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Introducing 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 type of desire we all know:

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

With impulsive desire, desire (AKA the experience of WANTING sex) is felt BEFORE there’s been any sexual behaviour or contact.

So, you might be doing the washing up, spending time with your gran or doing an otherwise boring activity, yet you’ll experience an erotic trigger (e.g. a thought, memory, scent, image) and get some rather steamy instant sexy thoughts and fancy getting jiggy.

The desire→ arousal→ orgasm model is what most people think is the “right way” to have sex. 

The idea that we need to WANT sex before we start having it (i.e. that we should experience desire first) is pervasive. It’s what we’re shown on TV, film and in popular culture as how desire works. It also fits Freud’s idea of sex as a drive that comes out of nowhere- we’re horny and we need to “fix” that feeling through the relief of an orgasm.

HOWEVER.

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….? 

A *brand new* way of thinking about desire...

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

And that’s totally OK.

Instead, they experience 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, desire arises from being pleasured.

NOT the other way around.

This might mean you start out really feeling like you can’t be bothered to have sex.

And then (if you’re touched in a way that feels good or start kissing or being intimate with a partner), you start to become aroused… and suddenly (and ONLY THEN) you find yourself screaming “hell, yeah! I want this” and start really enjoying yourself and wonder why you don’t have sex more ‘cos it actually feels good!

In this case, we’re looking at arousal→ desire→ orgasm.

1. Arousal

“Half of women have low sex drive. So maybe the problem isn’t women, it’s our view of sexuality”- Sarah Barmak

Hannah Witton defines the two types of desire like this:

Impulsive desire: Desire (starts with wanting) → turns into → Arousal (liking)

Responsive desire: Arousal (starts with liking) → turns into → Desire (wanting)

And 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 responsive desire is a game changer...

Understanding responsive desire 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. 

We label ourselves as having a low sex drive because we’re given the message that an urge to have sex SHOULD magically appear before you get going. 

Without knowing about responsive desire, if you don’t really feel like having sex it might mean we experience pressure (and subsequent distress around our perceived lack of desire) from two places- 

  • we put pressure on ourselves. This might come from a sense of expectation around what we think sex should be like within a relationship, how often we should be having it, or how we compare to what we believe is “normal”. The lack of knowledge around experiencing responsive desire means that many of us compare ourselves to impulsive desire and see ourselves as broken- because ours doesn’t work this way. We also may not know how to shift our approach to sex to allow desire to arise from pleasure rather than expecting to feel it first.
  • we feel pressure within our relationships- conflict can arise from what’s called a “mismatch in desire” in relationships where one person desires sex more than the other. Often it’s not the difference in how much you both want sex (and neither partner is right or wrong) but rather how you manage the difference. Particularly around initiating sex.

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. 

And the most important thing is- if your desire is responsive YOU DON’T HAVE A LOW LIBIDO.

It just means desire (WANTING sex) doesn’t emerge until AFTER after you’re aroused (e.g. your body is turned on and open to sex).

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!

In the next post we’ll share with you a game changing shift in your approach to sex which will transform both your desire and your relationship….

P.S. you can explore more about recognising a low libido in this podcast from Project Pleasure and about societal pressure to have a certain level of desire in this TED talk from Dr Karen Gurney

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