Guest post by OHNE
How Does Your Menstrual Cycle, Sex Hormones & Birth Control Affect Your Libido?
What is sexual desire? What does it mean to be aroused? Given that you’ve found your way here, you’ve almost certainly experienced desire and arousal. What the sensations are, how they make you feel, how you want to act on them… but do you know what causes them? Do you know what drives your sex drive? For those of you who menstruate, we wanted to find out.
Sex drive is influenced by hormones, primarily testosterone, oestrogen, and progesterone. Sex hormones control and manipulate your desire for sex, but not your actual ability to engage in it.
The number of times you actually have sex either with a partner, partners plural, or yourself (let’s not forget the importance of masturbation), does not determine your sex drive.
There are lot of reasons your hormones might change and an almost infinite number of ways this might impact your sex drive. This is because everyone and their bodies are different in their own unique, frustrating, and fascinating ways.
We’re going to be focusing on the ways in which oestrogen, progesterone and testosterone change throughout a menstrual cycle so that you can get to grips with the day-to-day fluctuations in your desire and arousal levels.
We’re also going to dive into the murky waters of hormonal birth control. What happens when your body is no longer going through the ‘natural’ cyclical hormone changes? What are the effects that it can have on your sex drive?
Your Sex Drive & Your Menstrual Cycle
A menstrual cycle is the process your body goes through to essentially prepare for a baby each month. The uterus builds up a lining every month filled with blood and nutrients.
Your menstrual cycle starts when your period does. Days 1-7 of your menstrual cycle is the part where you are actually bleeding out of your vagina. Hormonally, this is the most unpredictable time of your cycle in relation to your sex drive, in that it’s very different for different people.
When your period begins, you have low levels of all the sex hormones, but the one that is likely the most noticeable is the sudden dip in progesterone. This is also known as the ‘sedating’ hormone. All the symptoms of the premenstruation stage start to lift so, for many people, this could be when they start to feel an uptick in their sex drive.
Anecdotally, however, this stage is a hard one to predict in terms of how libidinous you’re going to feel. There are so many factors that go into whether or not you’re feeling sexy while you’re on your period that have nothing to do with hormones including:
– Socially or interpersonally, the thought of having period sex, which is still a pretty taboo topic in society, might be a massive turn-off for you.
– Cramps may make you feel grumpy or miserable and adverse to touch.
– The natural lubrication might be a turn on.
– Orgasms have actually been proven to reduce the pain of menstrual cramps, so it’s a great excuse to set aside some time for sex (friendly reminder that masturbation counts) and call it self-care.
After your period ends, usually between days four to seven, depending on your cycle, your hormone levels start to climb. Up until ovulation, which is day 14 in an average 28 day cycle, you’re probably experiencing your most productive days and most cheerful moods. You’re also likely to be at your most aroused, particularly in the few days leading up to and the day of ovulation, as your oestrogen is spiking.
The cycle-high in testosterone (comparatively low to how much oestrogen is rampaging through your body) is said to be a cause of increased feelings of motivation, which probably makes you more likely to initiate sex – with either your partner(s) or yourself!
In the run up to the middle of your menstrual cycle (which is day 14 in an average 28 day cycle), your body becomes the site of quite the sex hormone party; oestrogen sky-rockets, testosterone peaks, and your progesterone levels start to climb again.
This is the stage of your menstrual cycle in which your body goes into baby-making overdrive. You have an evolutionary impulse to make a baby before an egg is released so that it may be fertilised.
The upshot of this is that, well, you’re probably incredibly aroused right around this time. Even if you’re not sexually active or into having sex with cis men or other people with penises (any instance in which a baby could feasibly be conceived), these biological impulses will still be there.
Back in July of this year, model and writer Rebecca Pearson did a takeover of our Instagram account here at OHNE, in which she documented her menstrual cycle for us and our followers every day via live Instagram stories. She confirmed that, in the days leading up to and the day of ovulation, she was incredibly aware of feeling the effects of the spikes in her sex hormones.
The advantage of this collaboration over having someone document their cycle was that anyone following her stories regularly would be able to see the physical changes in her face, energy levels, and (perceived, at least) happiness.
While she said she wasn’t looking to act on those sexual urges at the time, the benefits of these oestrogen-driven few days very clearly extend beyond simply the desire to get some action.
The hormones don’t just make you feel desire, they make you feel desirable. Even if you’re not sexually active, you can look forward to this stage of your cycle as a time to feel sexy and self-confident with energy to spare.
