What is sexual frustration?
"Sexual frustration is dissatisfaction with one's sex life and can be due to quantity or quality issues," board-certified sexologist Jessica Cline, MSW, Ph.D., tells mbg. You could have frequent sex and still be sexually frustrated, or the tension arises because you feel you don't have enough of it or your needs don't get met.
While sexual frustration and horniness can intersect and share some similarities, they're not the same. "Horny is the desire or arousal for sexual activity and can have more of a positive tone, as culturally we use the term to imply we are turned on," Cline explains. You can be horny but not sexually frustrated, though being horny with unmet sexual needs can easily cause frustration.
Sexual frustration isn't a medical diagnosis. Anyone can experience this common sensation, so no one's alone in the struggle.
Signs you're sexually frustrated.
If you're in a funk and being short with your partner when you communicate, it might not be because of a bad day at work—you could be sexually frustrated.
Below are some potential indicators of sexual frustration. While none of these behaviors definitively mean someone is sexually frustrated, they can be common behaviors for someone who's dealing with sexual frustration.
- Checking out mentally
- Constant arguing in a relationship
- Living vicariously through friends' sex life
- Engaging in unhealthy coping skills (i.e., binge eating or drinking)
- Frequently asking a partner about or for sex
- Increased display of physical touch and bids for connection
- Increased consumption of porn
- Leading any topic or argument back to sex
- Restlessness and trouble sleeping
- Frequently fantasizing about sex
- Seeing only the negative in your partner
- Starting fights for no reason or magnifying minor issues
What causes the frustration?
People typically experience sexual frustration because of lackluster sexual connections, low libido, or dissatisfaction with the quality of their sex life. Still, there are myriad reasons that create the building blocks of this natural feeling.
Lack of partners
The most obvious cause of sexual frustration is simply not having anyone to have sex with. You may be ready and available for sex, but finding a sex partner can be a lengthy and frustrating process. "Many people feel very awkward and uncomfortable with online dating and are unsure how to meet people IRL," Sweet notes. Because of that, she says loneliness can cause sexual frustration.
"While negotiating sex is an important part of relationships, people don't always know how to communicate what they need, which can be very frustrating," explains sex-positive psychotherapist Ashley D. Sweet, M.A., LPC, LMHC, CCRC.
Sweet believes that because American society doesn't teach young adults how to negotiate and talk about sex and desire comfortably, "Those young folks grow into old folks who find themselves older and more experienced but still without the skills to effectively communicate about sex."
Without communication, sexual needs can go ignored or unmet. "At some point, one may stop initiating and give up, which often results in a sexless relationship," shares Cline, "and those people can often end up in my office."
Our physical wiring
The benefits of sex and a healthy sex drive extend way beyond pleasure and mind-blowing orgasms. Sex is also great for our physical health, says Cline, and it's a great stress-reducer. Plus, "Sex can lower blood pressure, reduce pain, improve sleep, and improve heart health."
Without this rejuvenating and restorative physical experience—whether because of a dry spell, discontentment with your partner, or poor health—it makes sense for your body to feel out of tune and tense as pent-up energy continues to build.
Our emotional wiring
We're sexual beings, which means pleasure and desire are our birthrights, says Sweet. In Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs, sex is in the same category as food and water, showing that many people experience sex as a vital and baseline need. "When we can't get our sexual needs met, this can be frustrating," she says, especially because of the importance of connection to the human experience.
According to Cline, people crave connection emotionally and psychologically, even if they're bad at it. "To be without connection in our lives goes against our wiring."
Unhealthy perspectives on sex also contribute to sexual frustration "Thoughts like 'I should be having more sex,' or 'someone should give me more sex,'" for example, are a big culprit, says urologist and life coach Kelly Casperson, M.D.
"I think sometimes people believe they deserve to have their sexual desires met by a partner," shares Sweet. Often, this belief stems from their upbringing, society, gender roles, religion, past partners, "or straight-up selfishness."
There are other ways that commoditizing sex leads to sexual frustration, too. In fact, Casperson says some people use sex as a vehicle for self-esteem. "Someone may become reliant on sex as an external reward—i.e., boosting self-image—and may never feel satisfied due to the internal work that needs to be done."
Many medical issues can lead to a lowered sex drive and impede your ability to have sex or orgasm, which can naturally make a person feel sexually frustrated.
