Let’s delve into a lovely talk about sexual response and sexual desire, shall we?
So, you’re not having sex. Or maybe you are, but it’s not great. There are a host of valid and understandable reasons why this may be, including physical and emotional reasons. Maybe you used to have high sexual desire and don’t know where it went. Maybe you haven’t really felt all that sexual of a person, so no sex is normal for you, but you’re interested and curious about your sexual self. Whatever the case may be, I would like to share with you some truths about what can work to expand your sexual well-being. I’ll try not to get too technical, so bear with me.
Truth #1: Sexual Response Consists of Two Parts - Gas and Brakes
We all have what’s called a “dual control model” of sexual response:
The “sexual excitation system” (SES), which is the “accelerator” of our sexual response.
The “sexual inhibition system” (SIS), which is the “brake” of our sexual response.
Our SES/accelerator scans the environment for things that our brain interprets as sexually relevant and sends signals from the brain to the genitals with “turn on” messages. For instance, seeing your partner cooking dinner for you. That can be a turn on, especially if they do the dishes. There is no sexier aphrodisiac than seeing your partner take care of household chores, right?
Conversely, our SIS/brake scans for anything that our brain perceives as threats or reasons to not be aroused, which sends “turn off” messages. Perhaps things are getting hot and heavy with your partner, and then they fart due to those extra beans they added to their burrito earlier. Unless farting is a fetish of yours (no judgement here), this is possibly a turn off. Or you hear the footsteps of your kids running down the hall towards your bedroom door. Again, probably a turn off. To take it a step further, what our brains interpret as sexually relevant or not is learned.
While we all have a sexual accelerator and sexual brakes, we have different sensitivities of SES and SIS. This leads to different arousability. Typically, a sensitive brake (high SIS) regardless of the accelerator (SES) is the strongest predictor of sexual problems, such as low interest in sex and orgasm difficulties. For example, someone with high SIS may experience that unless things are “just right,” it will be difficult to become sexually aroused. Similarly, the slightest thing can turn someone off if they have high SIS. I have jokingly said to my therapy clients that it may feel as though “all the stars have to align” in order for them to feel in the mood for sex. So even if someone can get turned on pretty easily, this sensitive brake is the strongest predictor of sexual problems.
Are you still with me? Good. On to truth #2.
Truth #2: Context Matters
In addition, context is important to consider. A sexual response needs a positive context to make it a pleasurable sensation. Let’s take tickling as an example. Imagine you are flirting with someone, and they start tickling you. It might be fun and playful. Possibly feels like foreplay, and you end up in the sack. Woohoo! High fives all around. Now, imagine you just got home after a stressful workday. Hungry. Then your partner tries to tickle you. Not so sexy now, huh? Irritating?
What we like changes based on our external circumstances and internal states. The tickling is the same sensation, but because the context is different, your perception of that sensation is different as well. So something we found sexually desirable yesterday may not be desirable today. The key to increasing your sexual satisfaction is learning to identify the contexts that increase your brain’s perception of what is arousing, as well as having the ability to make the most of these arousing contexts.
Truth #3: Sexual Desire Is More “Responsive” Than “Spontaneous” for Women
To better understand this truth, it will help to understand truth #1 and #2, as truth #3 builds on the first two. Ready for the final stretch? Good!
To clarify, arousal and desire are not the same thing. Arousal begins when you press down on the accelerator and let off on the brake (truth #1), and then desire follows when arousal is combined with a good context (truth #2).
Typically, most men have what’s called “spontaneous” desire. As the name suggests, this means that they usually experience their sexual desire as spontaneous. They don’t have to be warmed up for very long. Of course, this is not true for all men. We are just speaking in general. For many women, desire is more “responsive” or context-sensitive. Responsive desire is normal and healthy. There is nothing wrong with you if you have a responsive versus a spontaneous desire. It’s not you, it’s your context.
While this was focused on women's sexual response, the same ideas regarding a "dual control model" (gas/breaks) and context can be applied for men as well.
There you have it, ladies. And any lucky gentlemen who may be reading this. A crash course in the science of sex. I know, not a very sexy discussion. But I hope this sheds some light and insight to begin transforming your sex life.
Resource: Come As You Are (E. Nagoski, 2015)