What Is Libido?

As a psychologist and sex therapist, many couples and singles come into my practice complaining about issues of libido. Yes, many actually use that term and so I would like to clarify what exactly it means and how to define and support a “healthy” libido.

The original term, “libido” comes from the Latin, libere, “to be pleasing, to please.” It was popularized by Sigmund Freud, and defined in his context as a “psychic drive or instinct, usually associated with sexual instinct. Freud definitely used it more in the “sexual instinct” sense. Carl Jung on the other hand, used it more as psychic energy, as our life force. Life force encompasses sexual energy, and so for me, I prefer the broader definition.

And yet, so many are concerned and enter treatment because they are experiencing sexual issues, usually a low libido. Believe it or not, sometimes I’ll get a call from someone complaining of “high” libido. I may discuss that in another post. This post focuses on low libido.

What exactly is a “low” libido and what are the symptoms of one? If we are using the usual diagnostic criteria of the mental health world, a low libido will show up symptomatically in men as a low sex drive and/or challenges achieving or maintaining an erection. In women, this may express itself as lack of sexual desire or arousal/lubrication and often challenges in achieving orgasm.

Of course, as we are complex, biological creatures with a myriad of neurotransmitters and hormones circulating in our bodies, not all libidinal issues are psychological. I always recommend a thorough examination by a urologist or OBGYN to assess for medical reasons for the presenting issues. Low testosterone, issues with other sex hormones or endocrine issues may be causative. Side effects from medications may also be the culprit. Many diseases result in low libido.

To me, if someone is complaining of a low libido, I don’t pathologize or diagnose it. There is already enough shame and stigma in admitting an issue exists. I go back to the broader definition and believe that “low” libido is defined as someone who feels that their life force, expressed through their sexual energy is not what they would like it to be.

We proceed from that belief and work holistically to assess what might be sourcing the issue. Stress is frequently a factor.  Psychological issues may be responsible. Perhaps there is a trauma, either recent or from early childhood. Anxiety and depression can certainly impact libido.

Overall life dissatisfaction will reduce our life force as we resist ourselves. It’s life pressing the accelerator and the brake of a car at the same time! We may be unhappy with our career choice. We may be unhappy with our choice of life partner. Aging may be a factor. Diet can be involved as well. Low iron can cause low sex drive in women, for example.

Whatever is happening, either for a single or within a couple, compassion and empathy are required before application of any interventions. The purpose of this post is not to discuss treatment of low libido though, only to define it and let you know that it is very treatable. You don’t have to suffer needlessly. Seek out support.


Dr. Adam Sheck