Understanding how your sex drive works

Understanding how your sex drive *actually* works is totally fascinating, AND the first step in learning how to improve it.

This post is a long read, granted, and has some homework for you to complete at the bottom. But in terms of opening your eyes to a “new normal”, it’s totally worth it.


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

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, you can be aroused but not feel desire, e.g. when men get hard-ons on the bus.

You can also desire someone but struggle to get aroused. For example worrying about having sex so you can’t get wet, or after drinking heavily.


What scientists don’t agree on is what order they go in.


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If your sexual response is like this, it means that you have whats called a “spontaneous” or impulsive sex drive.*

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

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

So this is seeing someone you fancy and want to bonk (desire) and then getting a fanny gallop/your body getting horny (arousal).


Lots of men tend to be more spontaneous- they say men think about sex every 6 seconds so this makes sense! (more on this later)

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 (a sexual health guru) thinks lots of women tend to fit a different model called “responsive desire”:



Emily’s groundbreaking theory is that sexual desire happens AFTER/IN RESPONSE TO sexual behaviour or contact.

I’ll just let that sink in.

So, this is when you’re not that bothered about sex, then you start to have sex (we’ve all been there, no?) or be touched, and only THEN do you become aroused, and THEN move to the “hell, yeah!” (desire) mood soon after!


AROUSAL (being touched/stimulated)>DESIRE (want)>ORGASM (if we’re lucky, ey girls?)

This means your process might look a little more like this:

1. Arousal

Nagoski also 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

The great news is, desire in response to arousal is a totally normal way of being.

I repeat:

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For more on this, have a read of this blog post on understanding what happens during arousal.

Most (if not all) people will recognise points in their life when they have struggled with either arousal, desire, or orgasm. Or all three.

We might also switch between spontaneous and responsive sexual responses too depending on our well-being, stage of relationship or other factors. Its all completely normal!

I personally felt frustrated that I switched from impulsive to responsive as my relationship went on, and felt for a long time that there was something wrong with me/my sex drive/my relationship. However, reading this made me realise that it’s completely OK for this to be the way you are.


So, hopefully you can see that there are different types of sexual response, and yours might be “slow” rather than “low”.

That’s because much of what we know about sex drives is based around men’s response, not women’s. More on this later.

But wait- there’s more!


The vast majority of advice, tips and sites dedicated to improving your libido are about turning you on more.

This is called “putting your foot on the sexual accelerator” according to Emily Nagoski . This is things like sexy lingerie, eating aphrodisiacs, scheduling in sex etc.


However, she asks…

What if getting horny isn’t about putting our foot down on the accelerator as hard as we can, but rather helping us to ease off the brake?


So the key then is working out what’s stopping you from feeling like you want sex– aka the things that block you from feeling sexy, in the mood or attracted to your partner.

Because, if the brake is down as hard as it can be, no amount of accelerator pressing is going to get us off.

Are you with me?

Nagoski also thinks that women have much more sensitive brakes than men, so perhaps we’re more affected by stress, anxiety, body image issues and other factors.

See the sexual wellness wheel to find out more about the areas that can impact on your libido.



So, some onward reading for you to complete to get up to scratch on understanding your sex drive, and hopefully to present a bit of a different world view on your sex drive:

  1. First up, have a dig around on Emily Nagoski’s the Dirty Normal website OR buy her AMAZING book “Come as You Are”. Here’s the amazon link:  it’s about £9ish but you won’t regret it.

2. Have a peek at this AMAZING article and podcast on women and unhelpful “sex advice”. Particularly regarding the way that women are often made to feel bad or that something is wrong with them if they don’t want sex. And a brilliant critique of having “scheduled sex” to please your partner.

Annnnd, if you have time, it might be helpful to also check out some of my posts on:

  1. Why we have sex (when you don’t fancy having it, it’s helpful to remember why others do!)
  2. Why changing the language about a low sex drive is really important
  3. What happens when you become aroused in this post I wrote recently.
  4. This slow burner blog post– it might help you think in a slightly different way about responsive and impulsive desire types.
  5. The “two origins of desire” post- this kicks off our entry into the idea that women’s sexuality is created and not passive. We often wait for our partner to turn us on… but how about turning yourself on? Foreplay begins with you first and foremost 😉

We are desperately in need of a sexual revolution that is more sex positive and centres women smack bang in, well, the centre of learning about how their bodies work.

And I’ll do my best to help you get there.

Up Next: Knowing what turns you on….




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