January 28, 2024

3 ways we experience sexual desire

Woman getting undressed

When I first started studying sexual desire, there was one insight that blew my mind. 

We tend to believe that our desire for sex should happen spontaneously. If it doesn’t feel that way to you…well, chances are you have low libido and there’s something wrong. 

Turns out, that’s not true! There are other ways people experience desire and they’re normal too. It also means that you don’t have low libido. Rather, how you get in the mood is different. It doesn’t just appear. You want sex after things start heating up.

Male-centric misinformation 

Unsurprisingly, our understanding of sex is largely based on how men tend to experience it. For about 75% of them, it does feel like it appears immediately. 

Only 15% of women, however, fall into this bucket. 

I happen to be in those 15% and, ironically, spent most of my life feeling ashamed of it. After all, women are conditioned to be chased after. We shouldn’t desire – we should be desired. So to express sexual interest goes against what we’ve been taught. It feels unnatural. Yet so many men I speak to voice how much they’d like their partners to initiate sex and express their desire more often. 

On the flip side, when I meet women with spontaneous desire whose male partners are more responsive, they are often baffled: Why doesn’t he get turned on as easily as I do? He’s a man, after all! This can’t be normal for him. 

Well, it is. A quarter of men and 85% of women have a desire style different from spontaneous. One is not superior to the other, as pop culture has led us to believe. They are just different. And I’m sure this comes as a sigh of relief to many of you.

Our sex education has failed us tremendously. It’s not our fault, but it does make us perpetuate harmful stereotypes, lack empathy and hold shame.

No wonder so many of us feel sexually disconnected from our own selves and our partners. 

Responsive and context sensitive desire

I mentioned in the beginning that responsive desire is about getting in the mood after things start spicing up. That’s how it feels for 30% of women and 5% of men.  

The remaining 55% of women and 20% of men are context sensitive. Their desire is contingent on where they are, when and with whom.

Deep down we’re all responsive and context dependent, but it feels more spontaneous for some of us. 

I share the numbers in case it helps anyone feel seen. But it’s not about the numbers. As sex researcher Dr. Emily Nagoski says, “What matters isn’t the specific proportion but the reliable difference in a wide range of sexual behaviors and thoughts assessed as ‘desire’”. 

We each experience sex differently from one another, and that’s normal. It’s important to learn what works for both you and your partner, instead of assuming things should be a certain way.

For those with responsive and context sensitive desire, Dr. Nagoski in her book Come As You Are recommends “low-key, no-pressure, zero-expectation foreplay.” Take the time to cuddle, caress, kiss each other slowly, and make each other feel desired – without the pressure to have sex. It’s the kind of seduction we do in the beginning, and forget to cultivate in the long run. 

If you struggle with having to take a slower approach, Dr. Nagoski has good news. Spontaneous partners end up loving how there’s much more of a build up, making you savor the moment and experience more pleasure.

And the responsive or context sensitive partner loves how much more natural it feels to get in the mood. It’s a win-win for all!

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