Desire can be a mysterious thing. We can’t simply conjure it or focus it exactly where we want it. Such that, many people feel confused and frustrated by their own desire levels or patterns. Now sex researcher and psychologist, Meredith Chivers has added some important research to the picture and a name for something many people never even knew they had – responsive desire.
The traditional model of sexual desire told us that we would all naturally walk around thinking about sex and wanting to have it – spontaneous desire. This version of the desire story requires very little external stimulation, it feels internally motivated or bodily motivated (being horny) and inspires a person to initiate or seek out sex, or at least be excited about it. Many of us have experienced this type or desire. This model of desire is “I want to have sex irregardless of my environment or current situation.”
Responsive desire, which Chivers research ascribes to women – although what I know about sex at this point, is that it would be silly of us to think that anything will remain in its neat little box of gender or whatever – is desire that is stirred by first getting sexually aroused. This type of desire is dependent on the environment and what is currently going on. This notion of desire really changes perspectives on “normal” desire patterns.
To be clear, this is not another sex expert saying, “Hey, women need more foreplay to enjoy sex.” Hopefully we have already covered that. That enlightened notion is addressing arousal and the fact that women’s bodies have a fairly complex arousal system and it can take more time to get fully cooking, but has always assumed desire to have sex was already present. The conversation around responsive desire is that some women may not feel like having sex at all until they get started and begin to be physically aroused. Desire that follows arousal. That is a new perspective.
This does not mean that women should be pressured into having sex they don’t want because they will warm up to it! Actively not wanting sex is different than feeling neutral or ambivalent. It does mean that some women may want to experiment with going ahead with otherwise appealing sex with an appealing partner, even if they are not feeling super turned on by the idea at the moment because the desire may build with the physical arousal. And for people who are wanting to increase their desire for sex, many of them will be best served by increasing their exposure to arousing stimulation, erotica, massages, dancing close, kisses, porn, all kinds of sensual pleasure. Build pleasure and desire may come (not to get too Field of Dreams on you).
Responsive Desire is a bit tricky and we certainly have more to learn. It will require that we listen to the subtleties of wanting and openness to sex. But for anyone who has ever leaned back into the pillows to let the sweat dry and thought, “Wow, I didn’t think I was that into it before we started but I am so glad we did that! Why do I keep forgetting that I enjoy sex so much!”, Responsive desire may help you understand yourself a bit better.
The FDA is holding open meetings in October to obtain patient and doctor input on female sexual dysfunctions, specifically low desire. Now since it is the FDA, they are hoping to gain momentum on developing a medication that can treat lack of sexual desire. Which makes those of us who work with people struggling with sexual concerns sigh with frustration, “As though it is that simple.”
Sexual desire is complex. So much so that we can also say it is mysterious. Why we crave what we crave, why we crave it sometimes and not other times, why we are drawn to certain people, all questions without clear answers. And why we can’t just convince ourselves to want sex when it the person, place or time are convenient? That is a question that many people ask themselves. Low sexual desire is only a clinical issue when someone wants to want sex. But wanting to be sexual is not the same thing as desiring sex in that moment. And so many people are seeking their sexual desire spark to reignite.
There are physical issues that come into play with low desire, certainly. Hormones, brain chemistry, stress levels, exhaustion, side effects from drugs, general health and more should be considered. But so should emotional stressors, lifestyle, religious or spiritual conflicts, body awareness and acceptance, beliefs about sex and pleasure, traumas and fears, self image, lack of sex education, ability to enjoy sexual stimulation, and on and on. And I haven’t even started listing all the ways the relationship the person is in may affect their level of sexual desire. An issue that starts from one stimulus, say back pain, can lead to a pattern of saying no to sex, which leads to distance and resentment in a partner, which leads to less desire to be with them, which leads to less positive thoughts about sex…You can see how things interplay.
Even if the FDA can create a pill that motivates sexual desire would we want to take it? There is a creepy factor in feeling as though your sexual desire is manufactured. What invites us to ask ourselves, what is “real” desire. Desire is not just physical, nor just emotional, or relational. Our sexuality is interlaced with all aspects of our lives; that is one reason it is so potent. Sexual happiness can heal us on many levels and sexual unhappiness can trouble us on many levels. Desire draws on multiple aspects of Self, and my sense is that many of us want it that way.
