Introducing: Spontaneous and responsive desire.
By now, you’ve probably heard a sexual health pro say—punctuated by 👏👏👏, of course—that porn is entertainment, not education. And that’s true. But there’s another type of media that shoves lies about what sex “should” (eye roll) look like down our collective throat: Romantic comedies.
One of the ideas these films have implanted into our brains? That the desire to get it on hits you out of nowhere—BAM! As a sex writer, this really gets me heated (as in, mad, not horny) considering only an estimated 15 to 20 percent of cisgender women (vs. 75 percent of cisgender men) primarily experience sexual desire in this way, according to sex researcher Emily Nagoski, Ph.D., in her book Come As You Are.
“Most often depicted in movies, spontaneous desire is the urge for sex that hits you out of nowhere,” says Jill McDevitt, Ph.D, resident sexologist for sex toy emporium CalExotics. But what’s much more common for (cisgender) women is something called responsive sexual desire, which is when the desire comes in response to (or after) sexual activity has already (consensually) started. Meaning, sexual activity begets arousal, versus the other way around.
As McDevitt puts it: “Spontaneous desire is sex on the kitchen counter. Responsive desire is watching Netflix together, and starting to feel a tingle when your partner starts to trace the outline of your shorts during the sex scene in the movie you’re watching.”
The good news: Once you understand how these two types of sexual desire work, you can hack your sex life so you can start having as much (or as little) sex as you want! But first, scroll down.
Spontaneous vs. Responsive Sexual Desire
First things first: Both styles of sexual desire are normal and healthy. Unfortunately, people (especially cisgender women) who primarily experience responsive desire assume that they’re sexually defunct because their desire doesn’t look like Mila Kunis’s in Friends with Benefits.
Such is not the case, assures Zhana Vrangalova, Ph.D., professor of human sexuality at New York University and resident sexpert for sex toy brand LELO. “Most of these folks can experience desire/arousal, but they (and their partners) aren’t giving responsive desire a chance,” she says.
What does responsive desire look like IRL? Rather than waiting for a sudden urge to get down, you might say, “hey babe, any interest in me giving you a massage and seeing where that goes?” Or, “how would you feel about turning on porn and masturbating side-by-side, and seeing if that gets us in the mood?”
If you’re skeptical, you shouldn’t be. After all, “sex itself is not better just because it starts with spontaneous desire—people report just as much pleasure and enjoyment regardless of how it started,” says Vrangalova. Besides, the type of desire isn’t a measure of how good the sex was. How pleasurable it was is!
Deducing Your Own Sexual Desire Style
According to Nagoski’s aforementioned research, about 75 percent of men and 15 percent of women primarily experience spontaneous desire, whereas 5 percent of men and 30 percent of women primarily experience responsive desire (all cisgender). But for the rest of folks, sexual desire is context-dependent, says sexologist Jess O’Reilly, Ph.D., host of the podcast Sex with Dr. Jess. Meaning, “sometimes they’ll experience more spontaneous desire and other times the desire is more likely to happen responsively,” she says.
It’s common for context-dependent types to primarily experience spontaneous desire at the start of a relationship and responsive desire as the relationship ebbs on, or during high-stress, busy bouts of time.
Odds are, you were able to deduce your main type just by reading the above definitions. If not, I recommend investing in Nagoski’s books and flipping to the end of Chapter 3. There, you’ll find a “Sex Contexts” worksheet where she instructs you to journal (in detail!) about three of both your best sexual experiences as well as the “meh” ones. In reviewing these experiences, you’ll likely notice common themes around when and where sex took place, as well as whether the activity erected from spontaneous desire, responsive desire, or neither. For instance, if your top sexual experiences happened in coatroom closets at weddings, odds are you tend to experience spontaneous desire. If your top sexual experiences happened after day-long romantic dates or sexting sessions, odds are your desire leans responsive.
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🟧HOW TO GET IN THE MOOD🟧 ••• 20 ways to lean to responsive desire (AKA help get yourself in the mood) if you miss your libido. ••• 1. 📢Listen to audio erotica like @dipseastories or @frolicme_official 2. 🥺Watch (ethical) porn like @bellesaco or @crashpadseries 3. 😋Read online erotica by @mrsexsmith or @readaurore 4. 📖Read some smutty comics 5. 💖Give yourself a massage with your favorite moisturizer or CBD pain relief cream 6. 👯♀️Ask your partner for a massage 7. 👅Make out with your #quarantinebae 8. 👋Have your partner m@sturbate in front of you 9. 🤝Start touching yourself 10. 🚿Shower or bath (alone or with someone else) 11. 😈Practice sensual dance (@che.che.luna and @evyan.whitney have great resources about this) 12. 💎Use your favorite s*x toy along your thighs and belly 13. 🧠Think about your last WOWZA s*xual encounter 14. 💶Go s*x toy shopping. Check out brands/shops @lewandmassager @unboundbabes @dameproducts @early2bed @babeland_toys @shopspectrumboutique @noxshop 15. 🧘Do tantric yoga 16. 💨Practice tantric breathing (@urbantantrika has some great resources in this!) 17. 🎃Light some pumpkin-scented candles 18. 📸Take some nudes 19. 🧪Try some arousal oil @foriawellness or @herhighnessnyc 20. 👀Gaze longingly at yourself in the mirror ••• Whats something that always turns you on? Tell me below 👇👇👇 . . . . . #quarantine #responsivedesire #spontaneousdesire #sexeducation #sexed
How to Lean Into Responsive Sexual Desire
So you primarily experience responsive desire and your partner primarily experiences spontaneous desire. Or, you both primarily experience responsive desire…now what? Fear not! “There are lots of different ways couples with different sexual desires can meet in the middle,” says sexual health expert Lyndsey Harper, M.D. ob-gyn, founder and CEO of Rosy, a sexual health technology platform.
