We often think that the “right way” to have sex is that we need to WANT it beforehand.
To experience desire first.
Because of this belief that sexual encounters should start with desire, we might not entertain the idea of sex or intimacy if we don’t feel “in the mood”.
As Karen Guerney says- “if you expect desire to come first you stop it in it’s tracks”.
However, there’s something called responsive desire (you can find out more about it here), and it means you won’t experience an urge to have sex until after you’re aroused.
I nearly fell off my seat when I found out about responsive desire. When I knew that was my experience, a far-off bugle sounded to announce I wasn’t officially broken- as I usually did want sex when I got going- and this was actually very normal! Yippee!
But, although I understood the theory, what I didn’t quite get from Emily Nagoski’s book was exactly why this matters and how I could make it work for me.
Because although knowing mental desire comes after physical arousal was great, I also felt there was something missing in terms of how how it related to my own sex drive.
So I wanted to share in this post what I’ve learned about my own responsive desire in the hope that other women chime in and share their experiences too as well as the no1 tip you can use to make responsive desire work for you.
What you need to know to harness the power of responsive desire...
1. It’s even more important to pay attention to your body
Because responsive desire means mental desire arises from physical contact, it’s important to pay attention to your body, touch, sensation, and the signs you are becoming aroused so that you feel you want sex.
My body responds long before my mind does, so I’ve learned I need to find ways of listening to and trusting my body by tuning in to the physical contact. This post has lots of tips of how to get back into your body and out of your head to fully experience desire.
2. You initiate sex a lot less- which can cause conflict
If you experience responsive desire, you’re usually a lot less likely to initiate sex because we’re not thinking about it as much as our spontaneous partners.
This might mean we “give in” to our partners advances to keep them happy when we’re not been fully turned on and enjoying ourselves. The MAJOR problem with carrying on when you’re not that keen and are only doing it for your partner is that you are giving away power because you’re not having sex on your own terms.
Not having this sense of control is (I cannot emphasise enough!) really disempowering and creates a power dynamic around sex that can become quite entrenched. See this post on the quality of the sex you are (or were) having, and issues within your relationship, to read more on this.
Having sex to keep the peace is a way to completely suffocate your sexuality. It’s really important that you don’t do it. Use this tip instead if you feel this is an issue.
Our new course The Art of Sexual Self-Empowerment explores how to take back your power during sex, sexual boundaries and assertiveness to help you further with this issue.
This fab post also recommends scheduling in time to initiate sex, and spending time warming yourself up before hand to get in the mood.
3. You have to actively seek out what contexts and triggers open you up to sex
Often my partner is the one who initiates sex more because his desire is spontaneous. He doesn’t necessarily need triggers to randomly think about sex- or at least his triggers seem everywhere- so he’s more likely to feel desire unprompted!
Mine, I’ve realised, are more of an endangered species. But I’ve worked out I CAN become more impulsive in my desire (and experience mental desire unprompted) if I tune into and make time for the things that open me up to sex.
I think of it like being a slow burner again. But if I make sure that each time I’m not starting a fire from scratch but rather keeping the embers glowing, I have more to work from.
This includes things for me like opening my mind up to feeling sexy by scheduling in time to think about sex, or tuning in to my body- you can find out more about how to do this two things and also what contexts you need for sex in our course The Art of Sexual Self-Empowerment.
4. Keep your relationship on “simmer”
Equally what can really help fire up responsive desire is to make sure you keep the heat on in your relationship. Karen Guerney calls this “sexual currency”, AKA erotic charge, whilst others call it simmering. What it means is that starting from cold is really difficult but if you’ve kept things between you hot it’s much easier to get turned on. This includes things like a snog everyday.
5. Note whether the way you experience desire changes
Many of us tend to be impulsive at the beginning of a relationship which then fades to responsive later. It can be useful to ask yourself questions like what was going on at the beginning of your relationship which meant you thought about sex more? What elements of this could you bring back into your sex life now? Learning more about yourself and your particular expression of desire is so useful.
6. It feels like EFFORT to get turned on
The most useful way I tend to understand responsive desire is to think of myself as a slow burner.
