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We introduce: Spontaneous and responsive desire.
By now you’ve probably heard a sexual health professional say – interrupted, of course, by 👏👏👏 – that pornography is entertainment, not education. And that’s true. But there’s another type of medium that lies lies about what sex should be like in our collective throats: romantic comedies.
One of the ideas these films planted in our brains? That the desire to put it on hits you out of nowhere – BAM! As a sex writer, that makes me really hot (as in, crazy, not horny) considering that only an estimated 15 to 20 percent of cisgender women (versus 75 percent of cisgender men), depending on gender, have primarily sexual desire Researcher Emily Nagoski, Ph.D., in her book Come As You Are.
“The most common spontaneous desire depicted in movies is the urge for sex that hits you out of nowhere,” says Jill McDevitt, Ph.D., resident sexologist at the sex toy trading center CalExotics. What is much more common in (cisgender) women, however, is what is known as reactive sexual desire, in which the desire has already started (consensually) in response to (or after) sexual activity. That is, sexual activity creates arousal, as opposed to the other way around.
As McDevitt puts it, “Spontaneous desire is sex on the kitchen counter. The responsive desire is to watch Netflix together and feel a tingling sensation when your partner begins to trace the outlines of your shorts during the sex scene in the movie you are watching. “
The good news: once you understand how these two types of sexual desire work, you can hack your sex life to have as much (or as little) sex as you want! But first scroll down.
(Also Read: 8 Reasons You Should Be In Pain After Sex And What To Do About It)
Spontaneous vs. Responsive sexual desire
First things first, both types of sexual desire are normal and healthy. Unfortunately, people (especially cisgender women) who have mainly appealing cravings assume they have died sexually because their cravings don’t look like Mila Kunis’ in Friends with Benefits.
This is not the case, assures Dr. Zhana Vrangalova, professor of human sexuality at New York University and resident sex expert for the sex toy brand LELO. “Most of these people can experience desire / arousal, but they (and their partners) don’t give reactive desires a chance,” she says.
What is the responsive demand like at IRL? Instead of waiting for a sudden urge, you could say, “Hey babe, are you interested in me massaging you and seeing where this leads?” Or, “How would you feel if you turned on porn and masturbated side by side and see if that gets us in the mood?”
If you are skeptical, you shouldn’t be. After all, “Sex itself isn’t better just because it starts with spontaneous desire – people report just as much joy and pleasure regardless of how it started,” says Vrangalova. Also, the type of desire is not a measure of how good the sex was. How pleasant it was!
Deriving your own sexual desire style
According to Nagoski’s research above, around 75 percent are men and 15 percent are women Primarily, they experience spontaneous cravings, while 5 percent of men and 30 percent of women have primarily appealing cravings (all cisgender). But for the rest of people, sexual desire is contextual, says sexologist Jess O’Reilly, Ph.D., host of the podcast Sex with Dr. Jess. That is, “Sometimes they experience a more spontaneous desire and sometimes the desire is more likely to respond,” she says.
It is common for contextual types to experience primarily spontaneous and reactive desires at the beginning of a relationship, when the relationship wears off or during stressful, busy periods of time.
Chances are, you could just infer your main type by reading the definitions above. If not, I recommend investing in Nagoski’s books and scrolling to the end of Chapter 3. There you will find a “Sex Contexts” worksheet in which she instructs you to write (in detail!) About three of the two Your best sexual experiences as well as the “meh”. As you review these experiences, you will likely find common themes of when and where sex occurred, and whether the activity arose from spontaneous desire, reactive desire, or neither. If, for example, your top sexual experiences were in lockers at weddings, chances are you will experience spontaneous lust. If your top sexual experiences came after a day of romantic dates or sexting sessions, chances are your desire will respond.
How to Lean into Responsive Sexual Desire
So you are primarily experiencing an appealing desire, and your partner is primarily experiencing a spontaneous desire. Or, the two of you are primarily experiencing reactive desires … now what? No fear! “There are many different ways couples with different sexual desires can meet in the middle,” said Lyndsey Harper, MD Obgyn, founder and CEO of Rosy, a sexual health technology platform.
