Married women are more likely to have sexual desire problems than either single women or married men, and those with children under the age of 5 are the most likely to report having little interest in sex, a new study shows.

Researchers in the U.K. surveyed 11,000 men and women between the ages of 16 and 44 about their sex lives -- or lack thereof.

They found that the women were significantly more likely than men to say that they had experienced a short-term or long-term problem in their sex lives over the past year.

Forty-one percent of married women said they had little interest in sex for up to a month during the previous year; one in 10 reported sexual desire problems lasting at least six months.

“Women with small children were the most likely to report short-term and long-term problems with desire,” researcher Catherine H. Mercer, MSc, PhD, tells WebMD. “But interestingly, this was not the case among married men.”

In fact, married men and men living with a partner were much less likely to report sexual problems than single men.

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First Encounters

Men and women who reported having negative feelings about their first sexual encounter also reported more current problems with their sex lives. It was not clear from the study if the two are related.

The survey was conducted between 1999 and 2001 and is published in the latest issue of the journal Sexually Transmitted Infection.

In addition to low libido, those surveyed were asked about other common sexual issues including performance anxiety, inability to climax, early climax, pain during intercourse, erection problems, and lubrication problems.

Both men and women reported more long-term sexual problems as they got older. People who reported being in good health also reported fewer sexual problems than those in poor health.

And both men and women who reported having problems communicating with their partner about sex were twice as likely to report sexual problems as those who did not cite communication as a problem.

“Communication plays a big part in sexual satisfaction,” Mercer says.

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Just Too Tired

The big difference in sexual desire reported by the men and women and women in their 20s, 30s and early 40s comes as no surprise to sexual medicine specialist David Goldmeier, MD. Goldmeier co-authored an editorial accompanying the study.

“A woman who has small kids and a husband to take care of and maybe a job outside the home on top of that is going to be exhausted at the end of the day,” he tells WebMD. “The last thing she wants to think about is sex. Her husband may be tired too, but he has about 10 times the testosterone that she has. So he is thinking about it.”

Psychologist and certified sex therapist Marianne Brandon, PhD, tells WebMD that sexual desire is one of the first things to go when women feel that their lives are out of balance either emotionally, intellectually, physically, or spiritually.

She co-authored the 2004 book Reclaiming Desire: 4 Keys to Finding Your Lost Libido, which explores the subject.

“When we are making love, we are at our most vulnerable,” she says. “So any issue that is not quite right, be it in our psyches, our bodies, or our relationships, is likely to play out during this vulnerable time. We may pull away or shut down, and we often don’t know why we are doing it.”

The problem is compounded, she says, by the fact that gender roles between men and women have become more and more blurred. Women are taking on more responsibilities traditionally considered reserved for men -- and vice versa.

“Society has encouraged us all to become more androgynous by developing both our masculine and feminine sides,” she says. “It is good that we are more flexible and are not so stereotyped in the way we function in the world.”

But it can be a problem in sexual relationships, where more clearly defined gender roles are desirable. Brandon says women in this society tend to lose touch with their feminine core as they age.

Getting it back takes time and work, she adds, but the payoff is much bigger than just a better sex life.

“I would never tell a couple that sex is the most important part of their life. I don’t believe it,” she says. “But if you take the time and make it a priority, sexual satisfaction in a long-term relationship is going to bring a lot of life satisfaction.”

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By Salynn Boyles, reviewed by Brunilda Nazario, MD

SOURCES: Mercer, C.H. Sexually Transmitted Infections, October 2005; vol 81: pp 394-399. Catherine H. Mercer, MSc, PhD, Centre for Sexual Health and HIV Research, University College London. David Goldmeier, MD, Jane Wadsworth Sexual Function Clinic, St. Mary’s Hospital, London. Marianna Brandon, PhD, clinical psychologist and AASECT certified sex therapist, Sexual Wellness Center, Annapolis, Md.; co-author, Reclaiming Desire: 4 Keys to Finding Your Lost Libido.