What this means in practise though is that getting me turned on feels like it takes AAAAAGES.
It’s like the equivalent of coming back from a 6 week holiday during winter and trying to heat up your cold and empty house. It’s gonna take foreeeeever!
Like putting a steam train into motion. A flight taking off. Anything you can think of which requires a bloody lot of effort to get going.
And importantly, what THIS means is…. often I just can’t be bothered to even start.
Although I do enjoy sex at some point, whether it’s part-way through or afterwards, the beginning is EFFORT.
Looking at these two graphs about arousal time also reflects visually the differences:
So I’ve learned that time has a MASSIVE link to responsive desire. There’s a whole post about it here if you’d like to know more, but essentially if you feel like getting turned on is a big effort it takes the fun out of sex and makes you feel like you can’t be bothered
AND (drum roll) for women to experience desire, there is a rather simple solution. Instead of focusing on wanting sex first….
By focussing on becoming aroused first, you give yourself time to experience desire.
Create a space with your sexual partner that means focusing solely on pleasure before thinking about anything to do with sex, including:
- physical touch
- creating intimacy
- … whatever feels good and helps you relax!
For some women they require at least 20 mins or so of kissing/ cuddling/ general time to get aroused, and particularly before any kind of penetration. If you’re looking to experience penetration the aim is to achieve a state of “orgasmic unlock”- where women’s bodies release and are ready to receive penetration.
This shift into allowing yourself to receive pleasure and create intimacy with your partner even if you’re not up for sex, can be a gamechanger. It allows you to open yourself up to the sexual experience rather than closing yourself down through pressure to “feel” a certain way. Many women find that although their libido might be slower to heat up than their partners, their want for sex and capacity for pleasure is incredibly powerful once it gets going.
Emily Nagoski calls this idea the “Window of Willingness”– creating a sense of openness for desire to emerge.
And weirdly, you might just find that desire emerges as soon as you start to have fun, let go, and take your mind off the idea that you have to want sex first!
We’ve also put together 6 tips on how to get aroused quickly to help you in the moment if you need a bit of help working out how to get turned on!
A note about this approach...
There’s a couple of things we need to be aware of with this approach.
Firstly, when we talk about wanting sex– what do we mean by sex?
Many of us have a really narrow definition of what sex is… usually that it ends with penetration, and chiefly penis in vagina penetration. This understanding of sex- and everything else being foreplay- is really problematic because it suggests other sexual acts (e.g. cunnilingus, fellatio etc) are always the preamble to the main/best event- penetration. Only about 25% of women orgasm through penetrative sex, and experience more pleasure from the clitoral stimulation that comes with other sexual acts which seem less valued in our culture. This explains why so many womens desire fades if the only sex they’re having ends with PIV penetration!
Take a read of this article about how the term foreplay should die in a fire and instead, as Coffee and Kink argues, consider that sex should be seen as an umbrella term for ALL sexual acts. So when you’re considering whether you’re open to sex, ensure you and your partner both know that can mean being open to A LOT of different things, and try mixing things up to ensure both partners are experiencing pleasure.
Secondly, about pressure. The MOST important factor in the window of willingness working (and desire arising) is to make sure that there is no pressure to go any further from your partner, and you know that if you say NO to anything else that will be respected. This is the only way the safety and receptivity for desire can be obtained, in order for it to build.
However, for many couples this can be really tricky to navigate. Experiencing responsive desire means you might initiate sex less (because your desire only comes after arousal). It is navigating differences in *this* issue that can cause conflict, pressure, guilt and other difficult emotions to handle.
For couples struggling with this issue we’d recommend scheduling in time for intimacy (not sex). In addition, check out our post on relationships and desire, how the sex you are (or were) having is closing down your desire, and some of the Desired State workshops on offer around relationships, sex, pressure and conflict for more.
And lastly, about other factors standing in the way of desire. There are occasions where this approach is too simplistic. For example if sex hurts or doesn’t feel good, no amount of shifting your approach to desire is going to make you want it. Certain medications can impact on our desire for sex, as well as things like the menopause and breastfeeding, as well as our relationship health.
We’ll explore all of this in the next post about your sexual accelerators and brakes….