Do you know when you want it?

Written by Emily Nagoski, Ph.D.

This is the sort of thing I forget people don't know.

Female sexual response is typically characterized by "responsive desire," while male sexual response is more likely characterized by "spontaneous desire." (I'm going for biological categories rather than social categories here because the research is based on male- and female-bodied people, without reference to social role.)

"Responsive desire" is when motivation to have sex begins AFTER sexual behavior has started. As in, you're doing something else when your partner comes over and starts kissin' on ya, and you go, "Oh yeah! That's a good idea!" Or you and your partner set aside Friday night as Sex Night, and then Sex Night gets here and you're like, "Oh, Sex Night. But I'm so tired..." But you made a deal, so you get started... and before long you've forgotten you were tired.

This is contrasted with "spontaneous" desire, more typical of male sexuality, which works more like this: you're walking down the street and for no immediately obvious reason you think, "Hm. I'd like to have sex!" Or you're taking a shower getting ready for bed and you think, "Hm. I'd like to have sex!"

Regardless of what body or identity you have, if you're more of a "responsive" desire person you might have worried that your interest in sex was abnormally low. Worrying about how much we do or don't want sex is something we've been well-trained to do. Indeed, so many people have asked me how often they're "supposed to want sex," I've started looking for a memorable, funny stock answer that gently illustrates the absurdity of the question.

The idea that functional sexual desire requires wanting sex out of the blue is bullshit. Pervasive and intractable bullshit, but bullshit nonetheless. Yet again we're confronted with what is becoming a theme: when you use male standards to assess ALL sexuality, shit goes to hell. In this instance, when spontaneous, "Hey, I think I'd like to have sex!" desire is the normative standard, anyone whose style that isn't suddenly becomes "abnormal." Which is bullshit, however pervasive and intractable.

It's usually different for women. Have we got that yet?

Problematic dynamics emerge when one or both partners in a relationship are responsive desire types. In a differential desire scenario, the spontaneous desire type partner may feel rejected and undesirable because they always have to initiate, and then the responsive person may start to feel pushed and will resist more. In a dual responsive desire relationship, you might end up hardly ever having sex because neither one of you wants to start. (This is a really good theory to explain the putative "lesbian bed death.")

So looky here, suppose you're a responsive desire person. You now know that that's totally normal, you're not broken, and it's really okay that it doesn't often occur to you to have sex. Excellent. But what do you do about the potential issues that may emerge? How do you untangle these knots?

Feminist lesbian sex therapist (who doesn't want THAT job title??) Susan Iasenza suggests reframing the issue from "desire" for sex to "willingness" to have sex. We're a highly social species, females in particular, and it's totally legitimate to start sex because your partner is interested, even if you're not particularly horny. So first communicate with your partner that this is a characteristic of your sexuality, to help reassure them that you find them attractive. And then try setting a standard for yourself, like once a week you'll initiate at a time when you're willing to have sex, even if your body isn't longing for it.

Another possibility is organizing nights when you're not allowed to have sex; you're only allowed to touch non-genitally, for mutual pleasure. This wakes up your sensations without creating undue pressure to want sex. (Pressure to want sex makes you not want sex, FYI.)

Finally, you can increase the amount of non-initiating physical affection in your relationship. Someday I'll talk about the mechanism that generates responsive desire, but the practical upshot is that if you have more physical affection, more trust, more caring, less worry and stress and less performance pressure, you'll actually start to respond more readily and have more instances of spontaneous desire.

Three suggestions. One of them may help. Untangling the knots of sexual dynamics in a relationship takes time, patience and practice, but consistently using these strategies (which are based, by the way, on Sensate Focus sex therapy) will put you on the right track.

Haven’t installed it yet?