Feb 272010

This is the sort of thing I forget people don’t know.

Female sexual response is typically characterized by “responsive desire,” while male sexual response is more likely characterized by “spontaneous desire.” (I’m going for biological categories rather than social categories here because the research is based on male- and female-bodied people, without reference to social role.)

“Responsive desire” is when motivation to have sex begins AFTER sexual behavior has started. As in, you’re doing something else when your partner comes over and starts kissin’ on ya, and you go, “Oh yeah! That’s a good idea!” Or you and your partner set aside Friday night as Sex Night, and then Sex Night gets here and you’re like, “Oh, Sex Night. But I’m so tired…” But you made a deal, so you get started… and before long you’ve forgotten you were tired.

This is contrasted with “spontaneous” desire, more typical of male sexuality, which works more like this: you’re walking down the street and for no immediately obvious reason you think, “Hm. I’d like to have sex!” Or you’re taking a shower getting ready for bed and you think, “Hm. I’d like to have sex!”

Regardless of what body or identity you have, if you’re more of a “responsive” desire person you might have worried that your interest in sex was abnormally low – worrying about how much we do or don’t want sex is something we’ve been well-trained to do. Indeed, so many people have asked me how often they’re “supposed to want sex,” I’ve started looking for a memorable, funny stock answer that gently illustrates the absurdity of the question.

Every 5 minutes.

At least twice a decade.


(Suggestions warmly welcomed.)

Okay so… oy, I wonder how often I’ll use the phrase “pervasive and intractable bullshit” on the blog. I’ll use it again here:

The idea that functional sexual desire requires wanting sex out of the blue is bullshit – pervasive and intractable bullshit, but bullshit nonetheless. Yet again we’re confronted with what is becoming the theme of the blog: when you use male standards to assess ALL sexuality, shit goes to hell. In this instance, when spontaneous, “Hey, I think I’d like to have sex!” desire is the normative standard, anyone whose style that isn’t suddenly becomes “abnormal.” Which is bullshit, however pervasive and intractable.

It’s different for girls. Have we got that yet?

Problematic dynamics emerge when one or both partners in a relationship are responsive desire types. In a differential desire scenario, the spontaneous desire type partner may feel rejected and undesirable because they always have to initiate, and then the responsive person may start to feel pushed and will resist more. In a dual responsive desire relationship, you might end up hardly ever having sex because neither one of you wants to start. (This is a really good theory to explain the putative “lesbian bed death.”)

So looky here, suppose you’re a responsive desire person. You now know that that’s totally normal, you’re not broken, and it’s really okay that it doesn’t often occur to you to have sex. Excellent. But what do you do about the potential issues that may emerge? How do you untangle these knots?

Feminist lesbian sex therapist (who doesn’t want THAT job title??) Suzanne Iasenza suggests reframing the issue from “desire” for sex to “willingness” to have sex. We’re a highly social species, females in particular, and it’s totally legitimate to start sex because your partner is interested, even if you’re not particularly horny. So first communicate with your partner that this is a characteristic of your sexuality, to help reassure them that you find them attractive. And then try setting a standard for yourself, like once a week you’ll initiate at a time when you’re willing to have sex, even if your body isn’t longing for it.

Another possibility is organizing nights when you’re not allowed to have sex; you’re only allowed to touch non-genitally, for mutual pleasure. This wakes up your sensations without creating undue pressure to want sex. (Pressure to want sex makes you not want sex, fyi.)

Finally, you can increase the amount of non-initiating physical affection in your relationship. Someday I’ll talk about the mechanism that generates responsive desire, but the practical upshot is that if you have more physical affection, more trust, more caring, less worry and stress, and less performance pressure, you’ll actually start to respond more readily and have more instances of spontaneous desire.

Three suggestions. One of them may help. Untangling the knots of sexual dynamics in a relationship takes time, patience, and practice, but consistently using these strategies (which are based, by the way, on Sensate Focus sex therapy) will put you on the right track.

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emily nagoski

  42 Responses to “do you know when you want it?”

Comments (16) Pingbacks (26)
  1. I didn’t know that. I’ve known most of the other stuff so far, but not this. So there ya go.

