Responsive Desire

People feel weird talking about sex. There’s a lot of worry about whether or not we are “normal” when it comes to sex: Do I want it enough? Do I want it too much? Am I having sex the “right” way? If you’ve been here around long enough, you know I’m all for talking openly about sex and spontaneous or responsive desire without shame. Discussing sex creates a more sex-positive culture, which leads to better sex lives for people because we are informed and confident. Because people feel so self-conscious talking about sex, there are a lot of misconceptions about how you “should” be when it comes to sex, and if you don’t fit into this box of how you “should” be, you might feel ashamed.

What is spontaneous desire?

We grow up being taught that we should experience spontaneous arousal. Spontaneous desire is when you feel aroused and interested in having sex spontaneously or out of the blue. Perhaps you are watching tv and all of a sudden you’re horny, or you wake up in the morning and feel super aroused. Most people probably feel a good amount of spontaneous arousal when they are first being intimate with a new partner, but how spontaneously you experience desire will change throughout your life. 

What about responsive desire?

Responsive desire is when you feel desire and arousal in response to pleasure. Perhaps you are watching tv and your partner snuggles up next to you and starts kissing your neck or massaging your shoulders. You think “wow that feels nice,” and you start to feel desire in response to what they are doing. 

Is responsive desire better than spontaneous?

Neither form of desire is better or more normal than the other. Culturally we are told that men typically experience spontaneous desire and that women don’t experience desire at all, which is untrue. All types of people can experience either type of desire at different points in their life and throughout different relationships. 

One of my favorite sex educators, Emily Nagoski, has written extensively on responsive and spontaneous desire, and writes about it in her book “Come As You Are.” Nagoski points out that despite the cultural idea that spontaneous desire is correct and any other type of desire means you have a low sex drive that needs fixing, there is no scientific evidence to back up these claims. She has done research interviewing men and women about their sexual desire, and both men and women experience both spontaneous and responsive desire, and both types of desire are healthy.

In an article for the New York Times and another for Medium, Nagoski writes about a drug called Flibanserin, created in 2015, which is also known as the “female Viagra.” The drug is intended to create a spontaneous desire for those who take it. As she mentions in her articles, the drug was created to treat low desire in women, as if lack of spontaneous desire is a disease — which it isn’t. The clinical trials of the drug were fairly unsuccessful and had several side effects.

How to communicate your pleasure needs

As Nagoski reminds us, focusing on spontaneous desire distracts from what is really important when it comes to sex: pleasure. We get too caught up in how much we do or don’t want sex when really the focus should be on the quality of sex being had. 

It’s important to know what type of desire you experience so you can communicate that with a partner. If one partner experiences spontaneous desire and the other is responsive, the spontaneous desire partner might feel like their partner isn’t as interested in sex since they might not initiate as much. In reality, their partner is interested in sex, they just don’t feel desire until they experience some pleasure first. Communication is a great tool for a healthy sex life regardless because you can tell your partner what you want and they can communicate their needs as well. 

It’s also important to remember that neither form of desire is more correct. Responsive desire doesn’t mean you have a low sex drive or that your sex drive needs fixing. Pay attention to your body and what does or doesn’t make you feel aroused, then communicate that with your partner or partners for a more pleasurable experience for everyone involved.

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