Not everyone knows that there are actually two types of sexual desire –spontaneous and responsive. Most are familiar with spontaneous desire which seems to occur out of the blue as a sudden craving or lust for sex. However, many people experience responsive desire which emerges in response to erotic context or arousal.
These different types of desire are based on the work of Dr. Rosemary Basson’s non-linear model of sexual response. Her work challenged the assumption that sexual desire or interest must precede arousal (i.e., spontaneous desire). Instead, we now know that people with responsive desire may experience arousal (a physical response) prior to experiencing sexual interest.
Unfortunately, we’re socialized to believe that spontaneous desire is the only healthy, normal way of experiencing desire. That is, if we’re not walking around “horny” all the time there’s something wrong with us. Responsive desire is a perfectly healthy way of experiencing sexual interest, and a lack of spontaneous desire is not a sexual dysfunction.
Your desire style is not fixed. You may switch back and forth between spontaneous and responsive desire over the course of your lifetime. In long-term relationships it is common to experience spontaneous desire at the beginning of the relationship, when it’s new and exciting. When the novelty of the relationship wears off, responsive desire can become the norm for many.
Note: Emotional intimacy can play a role in both types of desire. Both spontaneous and responsive individuals cite emotional connection as a motivator or necessary context for having sex.
What Does Responsive Desire Usually Look Like In A Relationship?
For those with spontaneous desire, you may experience a craving to have sex at random or with very little sexual stimuli or context. If you have responsive desire, you may only want sex once the sexy stuff starts to occur. In other words, the desire is in response to physical pleasure or erotic context. It’s just a different way of wanting sex.
A lack of familiarity with these concepts can become problematic, especially in long-term relationships. In a recent article, I highlighted desire discrepancy (or mismatched desire), a common reason for many couples to seek sex therapy. One partner may have significantly more or less sexual interest than the other. Oftentimes, we find that the “lower desire” partner actually possesses healthy, robust responsive desire, but they assume they’re “broken” in some way because they don’t have the craving (and they’re not trying to initiate sex all the time). In reality, they just need a bit more of a reason to have sex than those with spontaneous desire.
The goal isn’t to get the responsive desire partner to have more spontaneous desire. It’s about better understanding the contexts that turn them on and communicating with each other to better access those contexts.
How Can I Tap Into Responsive Sexual Desire?
1. Exam your beliefs about sexual desire.
When working with patients with responsive desire, they’ll sometimes express disappointment about their desire style. This makes a lot of sense, especially when we’re taught that spontaneous desire is preferable. However, if you feel frustrated (or worse), with your lack of spontaneous desire, you’re going to be even less likely to experience sexual interest. There’s nothing about you per se that needs to change, but instead you may need to change your context. Sometimes, people are more comfortable with the assumption that there’s something wrong with their “biology” or “brain chemistry” (often hoping there’s a quick medical “fix” for this, such as hormones or medication), rather than consider what they need to change about their sexual relationship.
2. Identify your sexual “brakes” and “accelerators.”
An excellent resource to learn more about spontaneous and responsive desire is Emily Nagoski’s book, Come As You Are. In her book, she highlights the importance of identifying our “brakes” and “accelerators.”
People with responsive desire often need more sexual stimuli to activate the accelerator (i.e., what turns you on) and reduce what’s putting on the brake (i.e., turning you off). Outdated sex advice used to overemphasize adding more stimuli (i.e., make sex hotter, wilder, and more extreme) while neglecting to address what’s putting on the brake. Turns out that addressing what’s putting on the brake is equally, if not more important, than activating the accelerator.
In a recent blog article, I highlighted some of the many reasons a person may experience a reduction in sexual desire. These are the “brakes” or what might be getting in the way of your sexual response. Sometimes, addressing the brakes can be a fairly simple process, but some concerns may be highly complex — taking a lot of effort to address on your own, with your partner, or with the help of a sex therapist.
3. Embrace sexual curiosity.
At times, life is really difficult, and it makes sense that sex may be put on the back burner. But if you can reduce some of the brakes that are within your control, and you remain curious about your sexuality (especially what turns you on), there’s often a lot of untapped potential to cultivate responsive desire.
4. Patience is a virtue.
Lastly, responsive desire often takes a bit longer to develop in the moment, and that’s okay. I’ll often hear, “the sex was good, it just took me a long time to warm-up.” That’s responsive desire, and that’s perfectly healthy! Some of us just need a little more time and sexual stimuli than others. It’s important that your partner understands what responsive desire is, that you’re both patient and accepting of one another’s sexual response style, and you collaborate to find sexual contexts in which you’re both comfortable.