  2. That sounds like a great item to offer in some kind of charity auction. “Get enlightened! Have the Sex Nerd do her laundry… At Your HOUSE!”

    it’s a win-win for everyone…

    good article, as always.

    • The catch is you have to have fifty-two hot inches of high definition television with “What Not to Wear” and “House” on DVR.

  3. This was freakin’ brilliant. Just for the increase in knowledge of all readers, y’all should know that childbirth SERIOUSLY fucks up your relationship to your own bodymind, creating all kinds of lovely insecurity-hurdles where not only one’s relationship to self is concerned but where one’s relationship (all forms) to others is concerned. It is a whole new bodymind-relationship jungle after you have a kid, and that’s totally separate from the time/stress considerations.

  4. wow, this explains why my sex life sucks. but i feel like it’s missing a crucial piece in here somewhere, because I know nothing you suggest will fix what’s wrong. Is it possible there are separate initiation/response levels between the brain/body? I feel a bit like a body-responding brain-initiator, which basically means I’m hopelessly doomed – I have to convince myself AND my responder-responder partner (twice, in fact) in order to get the ball rolling. Maybe things only work for initiation/response ratios of 1-1 or higher?

  5. Great article. It goes a long way toward the proof of what I’ve suspected all along… I’m actually a guy! Seriously, though, these thoughts help me to understand more of how others may experience sexual energy and that having patience and a willingness to explore my partners’ needs that may seem foreign to me is a wise idea.

  6. I would just add that one’s level of urgency (vs merely being willing) is not just an individual “trait”; it’s relational. This can be very clear for people who have been involved with both men and women, although I assume it can hinge on other relational factors as well. With men, I’m responsively willing at best; with a woman, I can get into an “I can’t wait to get horizontal with you” frame of mind with no obvious warm-up at all.

  7. This is an excellent post. Coming from the male perspective many men feel sexually rejected “because she doesn’t initiate”.

    If she’s responsive in nature, then obviously she won’t tend to initiate sex nearly so much.

  8. Fascinating! This answers a question I didn’t know how to ask. I see a lot of men and women with “disparity of desire” issues, and a common theme in these relationships is the “lack of desire” in the female. In most men’s minds, if a woman doesn’t initiate sex regularly (at least every couple of months) then they take it as a criticism of their attractiveness to their mate, without understanding the complex dynamic of the female sexual response. By breaking it down between being “actively desiring” and simple willingness, you introduce shades of gradiation that could allow more interpersonal give-and-take in a relationship.


  9. Okay, but what about females who are spontaneous? Especially with partners who are not, and maybe said female isn’t very good at taking charge. (This in no way is a question about my life. Really. >.> *whistles*) Does this just mean she needs to get over her discomfort with taking charge and just try anyway? Or would that be threatening and cause her partner(s) to draw away?

    • Yes, she needs to get over it and she needs a partner who is okay with her initiating.

      • The key in my own experience is “a partner who is okay with her initiating”. You can make all the overtures you want, ranging from subtle to downright explicit, but if your partner *does not want* you to initiate, or is uncomfortable with it, or worse, not that attracted to you, attempts to initiate will crash and burn on a regular basis. It can be very difficult to muster the self-esteem to start initiating when faced with the possibility of failure, but it is the only way (again, in MY experience) to know if your partner will be okay with your more spontaneous style of pursing sex. If you feel like you both could handle it, it might be appropriate to have a conversation about it first, as that may either unearth an eagerness for initiation in your partner you didn’t know was there, or give you painful insight into the relationship. BeFree – I hope you get what you need, I’ve SO BEEN THERE!

  10. Huh. I’m curious about the biological basis for this. I’m female-bodied (gender fluid) and the partner with whom I live is male-bodied (and male-identified), yet he would fit the “responsive” category far more, and I would say I’m . . . well, I’m a satyr. I’m both “spontaneous” and responsive, but I’m always the initiator, which, as you’ve stated, makes me not want to bother sometimes, since engaging him in a positive response happens rarely (he has physical issues that compound his reluctance toward sexuality). I’ll have to give some of your ideas a try.

  11. I agree with everything you said, except the gender specificity. I especially liked what you said about the other components in a relationship that determine sexual desire.

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