Different types of sex drives: are you a fire starter or a slow burn?

The discovery of Emily Nagoski and her explanation of different types of sexual responses was life changing for me. Here’s why….

Your sex drive is part of what is known as your “sexual response”.

Sexual health professionals agree that roughly your response has three parts:

Desire: When someone really wants to have sex with someone else, it is called ‘desire’. Your desire to have sex (libido) is in your mind.

Arousal: When someone is really turned on or horny it is called ‘arousal’. This is about the process that your body goes through to get ready for sex.

Orgasm: I don’t need to explain this one, right?

Sometimes they can happen at the same time, sometimes they work independently from each other.

For example, your body can be aroused but you don’t feel desire, e.g. when men get hard-ons on the bus.

You can also desire someone but struggle to get aroused. For example you want to have sex but you’re too worried/distracted, or after drinking heavily you can’t get wet.

The classic model goes like this:

1. Desire

If your sexual response is like this, it means that you have more a “spontaneous” sex drive, or what I like to call the “Fire Starter”.

Spontaneous means desiring or wanting sex BEFORE any sexual behaviour or contact.

*note not everyone experiences it like this or achieves orgasm to have good sex!

Often even when fire starters are at rest, they’re thinking about sex (e.g. thinking about/remembering a sexual event). Because there are always embers to work from, it’s easier and quicker to get turned on and be ready for sex.

Lots of men tend to be more spontaneous- they say men think about sex every 6 seconds so this makes sense! Nagoski thinks this is because men are more socialised to think about sex than us. Or the fact that they get what’s called biofeedback– feeling their willy between their legs reminds them of sex more often than us.

Sometimes this type of response is more common at the beginning of a relationship. Since you’re having sex a lot and then remembering it during your waking moments, it’s on your mind more, so you’re fanning the embers yourself.

Because this is the most well known form of sexual response, not fitting this model can feel like there is something wrong with you.

However, Emily Nagoksi thinks lots of women tend to fit a different model called “responsive desire”:

Responsive desire:

This is experiencing desire (a want to have sex) IN RESPONSE TO sexual contact/touch. It’s what I like to call the “Slow burn”….

1. Desire (1)

Notice that at rest, slow burners have no embers (e.g. wish to have sex) so they have to get horny from scratch.

They may feel like in their everyday life they don’t want to have sex, don’t think about it, or are very unbothered about it. However, once they are touched (aroused) and are given time to get turned on, only then do they experience desire and want to have sex!

So you can see the conundrum. Slow burners do love sex, however it just takes a lot longer to heat them up and in a very different way from fire starters.

If this is your type of response, it’s more likely that you have a SLOW rather than LOW sex drive.

Nagoski designed a handy chart on her website that you can work out which type of response you most align to (reprinted below).

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

Both types are totally OK and completely normal.

For me, the concept of being responsive not impulsive blew my mind. I felt like I was finally understood, and that there was nothing wrong with me- I WASN’T BROKEN.

However, I wanted to learn more about how I could fan the embers myself so that even in my long term relationship I would want sex before he touched me. Browse elsewhere on my blog about how to become more of a fire starter. It is possible.



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