Feb 202012

One of my earliest posts on the blog was about responsive desire, the phenomenon of not being really interested in sex until sex (or something sexy) has already started. It’s crucially important to understand this, since the mistaken belief that “desire” is “supposed” to be spontaneous – like, you’re walking down the street or having lunch and you go, “Hm! Sex please!” – can cause a person to believe that if they have responsive desire they’re BROKEN. And if people believe they’re broken, then you get into medicalization of what is in fact perfectly normal, healthy, functional sexuality.

It’s also an important concept in the context of consent. In an ideal world we’d all be able to consent when we’re definitely into it, but it’s just true that sometimes you only get into it after it has already started. I tried out the idea of calling this willing consent, following Suzanne Iasenza framework of “wanting” sex (spontaneous) versus “willing” to have sex (responsive).

But that language often feels uncomfortable for people; there’s too much room for passive aggressive “YesokayFINE” in the word “willing.” Like, “if you MUST,” rather than, “Sure, let’s see what happens.”

But I was talking with a student who both is in my class and works in my office, about responsive desire, which I had just covered in class the night before. I was talking to her about this problem in the language of “willingness,” and she said, “It’s more like OPENNESS.”

And with that word, an entire world cracked open.

Being “open” sex is connotes a kind of readiness, appreciation, porousness, and connection that “willing” just doesn’t quite get.

If you’re a responsive desire person, if you mostly begin wanting sex only when sexy things are already happening, you can frame your sexuality as “open” – to possibility, to invitation, perhaps even to persuasion. And where persuasion enters the picture, my controversially tepid advice is Go. Slow. If you just maybe wanna do something, try it out, and go slow. Keep monitoring your internal experience for what feels good and what feels uncomfortable. And remember that just becomes something feels sexually arousing doesn’t mean it feels GOOD: when it’s right, it’ll feel both arousing and emotionally certain.

My main problem now, really, is finding a word for “wanting” that sounds AS GOOD as “openness.” Wanting is so much sadder and desperate than openness!

But surely you, dear internet, will help me find a better word?

emily nagoski

  14 Responses to “wanting, willing… open!”

Comments (13) Pingbacks (1)
  1. How about “game”? It has some specific connotations for readers of Savage Love, but that’s a relatively small part of the population.

  2. I like “keen,” but there’s also “piqued.” Or you could go Brit and use “up for it.”

  3. I feel like game, keen, and piqued all mean something closer to “wanting” or “ready” than “open;” they have a more activated, interested connotation than responsive desire calls for. Like, if I were game, keen, or piqued for sex and my partner said, “Hey wanna?” I’d be like, “Hey sure!” But responsive desire is more like my partner says, “Hey wanna?” and I’m like, “Huh. Arritey.” Passive, but… responsive. Sensitive to the other person, but… an idling engine in neutral, rather than a revving engine in gear. Idano, words are subjective. I just want to be sure folks with responsive desire feel like they have lots of space to feel really neutral about the idea of having sex.

  4. I think wanting is perfectly fine. I want tacos. I want more Sex Nerd posts. I want sex underneath the stars after a night of dancing to Young London.

  5. Piqued has a negative connotation for me, fit of pique and all. I’d never seen it used positively, in fact, until this post (and then I looked it up to find the first definition was the positive one, in fact. I’m pondering what this means to my personality now.)
    What about crave, or yearn?

  6. Receptive
    and Feasible.

    Each of them means approximately the same thing, with potent nuances of meaning. I suppose it would depend upon if you were attempting to describe the condition in the context of a contrasting comparison or establishing an absolute meaning irrespective of an additional party’s relationship.

  7. Eagerness? I like how it goes with openness


  8. It’s unclear whether you’re looking for a replacement for “wanting” or for “willing”. Your post suggests the former, but your comment suggests the latter. I think Crito and Eleanor were intending to replace “wanting”.

    If it’s “wanting” you’re wanting to replace, “eager consent” lacks the connotation of sadness and desperation that you are concerned about.

    If you want an alternative to “willing” or “open”, I’ve got a few that might work…

    Tentative consent: it captures the anticipation of something good while acknowledging the possibility that it might not be the right time.

    Prospective consent: this is not quite as neutral as “tentative” (“prospective” erring positive), but I think the intent behind the consent is more clear.

    Trial consent: this is as neutral as “tentative” and captures intent like “prospective”, but it also seems a bit more tense or judgy than the other two.

    Preliminary consent: this lends itself to the temporary nature of the consent—either it ends or it becomes wanting/eager.

    None of these will comfortably work in a sentence like “She’s willing to have sex.” or “She’s open to sex.”, but I don’t see much reason to replace “open” there.

  9. How about “welcoming”?

  10. Seems to me I’d talk about it very differently depending on context — how much sexual experience each person has, what kind of relationship the responsive one is in with the other person, etc. Most of the answers so far seem to me to imply an established long-term relationship, but maybe I’m wrong.

  11. I’m pretty into “eager.” It sounds good next to open, the way wanting sounds good next to willing, and it connotes the READINESS, the edge-of-seatness, without necessarily implying that that person would initiate. You can be eagerly waiting for someone else to initiate.

    And Irene, I don’t see the implication of long-established relationship. A brand new relationship, when the people haven’t had sex with each other before, can just as readily be spontaneous and responsive. Or eager and open.

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.