Regular readers know that I often talk about responsive desire, a completely normal and strongly evidence-based desire “style” that contrasts with “spontaneous” desire.

“Spontaneous” desire is sexual desire that feels out of the blue, whereas responsive desire emerges once a person is in an erotic context. The mainstream cultural understanding of desire tends to be that it’s “spontaneous,” and I’ve been looking for a way to show that responsive desire is just as normal and healthy as spontaneous desire.

Well. I decided to draw a graph.

See, while I was writing the book, I figured out rough estimates of what proportion of men and women experience their desire as “spontaneous” or “responsive” – as you would guess, men more often feel “spontaneous” while women’s desire is more varied and more sensitive to context.*

But when I drew this graph and SAW it… I mean, look:


responsive desire graph


What this means is that about 30% of women and 5% of men experience their sexual desire as more or less exclusively “responsive,” while about 15% of women and 75% of men experience their desire as more or less exclusively “spontaneous.” And most of the other folks – about half of women – experience is as some combination of the two, depending on the context.

So yeah. About half of people – 85% of women and 25% of men, for an average of 55% of the total population – don’t have spontaneous desire as their dominant desire style.

Can this settle, once and for all, the question of whether or not responsive desire is just as normal as spontaneous desire?

And if you’re wondering, “Where do I fit on this graph?” here’s a quick, non-sciencey guide to spontaneous v. responsive desire:


Spontaneous Desire

Responsive Desire

  • Sexual desire feels like it appears “spontaneously,” out of the blue
  • Totally normal and healthy
  • Culturally sanctioned as the “expected” desire style
  • May include more frequent desire for sex  – multiple times per week
  • May include desire in a wider range of contexts
  • May feel like “too much” desire, in a negative context
  • Sexual desire emerges only in an erotic context, after sexy things start happening.
  • Totally normal and healthy
  • Culturally medicalized as “low” desire – perhaps because it’s less frequent in men?
  • May include less frequent desire for sex – less than once a week in most contexts
  • May include more context-sensitive desire, preferring things to be “just right”
  • May feel like “no desire,” in a context that hits the brakes


And there are folks who are “in-between,” too. Their desire style may feel spontaneous or responsive, depending on the context. Like, it might feel spontaneous while they’re falling in love or when they’re trying to make a baby or when they’re on a sexy vacation. But it might feel responsive ten years into the marriage, a year after the birth of the baby, or in the stressful life that makes them need the vacation.




* Notes for the nerds in the audience (*fistbump* to you, my peeps):

The actual numbers I use are estimates – how desire is measured varies so much (PDF) that I found it really difficult to pin down anything very specific and reliable, but I feel pretty good about these, plus or minus about 5-10 percentage points. Here are some examples:

  • Among 225 40-year old Danish women, 32.4%  reported never experiencing “spontaneous libido” (Garde and Lunde, “Female Sexual Behavior”)
  • 33% of 1,749 women in the United States reported lack of interest in or desire for sex (Michael et al., Sex in America). In the same study, 16% of men reported the same lack of interest in sex.
  • 38% of 893 American women reported “thinking about sex with interest or desire” once a week or less in the last month (Bancroft et al, “Sexual Risk-Taking”); 14% thought about sex with interest or desire daily (Bancroft, Loftus, and Long, “Distress About Sex”)
  • In a multiethntinic sample of 3,248 women aged 40-55, 42% reported feeling a desire for sex less than two or fewer times in the last month (Cain et al, “Sexual functioning”); 30% reported desiring sex between once per week to every day
  • 30.7% of 3,687 Portugeuse women reported that they typically or always accessed desire only once they were aroused (Carvalheira, Brotto, and Leal, “Women’s Motivation for Sex”); in this study about 12% of women “often” fantasized about sex and 12% “very often or always” initiated sex with their partners.
  •  Among Norwegian and Portuguese men aged 18-75, 74% presented with “spontaneous” desire, 2.5% with responsive, and 24% with what the authors call “decreased” desire (Stulhofer, Carvalheira, and Træen, “Insights from a Two-Country Study”).
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