Spontaneous and Responsive Desire
(A.K.A. there is likely nothing “wrong” with your libido)
Movies, porn, and societal messaging tell us that we're supposed to feel horny all the time. And many of us do, especially at the beginning of a relationship when everything is new and exciting and the endorphins are running through our bodies, tantalizing us with the excitement of what new fun ways we want to seduce or be seduced.
Initiation of sex and desire for sex comes more easily for many of us for the first 18-36 months of a new relationship.
Over time, some of us continue to experience what is called spontaneous desire. We're walking down the street, or having a shower and think about sex, and have an urge to act on it.
This is the kind of desire that 75% of men and 15% of women innately have, according to research. Unfortunately, the research has not broken down gender beyond the binary of cis-men and cis-women; folks of trans experience and non-binary folks are not specified therein.
People with this style of desire feel a mental desire for sex which then might be followed by physical arousal through solo or partnered pleasure depending on whether they act upon that desire.
This model, despite widely being considered “the norm”, is not what all people experience, though. Not everyone embodies this kind of regularly horny libido, and those of us who don’t experience it then commonly feel shame, pressure, and confusion as to why we don’t feel (or never have felt) frequent desire for sex. We might wonder if this difference means that there's something wrong with ourselves, or our relationships.
On top of our own feelings, our partners who do exhibit this style of spontaneous desire may experience feelings of rejection, deprivation, and confusion with regards to why we don’t seem to be interested in having sex with them (anymore).
There is, however, another type of desire that is not as well-known and thus does not get much validation: responsive desire. This is pretty much the opposite of the spontaneous kind and is the primary style for 30% of women and 5% of men, although most of us have experienced it at some point. We generally have to be stimulated physically first with pleasure and then our body responds with arousal.
This physical arousal leads us to then feeling horny and desiring more pleasure. With more subsequent physical pleasure that's arousing, we desire more intense sexual connection. So, rather than feeling desire at the thought or anticipation of sexual pleasure, we feel it instead in response to sexual pleasure.
Other Mitigating Factors
Exhaustion, not feeling safe in the relationship, and stress including experiences of racism, sexism, transphobia, and homophobia are just some factors that can have an effect on our desires.
Not enjoying the kinds of sex we have, and especially feeling pain with sexual stimulation, shame about sex in general or our body, and its responses such as lack of orgasm or erections that do not behave as we wish, not feeling cared for as a whole, and/ or a history of trauma all can also impact our libido, no matter which is our dominant style of desire.
Some of us find comfort through sex when feeling stressed, and need a connection, while for others any kind of sexual connection is the last thing we want. Everyone is different.
It's important to at least name these obstacles, if not work through them to whatever extent possible in order to allow our desire to have a healthy chance of blossoming.
And, of course, some folks are asexual; where they rarely feel sexual desire, if any.
How Do I Know If I Have Responsive Desire?
Consider the following scenario as to whether it resonates with you: sex is not on your radar and a partner initiates sexual contact. You may consider that “it has been a while since we had sex; ok, I’ll take one for the team”.
If your partner kisses or touches you in a way that feels good, it might arouse you a little. With this arousal, you may then desire a little more physical connection, perhaps more full-bodied touch. If that feels pleasurable, you may then desire more intense stimulation such as genital play. If the sensations continue to feel great and arouse you, you may then take a more active role in enjoying and continuing the pleasure at hand, with increasing feelings of sexual desire. This scenario may feel so great that you (and possibly a partner) wonder why it has been so long since you were interested in having sex because you are really turned on in body and mind. This is a classic example of responsive desire at work: You don’t feel a spontaneous interest in sex when it's not on your mind. But when you are open to beginning a connection and a partner knows how to touch you in ways that feel good, this combination can lead to building arousal and sexual desire.
So, Now What?
If you know that you and/or your partner have responsive desire, talk about what things generally help you get aroused.
For some it might be kissing, while others like taking a shower together, or sharing feelings while lying naked in bed; or even having a pillow or tickle fight, receiving a massage, or even just enjoying gentle sensations on the body.
You can try some of these non-sexual ideas. You can then plan times when you want to connect physically and start out with these activities to see if they lead to sexual desire. These preliminary activities; however, may not always lead to wanting more, which all partners need to be prepared for and understand without guilt or pressure. The good news is, though, that even if at times some physical connection such as making out does not lead to a full sexual experience, you still have shared some moments of physical intimacy. A good make-out session or massage is still worthwhile, intimate, and can enhance the feelings of connection. Moreover, it communicates to a partner one’s feelings of attraction to them, potentially mitigating them taking it as rejection.
Does This Mean I Should Have Sex When I Don’t Want To?
If you notice that you have responsive desire, and you open up to your desire as sexual touch and arousal progresses, then that's important information for all parties to be aware of. But it does not mean that you “should” have sex when you don’t want to. It means, however, that perhaps you might consider times when you feel like connecting in small ways. Rather than waiting for when you feel like having full-blown sex, look for moments when you are open to feeling close by kissing or lying naked in bed or however you like to build arousal. Enjoy those moments for what they are, and notice whether your sexual desire increases while you engage. If it does, then keep building all the while paying attention to what you want and desire. If not, then savour the pleasure that you do have, and the ways in which you feel closer or connected in the moment.
How to Work with Responsive Desire
If you and/ or a partner have responsive desire, talk about how often you want to create moments of connection without expectation of sex, but with an openness to a possibility of sex. Both partners can take responsibility for initiating: it should not always be the job of one partner. A partner with responsive desire can cultivate their own desire in ways that they know feel good. Sharing this role of arousal means that both partners feel desired and can enjoy the outcomes of the efforts made by the other.
Of course if sexual touch is not pleasurable for a partner with responsive desire then the arousal will generally not materialize. Ensure that you discuss what feels great and what will make sex even more pleasurable for you: people are not mind-readers. Keep exploring and being open to new and changing preferences. This also means remaining open to intimate connection that at times doesn't "progress" to sex. Savour the intimacy you do have. Get creative and practical, such as using toys and self-pleasure to ensure that a partner who is more highly aroused can release their sexual tension in ways that feel respectful of everyone.
With honest and open communication, everyone can feel affirmed in their own natural desire, whether spontaneous , responsive, or somewhere in-between!