1. Schedule sex.
Don’t be so quick to discard it. (After all, if you stick to your exercise routine – why not your sexual wellbeing, too?) Sit down with your planners and google calendars and between work, birthdays, and workouts, schedule when to do it wearing it may not sound sexy. But “if the partner with the appealing desire knows that sex is going to happen at a certain time, they can look for arousal tools like eroticism, ethical porn, masturbation, or ahead of time to get themselves in the mood,” says Dr. Harper. (Or, good old daydreamer.)
Assuming you clear your calendars for more than about 30 minutes, this also ensures that there is enough time to do things that will help the quick-reacting partner to get in the mood (think: showering together, kissing, etc. ) instead of feeling pressured to be ready as soon as possible.
If planning sex far in advance isn’t right for you and your partner, plan date nights instead and think about whether or not sex is on the table on that day. Or, try some of these other suggestions first.
2. Alternate initiating sex alternately.
In relationships where one partner experiences spontaneous sexual desire and the other experiences reactive sexual desire, the spontaneous person often feels like the initiator, Vrangalova says. Then the partner experiencing reactive urges may feel that their partner is constantly bothering them about sex and feeling guilty about saying no. This can lead to resentment on both sides. To break this cycle, she suggests taking turns inviting each other to have sex. Remember: your partner always has the right to say no.
Here’s how it works: Set a timeframe within which to initiate each, says O’Reilly. Perhaps you plan to start sex once a week, taking turns learning who initiates each week. This allows the reactive partner of choice to actively seek arousal as soon as they are aroused, says Dr. Harper.
3. Don’t make sex a goal.
Going from zero percent horny to sex (of any kind) can be very daunting, especially if you are at work or busy raising children. Unfortunately for many couples lines like “Hey, baby, do you want to try to have sex tonight?” or “do you want to smash?” are commonplace.
Vrangalova’s proposal? Ask, “I’d love to shower together at the end of the day” or “How would you feel about a good old-fashioned makeup session?” instead. Why? Because things like long passionate kisses, sensual massages, watching porn, reading erotic together, dirty talk, fantasy sharing, hand games or even cuddling can feel more accessible to a partner who is not currently registered.
“If it comes to sex from there, great. If not, that’s okay too! ” She says. “You will still have the advantage of being intimate with each other.”
4. Rely on pleasure products.
“Research shows that vibrator use has a positive correlation with desire, lubrication, orgasm, reduced pain, and overall sexual satisfaction,” says O’Reilly. “Sometimes a little vibration or sucking is just what your body needs to get in the mood.” Instead of indulging in your hot spots, spend some time taking advantage of the vibe on your inner thighs, back, breast tissue and nipples, and the meaty part of your bum, she suggests. Think of this as a self-care massage – then let it get sexual when it feels right.
5. Do a little more sex ed.
Why? Because the biggest obstacle for most couples is the expectation of how sex is supposed to work, says Vrangalova. “A lot of people are stuck in the idea that you should only have sex when both partners are spontaneously horny at exactly the same time – and decline sex when they are not.” (Sounds familiar?)
Both books delve deeper into the topics covered in this article to give you a better understanding of how normal any type of sexual desire is and how the messages you may have picked up through pop culture block your gender. Both also contain exercises that you and your Boo can do together to better understand your preconceptions about cravings and to correct mistakes to increase pleasure.
(Also Read: How Intense Exercise Can Affect Your Sex Life)
What if these don’t work?
Okay, so you thought you experienced reactive cravings in the first place, tried these tricks, and still can’t find your libido? First, talk to your doctor. Certain medications, mental illnesses, and chronic illnesses like heart disease, diabetes, and cancer can affect sexual functioning.
When your doctor gives you the clarity, think about why your body (especially something known as the sexual inhibitory system) is intentionally keeping you from getting turned on. When your body realizes that it is in danger, it can actually turn off your ability to get aroused. For example, if you’re worried about getting pregnant unintentionally, developing an STI, or feeling socially ashamed of who / how you are having sex, the arousal just doesn’t work. Ask yourself: what can I do to limit the (perceived) risk of the sex I want (keyword)?
Also, think about your relationship. How are you feeling with your boo? No doubt about it, it is quite difficult to get turned on by a partner who you are angry with or are uncomfortable with. Fixing underlying relationship issues (or TBH, quitting) can be helpful.
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