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What is desire?
Typically in popular culture, we see sexual desire depicted in a binary way; there are people with high sex drives and people with low sex drives, and there are a multitude of messages about what being in either of these two groups may mean. Mismatch or misunderstanding in desire as well as self-critical thoughts about one’s desire are some of the most common concerns that may bring people into sex therapy.
What sexual health research has shown us, however, is that desire is much more nuanced than we may initially think. Dr. Emily Nagoski’s 2015 book Come as You Are explores varying presentations of desire in her research: spontaneous, responsive, and contextual. Let’s dive in to understand what these different types of desire mean and how understanding them may be helpful for your sexual health. As we explore these varying types of desire, it is important to remember that there is no right or wrong way to experience desire. All types and levels of desire are normal and can vary across a person’s life span and in response to medical, hormonal, and environmental factors. This acknowledgement can be helpful to build understanding about your unique type of desire and what you can do to move towards your valued-based goals for your own sexual health.
Spontaneous desire is typically the type of desire we see depicted in movies. People get caught up in the heat of the moment and are ready to dive head first into intercourse with minimal planning, foreplay, or conversation prior to their sexual interaction. According to Gigi Engle, a certified sexologist, people who experience spontaneous desire tend to feel easily aroused. They may think about sex frequently, use sex as a way to release stress, and may find it easy to be in the mood. According to Dr. Emily Nagoski, this type of sexual desire is much more common in male identifying people. Dr. Nagoski notes that about 75% of people assigned male at birth experience primarily spontaneous desire. However, only 15% of people assigned female at birth experience this type of sexual desire.
Responsive desire occurs when desire for sexual interaction comes after external environmental cues. This type of desire might be inspired by physical touch, listening to erotic stories, a sensual bath, watching your partner undress, etc. According to Dr. Nagoski, 30% of people assigned female at birth and 5% of people assigned male at birth experience responsive desire.
As we discussed previously, desire is nuanced, and people who primarily experience responsive desire might have periods of spontaneous desire and vice versa. A beautiful example of this might be when you find yourself in the limerence stage of love where you can’t keep your hands off each other. Eventually, however, as your nervous system acclimates to your new partner, you will likely return to your baseline level of desire, according to Gigi Engle. For those with responsive desire, a way to explore building desire might be finding small ways to engage sexually with yourself or your partner without necessarily committing to have sex. Some examples might include, sexting, cuddling, kissing, massage, spending quality time together, etc.
Contextual desire, just as it sounds, is based on context. Your desire might fluctuate based on everything that is currently happening in your life. For example, desire could take a downturn if you are stressed at work, navigating a global pandemic (hello, COVID-19), feeling burned out on parenting, or getting over feeling ill. On the other hand, desire might take an uptick if you’re on a romantic getaway with your partner without having to navigate the day-to-day concerns of parenting or managing a household.
There are many ways you and your partner can influence your context or setting to be more aligned with an environment that stimulates desire. Some potential ideas include:
Taking care of your basic needs, such as ensuring you’re getting enough food, sleep, water, as well as taking prescribed medications, and engaging in self care activities.
Work collaboratively to reduce the amount of stressors that are realistically within your control. Have your groceries delivered, get a babysitter for a night, take a mental health day from work – whatever you need to do to take care of you!
Enlist the help of your 5 senses. What sights, smells, tastes, touches, and sounds make you feel most connected to your body, and your sensual sexual self? Make a habit of connecting with these for a few minutes each day.
If you’re interested to see more about where you might land on the spectrum of desire, check out Nagoski’s worksheet on assessing your desire.
Sexual Temperament Questionnaire
What to do with this information?
According to Dr. Nagoski, we all have an “accelerator-brake system.” This helps us to understand what turns us on and what turns us off. Accelerators are activities that help us tune into feelings of desire (such as 1:1 time with your partner, a full night’s sleep, having a night away from the kids, etc.), and brakes are the obstacles to that connection (such as the stressors of navigating childcare, feeling unwell, ongoing management of household needs, etc). Check out this link below to access Dr. Nagoski’s stress worksheet to learn more.
When we can find ways to increase our accelerators and take our foot off the brakes, we can find ways to more fully experience desire. Finding what works for you to turn on your accelerators, like lighting candles, trying out a new sex toy, or finding ways to connect with your partner, can all be ways to tune into your accelerators. Addressing any barriers, or brakes, that may be getting in the way, like feeling exhausted, stressed from work, burdened by childcare, etc. can be a helpful way to create more space to be fully present and experience desire. If you want to find ways to tune into your turn ons and offs, check out Nagoski’s worksheet below.
Remember, as you explore these worksheets and ideas, whatever your primary desire type is, it is not right or wrong, good or bad. It just is. And, finding ways to lean in, learn, explore, and finding ways to strengthen your connection with your desire can help you create a more fulfilling and meaningful sexual connection with yourself and/or your partner.
Want to explore more? Check out these resources:
Nagoski, E. (2015). Come As You Are.
Engle, G. (2022). https://www.missgigiengle.com/portfolio/press
Gottman Institute. (2022). https://www.gottman.com/blog/the-3-phases-of-love/