Post-ovulation – so for the latter half of your menstrual cycle – progesterone, the ‘sedating’ hormone, rises, oestrogen starts to drop, and your mood begins to plummet. So too, most likely, does your sex drive. In this premenstrual phase, your libido (along with your mood, patience, motivation, and energy) hit its lowest ebb in the final days of your cycle.
Your Sex Drive & Hormonal Birth Control
If you are a human with a vagina who likes to have sex with people with penises, you probably have been on, are on, or have at least considered going on hormonal birth control. From the Mirena coil to the hormonal vaginal ring, the contraceptive patch to the combined oral contraceptive or the mini pill, there are a number of ways to protect yourself against pregnancy that don’t rely on access to (and, let’s be real, the wherewithal to remember to use at all) barrier methods such as condoms, diaphragms, and contraceptive sponges.
There are also a number of medical reasons for going on hormonal birth control. This can be to regulate periods, combat painful or heavy periods, or to deal with particularly severe skin problems. It’s important for you to understand the ways in which this might impact your sex life.
If you’re on hormonal birth control, it’s common to still experience something resembling a period. This type of bleeding is known as withdrawal bleeding. Particularly if you’re taking the combined oral contraceptive with a break every three weeks, you won’t be experiencing the same fluctuations in your sex drive as before.
The pill works by giving you synthetic versions of the sex hormones oestrogen and progesterone. While this means you quite happily won’t be experiencing the same drop in mood, motivation, and energy that a natural menstrual cycle brings before your period is due it also means you, less fortunately, won’t experience the surge of oestrogen that occurs in the lead up to ovulation and usually results in an increased sex drive.
Despite what urban legend would have many of us believe, there actually isn’t any scientific proof that hormonal birth control directly causes a drop in the libido of the person taking it. In fact, in 2013, the European Journal of Contraception and Reproductive Healthcare published a study which evaluated all the results of every study conducted between 1975 and 2011 on the effects of the combined oral contraception on sexual desire and found that, while 15% of respondents across the studies had reported a drop in libido, a whopping 85% had reported either no change at all or an increase in their sex drive.
The urban legend is a persistent one, however. Perhaps because, anecdotally, a friend telling you about their loss of sex drive after going on the pill is more likely to stay with you and be passed on conversationally than a friend who has nothing to report on the subject.
Recently I was talking to friends about this very article and, while I did hear from friends who hadn’t noticed any change in their libido after going on the pill or, in one friend’s case, having recently come off it, the anecdote that stuck with me most was this one from my friend Daisy*:
“Both times recently that I’ve gone on the pill I’ve been a sex hungry nympho who didn’t want to get pregnant and then I’ve gone on the pill and been like… [shrugs] meh [about sex].”
Aside from the, uh, choice phrasing, the story is the most memorable out of all the friends I spoke to about the topic because the very reason Daisy went on the pill was her desire to have a lot of sex free from pregnancy worries (here’s your obligatory reminder that combined oral contraceptives are only 98% effective and will not protect you from any STIs). Yet, she found the shift in hormones sapping her of her libido, and therefore reason, for going on it in the first place. As precautionary tales go, it’s one with a particularly sharp double-edged sword.
The stories we hear passed around, like the above (and might have been known to pass around ourselves occasionally) may not be encouraging, but the data is in your favour if you want to start taking the combined oral contraceptive.
However, experiences like my friend’s should not be dismissed right off the bat because the pill affects everyone differently. Just because 85% of people don’t experience a drop in their libido doesn’t mean you might not be one of the unlucky 15% who do… Sorry.
Combatting the Sex Drive-Drop
It’s important to note that you are not obligated to want, initiate, or have a certain amount of sex at any time, whether you’re single, dating, in a monogamous relationship, or anything else in-between.
However, if you do find your sex drive waning after going on the pill and you want to find a way to still enjoy the same amount of sex you were having before, then the advice I’d give is not dissimilar to this article MysteryVibe published recently about how to boost your sex drive while taking antidepressants.
Tips such as using sex toys like the Crescendo 2 or Tenuto 2 focus more on the physical side of arousal. Use a vibrator to increase blood flow to the genitals. This can both help you to get aroused and then help you to climax.
Your lacklustre attitude towards sex might be entirely hormonal. Try feeling less disconnected from your sexuality for mental or emotional reasons. Focus on the mechanics of arousal, to use wildly un-sexy phrasing. This can be a way to jump-start the impulses which your hormonal birth control has suppressed. We tend to assume that desire always precedes physical arousal, but it can work the other way around, too.
This guest post was written by Isabella Millington, Content Creator for OHNE. OHNE is an organic tampon subscription service dedicated to breaking down taboos and hustlin’ for healthy vaginas!
For your first supply of OHNE tampons free of charge, use our special code: MYSTERY (for new customers only)