Some conditions that can decrease libido include:
- Chronic pain and diseases
- Genital discomfort
- Hormone imbalances
- Sexual dysfunction disorders that inhibit the expression of sexuality through desire and interest, arousal, and ability to orgasm
- Side effects of medications (i.e., blood pressure medication, beta-blockers, antipsychotics, or opioids)
On the other hand, some medical issues increase sexual desire, which can also cause frustration. "Always being aroused can be a medical condition called persistent arousal disorder, in which someone is in a constant state of arousal, even after orgasm," shares Cline.
What to do about it.
The tension of sexual frustration can pass naturally, so the easiest way to deal with being sexually frustrated is to simply wait it out. There are also plenty of outlets to help you relieve that energy, like exercise and meditation.
"Sexual frustration is a form of stress, so stress management techniques that work for other forms of stress likely apply here," explains Sweet. "In the therapy work, we call it self-care."
The strategies you choose to self-care and calm your mind and body are up to you, but here are some ideas to help you get started.
- Masturbate regularly.
- Have virtual sex via text, video, or online.
- Watch pornography (here's how to find ethical porn).
- Find a partner to have sex with (i.e., sex workers, one-night stands, friends with benefits, or casual dating)
- Go out and connect with friends.
- Exercise, which is "actually correlated with a more sexually active life," says Casperson.
- Move your body through dancing, yoga, or other cardiovascular activities.
- If in a relationship, explore other types of physical touch to connect with your partner.
- Take orgasms off the table the next time you have sex, and only explore pleasure.
- Use sex toys.
- Communicate your desires to your partner.
- Listen to calming music.
- Practice mindfulness and meditation.
- Use your voice (like singing while dancing) as a way to release.
- Write out your frustrations in a journal, collage, or other visual medium to process the emotions flowing through you.
"A natural way to increase dopamine is to try something new and exciting," says Cline, "so you may want to invest in learning something new or trying something that scares you a little."
What to do if you're in a relationship and your partner's sexual drive doesn't match yours.
If you feel you're not having enough sex in your relationship, that's more common than people and movies let on. "Mismatched sex drive [affects] every couple," says Casperson. "We need to normalize this."
You and your partner won't always be horny together, so the best way to navigate the sexual frustration that may arise is through communication.
"One of the biggest solutions to desire differences—which happens to most couples at some point in their relationship—is communication," shares Cline. "Most couples are able to talk about a lot of stuff but have a hard time talking about sex."
Try to communicate your needs and desires openly to your partner with these four tips:
Two of the biggest issues Cline sees in sex therapy are a lack of confidence and communication.
"Communication may reveal barriers to a better sex life that can be addressed or reveal that it's something that isn't changeable at this time," she says. With a transparent approach to communication, partners can empower each other to ask for and discuss other ways to have their needs met, or they can work on acceptance of a sex life adjustment.
Find a compromise.
Every relationship needs to negotiate the rules of engagement for sex and romance and to renegotiate them over time, Sweet says. Additionally, Casperson advises people to realize "Your partner is not responsible to fulfill all of your needs or desires."
Sweet recommends people talk with their partners about how to best compromise on the mismatch of desire. She often works with couples where penis-in-vagina sex is off the table, but mutual masturbation, heavy petting, kissing, massage, sexting, reading erotica together, watching porn, and other activities are OK.
"Recognize you are both an individual sexual being and a partnered sexual being. Don't undervalue your own ability to get yourself off, independent of a partner," she says.
Be open to learning (and relearning).
"When it comes to desire, most of us respond to what helps us feel connected and loved (responsive desire), so it's up to us to do those things to help invoke our lover's desire," says Marla Renee Stewart, M.A, sexologist and sex expert for adult wellness retailer Lovers.
If you and your partner's sexual urges don't match, learn what turns them on through conversations about desire, seduction, fetishes, erogenous zones, and more, even if you think you already know.
Don't hesitate to learn more about your own sexual needs, too. "Sometimes, for the person who doesn't crave sex as much, I suggest saying yes to sex," says Stewart, "because sometimes people forget about how good sex feels and how great orgasms can be, so they need that reminder."
Get the help of an expert.
"In some cases, seeing a therapist or educator who specializes in clinical sexology can help a couple reconcile the difference in sexual desire," Sweet says. Rather than getting their partner to participate or express interest in sex, she finds that "for most folks, the hardest thing is talking to their partner about their needs, fantasies, and desires."
Finding the language to express your needs and desires is difficult (and uncomfortable!), but it's worth it to find resources that can help break the barrier that leads to a more fulfilling sex life.
Whether you're flying solo or in a committed relationship, sexual frustration is a common experience we've all had—that means there's nothing wrong with you or your body for feeling this way.
As you navigate this tension, remember you have tons of options to physically and emotionally relieve it. Plus, you can use this opportunity to re-imagine your sex life completely.