love Sex. "Men are able to go out and do their thing. Maybe if we could go play golf on a Sunday, the shoe would be on the other foot. I mean, it's a whole lot of little stuff: Who's usually saying, 'No, I can't afford that' or 'I can't go there, I have to go home and feed the baby'? You know, your sexual responses don't begin in the bedroom. Ideally, they should be going all day. If you think of sex as energy instead of a set of actions, it's easy to see that if you're constantly having to stop yourself in all aspects of your life, you'll also stop your sexual responses."
This was good stuff. In one short day, I had two good leads: I needed more cues (loot bags and sweatpants wouldn't do) and a bunch of dirty thoughts. Finding a way to get the sexual imagination working again seemed like a huge task, but as with all great journeys, you start with one baby step. As Redbook's Relationship Doctor Jane Greer, Ph.D., told me, "The most important element is to stay focused on your sexual mind-set and don't let anything interfere."
How to Keep Desire Simmering
The next day I dragged my friend Jane to Victoria's Secret during our lunch hour. "Buy something that makes you feel sexy," Jane offered, heading for the G-string bin. Imagining what my butt would look like in lacy dental floss, my stomach did a flip. Be honest about your limitations, I told myself, as I spotted the most beautiful satin tap pants with a matching camisole top. I took the tags off to pay and wore my new sexy underwear right out of the store.
The soft, silky fabric against my skin made me feel a little sexier, so I called my husband when I got back from the office to tell him what I had bought. "Don't you have a drawer full of that stuff at home that you never wear?" he asked in earnest. "No," I said, feeling the wind rapidly leaving my sails. "Oh, then, that's great. But listen, I gotta run. I'm crazy busy. See you later." And Patrick hung up before I could say another word. Even though I knew there was no instant cure, I was disappointed by Patrick's reaction. I immediately dialed my friend Jane to complain. "Hey, you can't expect him to always be on the same page as you," Jane said. "Just because you're preparing to be in the mood doesn't mean he is too." She paused thoughtfully. "Now you can imagine how he feels all the time." Ouch.
We don't need experts to tell us that atmosphere, candles, and wine make for romance. As unoriginal as they sound, the old standbys do work. Often change comes from the outside in, so I started taking the extra time to take a bath in the morning, and to find the matching underwear for that bra. My days were starting to heat up.
I asked my coworker Alyson how she keeps herself enthusiastic about sex. "Sean and I make love in unexpected places, and I always find that very arousing. Even just doing it in the living room seems like an adventure sometimes." Later that evening, I bumped into Patrick in the elevator of our building. We were alone, and I took his hand and put it in my blouse. He pulled me close and gave me a sweet kiss, nothing revolutionary, but I felt my heart stir and I knew I was on the right track.
But that night, by the time we had made dinner, given baths, read books, cleaned the kitchen, walked the dog, put all the toys away, and gotten ourselves undressed, my engine was stone cold.
When my sister called me at work several days later, I went on for 20 minutes about how scared I was that I had lost my sexual identity, how stuck I felt in my different roles, and how guilty I felt about Patrick deserving more from a lover. My sister, who is single and has always enjoyed sex tremendously, admitted that arousal is the toughest thing to keep up. "It's like a pot of water. You've got to keep it on simmer the whole time." She continued, "Go to work without your underwear. Remind yourself all day that you are sexy. And that you have a secret. Just give it a try." Since she is my older sister and because I was wearing an ankle-length skirt, I pulled my underpants right off and shoved them into my pocketbook.
That night while Patrick was doing the dishes, I showed him that I was pantyless. He looked at me like I had suddenly taken ill. "What's with you?" he laughed. My face began to sting with embarrassment, but I held my ground. "I'm turning myself on," and I think I heard him say "huh" as I walked out of the room. That night we did make love, and although I felt a little humiliated by the underwear incident, things did feel hotter. Far, far away, a pot was beginning to simmer.
What We Can Learn from Men
In the back of my mind, a question still burned: How come it's so easy for men to stay aroused? I figured that Bernie Zilbergeld, Ph.D., author of The New Male Sexuality, would be a good person to ask.
"Men have had a strategy for eons, keeping the back of their mind always on sex," Dr. Zilbergeld explained. "For women, it takes hard work. It's not easy to switch from one gear to another. Try to allow the universe to turn you on."
I was a little confused. "You mean cosmically?"
Dr. Zilbergeld laughed. "See a man on the street. Allow yourself to fantasize. Sit at your desk and allow your mind to wander to a great night of sex in the past. Remember the feeling. Learn to exploit these feelings."