There is a group specifically challenging the medicalization of sex, called the New View Campaign. Let’s keep our approach to sexual health diverse and multi-dimensional.
There are two new products on the market to treat early ejaculation in men, and sadly, I think they reflect the limitations in the way we view sex. Both products are spray numbing agents designed to reduce sensitivity in the penis. In truth men have been trying numbing agents of various sorts in hopes of lasting longer for years, so the real invention now is that the spray apparently doesn’t transfer to the partner. I have no doubt that by reducing pleasure they allow a man to last longer, but I have to ask – is that an acceptable trade?
First as a sex therapist, I think it is sad to settle for a solution which requires one person to enjoy sex less so the other can enjoy sex more. And, in most cases, it is not necessary. Many times early ejaculation happens because the man is unaware of his level of arousal, so he is tipped over the edge into orgasm before he wanted to be. Often times he is distracted by thinking about his performance, worrying about when he will come, or wondering if his partner is close. Actually learning to become MORE aware of his sensation and messages from his body can help him to pace his arousal, change the level of intensity for himself, and possibly feel more in control as well. Becoming numb will not help to build a relationship to his arousal, it will just help him last longer, as long as he is numb.
The other sad aspect of this is how it encourages us to limit our sexual scripts. One approach to dealing with early ejaculation is to expand your sexual play to include a variety of things that feel good and give pleasure, using hands, mouths, skin, toys, etc, so that penetrative intercourse is only one possible aspect of a sexual experience. That way orgasm for either partner can happen at any time and both know that there are still many ways to be satisfied. Penetration may still be the preference, but we might question the impulse to numb someone’s genitals if we didn’t see intercourse as the only “right way” to have sex.
And speaking of numbing genitals – can we for a moment imagine the outrage if a company was marketing a product to numb women’s vaginas so they could have sex longer? Think that would be considered an acceptable solution? No, women would be angry about being treated like objects and insulted that their sexual pleasure was considered irrelevant to the sex act. Maybe we could give men the same respect and see their ability to have intense, fully sensate sexual pleasure as important. Let's shoot for the stars - everyone's pleasure is important!
Here is a link to a video I did for YourTango's Experts. In it, I talk about who is responsible for getting a partner to orgasm and how sharing the responsibility will make for a happier sexual relationship.
I hope you enjoy the video and share it with online friends !
“I will be arriving in Paris tomorrow evening. Don’t wash” – reportedly written by Napoleon to his lover, Josephine.
Scientists are beginning to believe that humans have sensory receptors in our noses, long recognized in other mammals, that allow us to get information about other people from odors we can’t consciously smell. This ability may affect our sexual choices through the detection of pheromones and other smells associated with health, virility, and more. Fascinating stuff!
We know that scent plays a strong role in influencing our brain. We are born with a strong survival mechanism that causes us to automatically be repelled by unpleasant odors. But our olfactory system sends all kinds of messages to our brain, connecting in large part to the limbic system – primitive structures in our brain that regulate arousal, pleasure and reward, and also long-term memory. If you have ever wondered how you can recognize the smell of your first crush’s laundry detergent on someone years later; this is why - the part of our brain that processes smells is combined with our long term memory storage.
Here’s another interesting aspect of scent’s influence on us, neuroscientists tell us that the sensory experiences of smell skip the thinking and reasoning part of the brain and go straight to the amygdala, which governs our physical responses to excitement and fear. So being exposed to a smell (or for some, just the recalled memory of a smell) can cause a physical response. So it’s true, you can become aroused just by smelling a smell related to a past sexual experience.
Studies focusing on pheromones in human and our sense of smell have found that women near ovulation are drawn to men’s scents who are genetically more compatible with them. Studies by researcher Karl Grammer have found that women find different men’s smells more or less appealing depending on the phase of their menstrual cycle and that men’s testosterone levels increased just by smelling women’s odors during ovulation. Again, remember these are odors that our conscious mind finds nearly undetectable!
For many people, the smell of their partner during sex and on their skin later is a wonderful part of sexual excitement. Maybe for you this is a turn on, maybe not, but it seems clear that your nose is influencing your sexual arousal in ways we are only beginning to understand. Let yourself be interested in what smells appeal to you and which do not. Take notice of smell during your next sexual experience and see if there are any ways you would like smell to be added to your sexual ambiance.
References from Rodgers, Joanne Ellison (2001) Sex : A natural history. Henry Holt and Co, LLC : New York, New York.