1. Schedule sex.
Don’t be so quick to dismiss it. (After all, it works for sticking to your workout routine—why not extend it to your sexual wellness as well?) Sitting down with your planners and Google calendars and plotting out between work, birthdays, and exercise when you’re going to make time to ~get it on~ may not sound sexy. But “when the partner with responsive desire knows sex will happen at a certain time, they can seek out arousal tools, like erotica, ethical porn, masturbation, or ahead of time to help themselves get in the mood,” says Dr. Harper. (Or, good ol’ daydreaming.)
Plus, assuming you clear out your calendars for longer than, like, thirty minutes, it also ensures there’s plenty of time to do things that help the responsive desire partner get in the mood (think: showering together, kissing, etc.) versus feeling pressured to be ready to go ASAP.
If scheduling sex far ahead doesn’t feel right for you and your partner, consider scheduling date nights instead, and touch base that day about whether sex is on the table or not. Or, try some of these other suggestions first.
2. Intentionally take turns initiating sex.
Often in relationships where one partner experiences spontaneous sexual desire and the other experiences responsive sexual desire, the spontaneous person begins to feel like they’re always the initiator, says Vrangalova. Then, the partner who experiences responsive desire may begin to feel like their partner is constantly pestering them for sex, and feel guilty for saying no. This can lead to resentment on both sides. To interrupt this cycle, she suggests agreeing to take turns extending invitations to one another to have sex. Just remember: Your partner always maintains the right to say no.
Here’s how it works: Pre-determine a period of time within which you’ll each initiate, says O’Reilly. Maybe you’ll plan to initiate sex once per week, and alternate who initiates each week. This way, the responsive desire partner(s) can actively seek out arousal once they’re aroused, says Dr. Harper.
3. Don’t make sex the objective.
Going from zero-percent horny to sex (of any kind) can be super daunting, especially when you’re working or busy child-rearing. Unfortunately, for a lot of couples, lines like “hey, babe, want to try to have sex tonight?” or “want to smash?” are common-place.
Vrangalova’s suggestion? Try asking “I’d love to take a shower together at the end of the day” or “how would you feel about a good old-fashioned makeout session?” instead. Why? Because making things like long passionate kisses, sensual massage, watching porn, reading erotica together, dirty talk, fantasy sharing, hand play, or even cuddling can feel more accessible to a not-currently-turned-on partner.
“If it progresses to sex from there, great. If not, that’s okay, too!” she says. “You’ll still get the benefit of spending intimate time together.”
4. Lean on pleasure products.
“Research reveals that vibrator use is positively correlated with desire, lubrication, orgasm, lower levels of pain, and overall sexual satisfaction,” says O’Reilly. “So, sometimes some vibration or suction is just what your body needs to get in the mood.” Rather than going right for your hot-spots, spend some time using the vibe on your inner thighs, back, chest tissue and nipples, and the fleshy part of your bum, she suggests. Think of it as a self-care massage—and then let it turn sexual if it feels right.
5. Do a little extra sex ed.
Why? Because the greatest obstacle most couples face is their expectation around how sex “should” work, says Vrangalova. “Many people get stuck in this notion that you should only have sex if both partners are spontaneously horny at the exact same time—and refuse sex when that’s not the case.” (Sound familiar?)
Both of these books go into even more depth on topics discussed in this article to help you better understand just how normal any type of sexual desire is and how the messages you might have absorbed through pop-culture are pleasure-blocking your sex. Both also feature exercises you and your boo can do together to help you better understand your preconceived notions about desire, and how to troubleshoot them for boosted pleasure.
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SO YOU WANNA READ BOOKS ABOUT SEX? Me too!! Officially gonna start this party off by reading Emily Nagoski’s Come As You Are. I’ve heard this book is chock full of feminism and science, two of my very favorite things! If you wanna read along with me, just sliiiiiiide into my dms with your email address and I’ll get you sorted. We’ll start March 1st to give you time to go out to your local library and put this baby on hold. Also shoutout to @lizwelle who introduced me to the brilliant idea of reading books together but also very much apart cause sometimes leaving the house is a lot to ask of a person 💕
What If These Don’t Work?
Okay, so you thought you primarily experienced responsive desire, gave these tricks a try, and still can’t find your libido? First, talk to your healthcare provider. Certain medications, mental health illnesses, and chronic conditions like heart disease, diabetes, and cancer can affect sexual functioning.
If you get the clear from your doc, think about why your body (specifically something known as your sexual inhibition system) might be intentionally keeping you from getting turned on. If your body perceives that it’s in danger, it can actually shut off your ability to get aroused. For instance, if you’re concerned about getting unintentionally pregnant, contracting an STI, or being socially shamed for who/how you’re having sex, arousal just won’t work. Ask yourself: What can I do to limit the (perceived) risk of the sex I want (keyword) to be having?
Also: Reflect on your relationship. How are you feeling about your boo? No doubt, it’s pretty tough to get turned on by a partner you’re feeling resentful of or aren’t feeling comfortable with. Addressing any underlying relationship issues (or TBH, calling it quits) may help.
Regardless, know that any way you experience sexual desire is ok. If you can relinquish the idea of there being a “normal”—because, truly, there is no “normal” in anything sex-related—that just might help you get there.
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