For the next few weeks, I opened myself to the universe. If I saw a handsome man, I sat for ten seconds and imagined him kissing my neck. Then I imagined my husband doing the same thing. I watched these scenes like a private movie. Sometimes I would call Patrick and let him know what I was thinking. Most of the time he would play along. But now and then, he wasn't in the mood, and I reminded myself not to take it too personally. Dr. Zilbergeld advises, "Most of all, don't be afraid to try again." I got over the sting and did try again, generally to Patrick's delight. I remembered something else that Dr. Zilbergeld had said: "Collude to make it happen." By making sure that our sexual imaginations were working together, things were heating up. My sex life was better than it had been in years. And in turn, my husband's was looking pretty good too.
Those Little Sexual Charges
"Don't forget to touch yourself," Dr. Greer was saying to me on the phone. "The more tuned in you are to what turns you on, the more you will have to bring to the table."
I had thought that masturbation would make sex less necessary, but the women I spoke with agreed full-force with Dr. Greer. "If I've been priming myself all day, I can't always wait until my husband gets home," confides a coworker. "But when he does arrive, I'm more excited than ever."
By talking to friends and experts, I was amassing all sorts of information on staying sexually piqued. I heard a lot about the value of sex toys, porn movies, and spreading honey or whipped cream in strategic spots. I learned that exercise not only makes you feel better but can cause your body to release testosterone, which increases sex drive. I learned that it's good to focus a lot on the preambles -- full-body caressing is much more likely to make women receptive to sex than direct genital stimulation. And I learned that instead of throwing a red scarf over the light to create a romantic ambiance (like they do in the movies) it's better to just buy a red lightbulb -- you can fall asleep without burning the house down.
But those are just the physical tricks. The stuff that really spoke to me was about how you can sexually recharge the body by recharging the mind and spirit. As Dr. Ogden says, "Arousal is not just a physical thing, but involves the whole person." Well, my whole person likes the idea of taking more time for myself and more time for me and Patrick as a couple. I like the suggestions to do things -- movies, concerts, hikes -- that we like, and to remember to make each other laugh, to do the unexpected, to really listen (hard if you're feeling tired or needy), and to share your deepest desires, no matter how simple. I also like the idea of a weekend -- maybe just a night? -- away at a motel so you can get back to who you are together.
Oh -- and all those sex fantasies therapists are forever suggesting. I'd always wanted to act on some, but frankly, after all these years, I didn't know how to start. Dr. Zilbergeld recommends taking a conservative approach. "Try an article or bring up a particular suggestion. Feel your partner out. One client came home out of the blue in crotchless panties and her husband freaked." He said, "Start slowly and hang in there. Admit your feelings of awkwardness and remember to laugh."
At a friend's suggestion, I picked up Nicholson Baker's The Fermata at the bookstore. As I read it on the way home from work, I could feel my temperature rising. That night, I read some aloud to my husband, but we didn't get too far before we started to make out -- I'm talking real tenth-grade necking. It had only been a few months since I'd started my crusade, and for the first time in ages, I didn't hear the clock ticking, didn't make a mental list of things to do, and didn't think a single thought. For the first time since my daughter was born, I was floating free.
Since that night, sexually speaking, things have improved tenfold. I feel younger, lighter, sexier in my skin. And I work at it, not willing to let go of the thread that connects me to my sexuality. My husband has learned to expect the unexpected from me, and I from him. We go for a few weeks forgetting to stoke the fires, but it is much easier to heat things up now that I keep my pot permanently on simmer.
This is what I say to any woman who shares my fears about losing her sexual identity. Try phone sex, dirty notes, porn videos, fantasy games, and sex in new places. Try allowing yourself time to remember what sex feels like in the middle of the day. Try masturbating. Try lingerie and no underwear at all. Try talking dirty and silk scarves. Try anything at all. You have nothing to lose but yourself.
Too Tired for Sex or Too Angry?
Remember that argument you and your husband never resolved? Watch it. Resentment drains sexual desire. "Sexuality is connected to your whole life, so if one of you is angry, there's a rift of empathy and understanding and you'll bring that to sex," says sex therapist Gina Ogden, Ph.D.
One sign that resentment is getting in the way of good lovemaking: if it's become perfunctory or uninspired. "Familiarity can work for or against you. If you're constantly growing with each other, your sex life should get more exciting," says Dr. Ogden.
Whatever the issue, it's important to address it. "Blow out the tubes and start from scratch," says Dr. Ogden. "Be clear about your feelings and be honest. Get back to a level of honesty, or to a new one." Sometimes the mere fact that you're facing the problem--even if you haven't yet resolved it--is enough to rekindle desire. If so, hold on to the arousal and make time for gripes later; they'll always be there.