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What if I told you that everything you’ve ever been taught about your sex drive wasn’t quite true?

*OK so it’s a big opener, but I’m rolling with it*.

And that I’m also about to roll up my metaphysical sleeves and tell you about a relatively mind blowing (and in no way exaggerated how life-changing this is) way of understanding desire that not many people know about, but should! 

Would you read on….?

If you’ve reached this site because you’ve lost your libido, or are with someone who has, and you’re wondering what on earth to do about it, here is a rather good place to start. Because knowing more about how desire works in the first place means it’s easier to figure out what’s going on with it.

So buckle up, grab a cuppa and I’ll give you the 101 on what your libido *is* and a brand new model for how to understand it….

What is a sex drive?

Let’s begin our magical mystery tour of the enigmatic female sex drive with a discussion on what a sex drive actually is and explore what is this thing we feel we’ve lost?

The human desire to have sex is often called the sex drive, or the libido. Or even our “mojo” for any Austin Powers fans out there…

Sigmund Freud first coined this term libido to mean “sexual and/or life urge or energy”- a feeling of need or want to engage in sexual activity.

He thought that our libido was a drive similar to thirst or hunger- a constant force that pushes us towards sexual gratification.

However, more recently scientists and sociologists have framed our sex drives as more of a motivational system- we desire sex based on the reward it gives us during/afterwards.

Essentially, desire then just means “to want”. And in order for us to actually want it, we need to firstly KNOW what we want (that’s easier said than done), and there needs to be something good about the sex (or the aftermath) to motivate us.

These are two *really* important points about desire to bear in mind.

Although Freud did much to push forwards our understanding of sex and sexuality, naughty old Sigmund tended to think women and the way they worked was a bit bizarre, so much of his theory was built on men and male sexuality.

But more recently, we’ve discovered that desire (especially for women) might just be a bit more complicated than that!

Your Sexual Response System:

Sexual health professionals agree that roughly your sexual response system has three parts:

  • Desire: When someone really wants to have sex with someone else, it is called ‘desire’. Your desire to have sex (libido) is in your mind.
  • Arousal: When someone is really turned on or horny it is called ‘arousal’. This is about the process that your body goes through to get ready for sex.
  • Orgasm: I don’t need to explain this one, right?

Sometimes they can happen at the same time, but also they can work independently from each other.

For example, you can be aroused but not feel desire, e.g. when men get hard-ons on the bus.

You can also desire someone but struggle to get aroused. For example worrying about having sex so you can’t get wet, or after drinking heavily.

What people don’t agree on is what order they go in….

The Classic Model is called “Impulsive Desire”

The most well known model of sexual desire goes like this…

For many people they experience this as “spontaneous” or “impulsive” desire. 

This means they might be doing the washing up, spending time with their gran or doing an otherwise boring activity, yet something will trigger them and they’ll get some rather steamy instant sexy thoughts.

This means they experience desire (or want sex) BEFORE there’s been any sexual behaviour or contact.

Lots of men tend to be more spontaneous- (they say men think about sex every 6 seconds) but many women can also experience desire in an impulsive, easily triggered way.

People can also begin a relationship with lots of sexy thoughts bubbling inside their heads like popcorn at the thought of their partner, but over time the frequency of these can fade.

If you don’t fit this model, or you once did but now it’s reeeeaaaalllly hard to summon up any kind of desire, it can feel like there is something wrong with you. 

Literally. It can feel like you’re broken, numb- like your brain is kaput and dead to sex foreeeeever. (Again, no exaggeration involved).

But yet (*drum roll*) the amazing news is that this isn’t the only model of desire there is. No Sir!

And the other is making women all around the world cheer because it means their sex drive isn’t low… just.. slow….? 

The Alternative Model- “RESPONSIVE DESIRE”

Author Emily Nagoksi published a book fairly recently called “Come As You Are” (*affiliate link*) in which she launches this game changing theory where she says that lots of women don’t fit into this model.

And that’s totally OK.

Instead, they have what she called “responsive desire”:

Emily’s groundbreaking theory is that for many women sexual desire happens ONLY after or in response to sexual stimulation. 

So, this is when you start to have sex or be touched, become aroused, and ONLY THEN move to the “hell, yeah!” (desire) mood soon after!

This means your process might look a little more like this:

1. Arousal

If you experience desire in a responsive way its easy to feel like you have a low sex drive because we’re given the message that an urge to have sex will magically appear. 

It’s strange to think that you might need to be physically aroused before sex seems appealing! However, there’s nothing wrong with you if you don’t really think about sex much, or you don’t fancy it…. until you’ve got going.

Nagoski also designed a handy chart on her website that you can work out which type of response you most align to (reprinted below).

Spontaneous DesireResponsive Desire
  • Sexual desire feels like it appears “spontaneously,” out of the blue
  • Totally normal and healthy
  • Culturally sanctioned as the “expected” desire style
  • May include more frequent desire for sex  – multiple times per week
  • May include desire in a wider range of contexts
  • May feel like “too much” desire, in a negative context
  • Sexual desire emerges only in an erotic context, after sexy things start happening.
  • Totally normal and healthy
  • Culturally medicalized as “low” desire – perhaps because it’s less frequent in men?
  • May include less frequent desire for sex – less than once a week in most contexts
  • May include more context-sensitive desire, preferring things to be “just right”
  • May feel like “no desire,” in a context that hits the brakes

Vanessa Marin, a well known and brilliant sex therapist, also has a great easy-to-read guide called “Whats Your Sex Drive Type” which explains these two types of desire really well, and details some tips about what to do if you are responsive or impulsive.

Why does this matter?

All of this matters because SO many women are incorrectly assuming there is something wrong with them if they’re not experiencing “instant desire” before they have sex. 

And they or their partners label their sex drives as problematic, rather than simply using a different approach to sex that involves understanding that their desire usually arises as a result of touch, play and stimulation rather than before it. And that women’s desire crucially takes TIME to get going.

With this different perspective on libido, women are instead not broken, irreparable or empty but rather fully functioning, whole and beautifully sexual beings whose bodies reject the narratives around sex that we’ve always been told!

Sadly we’re not given this information during sex education- we’re only given one story about sex and desire, and if we don’t fit into this we “aren’t normal”. So learning about our sex drives is a powerful and revolutionary act because we can then understand our bodies, needs and desires better in order to really know who we truly are and what we want sexually.


However, there’s more to our sex drives than just these two types of sexual response

Scientists believe that we also have a “sexual accelerator and a brake” which you can read more about here in understanding desire part two.

Had you heard of responsive/impulsive desire before? What do they mean to you? I’d love to know in the comments below….