One of the most common ways to describe our sexual feelings is with the word libido. But what actually makes up our sexual responses are two things, desire and arousal. And they're two different things.
When we talk about arousal, we mean your body and your mind getting ready for a sexual experience. This is things like erections, lubrication, increased heart rate, and a receptiveness to viewing certain things as sexy.
And when we talk about desire, we mean the emotional feeling of wanting sex. For instance, you can be aroused, and not have desire and vice versa, and to enjoy sex, you need both.
And the reason this is important is because of what I'm about to tell you about the sexual response cycle, and what happens to us when we have sex.
Back in the 1960s when pioneering sex researchers Masters and Johnson were doing their research into human sexuality, they developed the first version of what they called the sexual response cycle, which was linear, and it went like this.
And while this does hold true in lots of ways, you might have noticed that it doesn't include desire, which was only added in 1977 by Helen Singer Kaplan, who placed it at the beginning of this line, meaning that before you could get turned on, you had to want to get turned on.
And it wasn't then until the early 2000s that Rosemary Basson's research transformed this line into a circle, and created a new concept of how desire worked which was based much more on intimacy.
And the short version of this idea is that instead of having desire that pops up unannounced, pushing you towards sex and ending in orgasm.
You start from a place of sexual neutrality in which you're not necessarily hungry for sex, but you're open to the idea of it and so then when your partner touches you, or starts to flirt, and you like it and then you want more of it, and you carry on, until you reach a point, not of orgasm, but of physical and emotional satisfaction - however you want to define it.
And this physical and emotional satisfaction paves the way for emotional intimacy, which means that you're open to sex in the future, and the cycle can start again.
We've all seen movies where two people look at each other across the bar and immediately run home to have sex. And this leads us to believe that sex happens spontaneously, and we should be ready for it at the blink of an eye.
But actually, we have two different models of desire. Spontaneous desire, is desire that appears as if from nowhere, while you're doing the dishes, and you feel this a sudden urge to have sex. As you might have guessed, this is more common in the earlier, more lustful stages of a relationship.
And responsive desire is desire that builds up slowly over time, often during sexual activity, in response to the pleasurable sensations of arousal.
In other words, if you like the arousal you're getting, you might start to want more of it.
Think about it a bit like this. The spontaneous desire is like walking past a random Italian restaurant on your way to work, seeing a lasagne, and then buying it immediately, even though it's 9am and you're already late for a meeting. Seeing the restaurant was all it took to trigger your desire for the lasagne. And responsive desire is like coming home from work that same day to find your partner taking a lasagne out the oven and thinking, "Oh, yeah, I guess I could have some lasagne," and then taking a bite and realizing that, actually, lasagne was the perfect choice. You had to walk past the restaurant, come home, smell the lasagne, see it, and even eat some of it, before your desire for the lasagne was fully formed.
But some people's thresholds for the amount of arousal that they need in order to start to want sex are higher than others. So while for someone it might be enough for their partner to look at them a certain way, and boom, suddenly they're off to the races.
For others, it might take a series of things happening over a longer period of time. A good day at work, a meaningful conversation, your partner stroking your arm, in order for that arousal to tip over into responsive desire.
And one person can experience both of these types of desire on different days. And that's a lot of information, I know. And probably way too much lasagne. But the reason I'm telling you all this is that very often, if you don't experience completely spontaneous desire for sex, desire that just automatically turns on as soon you get a meaningful look from an attractive stranger, or see a suggestively shaped vegetable, you might feel like there's something wrong with you.
But that's only because society, and films, and TV, and magazines, they've all told you that spontaneous desire is the only possible form of desire and we know that's not true.
Both of these types of desire are completely normal. Recent studies have shown that both men and women experience these two different kinds of desire, at different times. So it's entirely possible that the way you experience desire is different from the way that your partner experiences desire. And that's OK.
Whether it takes a few minutes or a few hours, or a few days, there's no right or wrong way to experience desire. The trick is to be aware of these differences. Talk about them with your partner, and try to factor them into your sex life. So the next time you or your partner are worried about feeling, or not feeling, a particular level of desire, remember that there's no pressure to feel turned on before you start to have sex.
As long as there's consent, and a good context, you might find that desire happens naturally.
So be kind to yourself, and to each other, and stay open to the idea that desire might come along for the ride, if you let it.
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