Responsive vs. Spontaneous Desire

Responsive vs. Spontaneous Desire October 3, 2016

As I noted in my post on the dual control model of arousal, science is still catching up to provide explanation of sexual arousal and desire that actually fit people’s lived experiences, and don’t make sex out to be some weird exception to how the rest of the human body or mind works.

Fire is a common metaphor for arousal. But why? Photo from Unsplash by Noah Silliman.
Fire is a common metaphor for arousal. But why? Photo from Unsplash by Noah Silliman.

The difference between responsive and spontaneous desire perfectly exemplifies how the cultural narrative around sex, particularly normalizing certain kinds of sexual desire, has clouded our understanding. In Come as You Are: The Surprising New Science that Will Transform Your Sex Life, Nagoski characterizes the dilemma as such:

The standard narrative of sexual desire is that it just appears–you’re sitting at lunch or walking down the street, maybe you see a sexy person or think a sexy thought, and pow! you’re saying to yourself, “I would like some sex!” This is how it works for maybe 75 percent of men and 15 percent of women…. That’s “spontaneous” desire. (225)

Do women and men tend to kinda sort into the patterns we’d expect, with women having mostly responsive desire and men having mostly spontaneous desire? As Nagoski’s numbers demonstrate, yeah, kinda. She has this blog post with a graph and some more facts about responsive desire, which I recommend checking out. But since the differences between men and women are organizational more than foundational, we do wind up with some men with responsive desire and some women with spontaneous desire, or folks switching styles over the course of their lives. It’s all normal.

The neat thing about responsive desire is that even though it’s culturally invisible (or even pathologized), it’s a common enough thing to experience. Nagoski states:

They don’t have “low” desire, they don’t suffer from any ailment, and they don’t long to initiate but feel like they’re not allowed to. Their bodies just need some more compelling reason than, “That’s an attractive person right now,” to want sex. (225)

One of the biggest factors determining when more responsively-oriented people get aroused is context. A lot of the time, responsive folks are just more sensitive to context than spontaneous folks. So that means the more spontaneously-oriented partner might get to have fun with the creative challenge of helping making a sexy context for their partner. Nagoski has suggestions for that here.

We do run into some weirdness with consent, though, since often responsively-oriented folks need to ease into something sensual or sexual before they begin to feel aroused. So, it’s helpful to have some communication around the topic beforehand. One possibility is to decide on an activity that doesn’t slam on anyone’s brakes, and engage in it for 5 minutes with the agreement not to escalate until that time is up, and then check in to see if all parties are into it. It can take trust to experiment like that with a partner, because of being vulnerable and honest with your desires and all that, but it can lead to delightfully connecting times (if not sexual, then sensual times).


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