Written by Dr. Katherine Hertlein, a therapist at Blueheart – a digital sex therapy platform designed by experts to tear down sexual taboos and create a private refuge for anyone to overcome any sexual challenges.
Have you ever noticed that your sex drive changes depending on the time of the month? I've found that it’s 100% true for me: some days I feel like my sex drive is literally racing, other days netflix-and-chill means ‘don’t even think about touching me while i watch every single episode of cheer.'
Like so many things related to our cycle, it’s easy to place the blame on those pesky hormones – but that may be only half the story. So what else causes this cyclical rise and fall in sexual desire and just how much does it vary from one person to the next?
what the science says
Many studies from across the globe have found evidence that sexual desire varies throughout the month, but there's been less agreement about exactly when and how these changes happen, or how related they are to menstrual cycles and their associated hormone levels.
Sexual desire has been found to increase mid-cycle, shortly before ovulation (usually around 14 days after the first day of your period). (1) which will mean that a little while after your period finishes, you might be at peak levels of horny. this makes sense, right? from a baby-making point of view, the time when we’re most likely to successfully conceive would be the time when our bodies point us towards having sex.
But other studies haven’t been so conclusive. This study, from Blueheart’s Principal Researcher Dr Laura Vowels, found that women and men both experience ups and downs in desire over the course of a month, sometimes peaking more than once. (2) so while the ebbs and flows of sexual desire can’t necessarily be tied to the menstrual cycle, they do show some regularity. and in qualitative studies (...did they read my journal?) many women describe changes in their desire level during the course of the month, with some changes happening around ovulation, and others around the time of their period. (3)
Like a bad celebrity face mashup, the picture is mixed.
what factors are at play?
Surprise, surprise: our hormones play a big part. our menstrual cycles are ruled by hormones that act as chemical messengers across two phases: the follicular phase and the luteal phase. Each phase lasts around 14 days, with day 1 being the start of your menstrual period.
During these first few days, hormone levels are low, with estrogen levels starting to rise from around day 4 or 5 as the ovaries start preparing to release an egg. Around day 10, estrogen levels start to rise rapidly, and progesterone levels also begin to increase. You may feel your energy levels are particularly high around this time and some women report an increased libido. A couple of days before ovulation, around day 14, you’ll experience an estrogen surge, followed by a rapid decline. This period leading up to ovulation is known as your fertile window (and not, as I wrote in an email to my boss, a fertile widow).
During the second half of your cycle, the luteal phase, estrogen and progesterone continue to rise, preparing your uterus for a pregnancy. If there’s no pregnancy that month, levels of progesterone drop, the lining sheds and you begin again from day 1. During this phase you may begin to experience PMS, menstrual cramps, irritability and fatigue. Due to the drop in estrogen and progesterone, many women also report a loss of libido.
It’s exhausting just to read about! our poor bodies deserve a goddam medal…
Of course, if you’re on some form of hormonal birth control, this might change your experience of sexual desire.
The position and feel of the cervix change throughout the menstrual cycle. Generally low in the abdomen, in the days before ovulation your cervix is thought to rise and become more ‘open’. A blooming cervix, if you will. this high position can mean that different sexual positions might feel more comfortable, and you might experience sexual stimulation differently. The cervix contains various nerves, meaning that when something comes into contact with it during penetration this can be painful or uncomfortable for some, while for others it’s pleasurable. This may influence whether you tend to desire intercourse more often when the cervix is low, or in the run up to ovulation when it’s high.
As we know all too well, our levels of lubrication can often change. This is because your monthly cycle can affect the consistency of your cervical mucus. During some times of the month you’ll feel relatively dry, and as you near ovulation you’ll notice an abundance of mucus that appears stretchy and watery. (don’t think about flubber, don’t think about flubber…) this can make penetrative sex easier and more pleasurable, particularly if you tend to struggle with a lack of natural lubrication or vaginal dryness. This increased dryness may also mean your genital area feels more sensitive, perhaps leading to increased feelings of arousal.
why do some people report feeling turned on when they’re ‘on’?
It makes sense from an evolutionary standpoint that we would want to have sex at the point our fertility is at its highest – from days 10-13 of our cycle. Why then do so many people report becoming turned on during or just after their period – at a time when, biologically, it makes little sense?
Yep, you guessed it. those pesky hormones again. there’s a third key hormone at play during a woman’s menstrual cycle, one that’s more commonly associated with men: Testosterone. In fact, levels of testosterone have an important part to play in keeping female sex hormones in balance and has been credited with boosting women’s sex drives and even increasing the intensity of orgasm during the beginning of the cycle. It’s all yin and yang, huh? The thinking goes that the slight surge in female testosterone levels at this time increases blood flow to the pelvis and genitals, making the area more sensitive and triggering arousal.
It may also be that the benefits of the additional lubrication during your period can mean a rise in desire, or ‘period horniness’. (plus the reassurance of knowing that sex is ‘safe-ish’ and unlikely to result in an unplanned bébé.)
having sex on your period
Period sex is divisive, but around half of women report sexual activity during menstruation. (4) thankfully there some super lil hacks we can do to take the anxiety out of period sex and improve your libido during those first few days of your cycle:
Make sure you keep a towel nearby, or place one underneath you, or take the opportunity for shower sex to avoid the mess entirely. If you wear a tampon, make sure you’ve removed it before intercourse; you could experiment with wearing a menstrual cup if you prefer. If you are put off by the idea of intercourse while you’re bleeding, why not focus on clitoral stimulation instead? Sex doesn’t always have to be about penetration, there are plenty of other things you can do.
Fluctuations in your libido are normal at any time in your life, but particularly at various points in your menstrual cycle, whether you’re weeks or days away from your next period. It might be interesting to keep a diary of feelings and symptoms to understand more about how your period and libido are linked.
It’s worth remembering that there are many factors that can cause lack of desire or a low libido. If that’s something you’re struggling with, whether it’s all the time or simply during certain times of your cycle, find out more about Blueheart and the sensate focus sex therapy techniques behind it.
1. Roney, J. and Simmons, Z., 2013. 'Hormonal predictors of sexual motivation in natural menstrual cycles', Hormones and Behavior, vol. 63, no. 4, pp. 636-645.
2. Vowels, M., Mark, K., Vowels, L. and Wood, N., 2018. 'Using spectral and cross-spectral analysis to identify patterns and synchrony in couples’ sexual desire', PLOS ONE
3. Vowels, L., Rosenkrantz, D., Brown, H. and Mark, K., 2020. 'Ebbs and Flows of Desire: A Qualitative Exploration of Contextual Factors Affecting Sexual Desire in Bisexual, Lesbian, and Straight Women', Journal of Sex & Marital Therapy, vol. 46, no. 8, pp. 807-823.
4. Allen, K. and Goldberg, A., 2009. 'Sexual Activity During Menstruation: A Qualitative Study', The Journal of Sex Research, vol. 46, no. 6, pp. 535-545.
Image credit: Unknown (Pexels)