How does my sex drive work?

Knowing more about how desire works is the first thing to learn before you can consider what’s holding you back.

It’s really fascinating, and you’ll discover that what you’ve always been taught or assumed about how and when we want sex is a lie- knowledge really is power!

So buckle up and I’ll give you the 101 on two different models for understanding your sex drive, also known as your “sexual response system”.


Your Sexual Response System:

Sexual health professionals agree that roughly your sexual response system 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….

The most well known model of sexual desire goes like this…

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.

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, more recently Author Emily Nagoksi published a book called “Come As You Are” (*affiliate link*) which suggests lots of women don’t fit into this model.

Instead, they have what she called “responsive desire”:

Emily’s groundbreaking theory is that sexual desire happens ONLY after or in response to sexual stimulation. 

So, this is when you start to have sex or be touched, become aroused, and ONLY THEN move to the “hell, yeah!” (desire) mood soon after!

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

1. Arousal

If you experience desire in a responsive way its easy to feel like you have a low sex drive because we’re given the message that an urge to have sex will magically appear. 

It’s strange to think that you might need to be physically aroused before sex seems appealing! However, there’s nothing wrong with you if you don’t really think about sex much, or you don’t fancy it…. until you’ve got going.

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 DesireResponsive 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

Vanessa Marin, a well known and brilliant sex therapist, has a great easy-to-read guide called “Whats Your Sex Drive Type” which explains these two types of desire really well, and details some tips about what to do if you are responsive or impulsive.

Why does this matter?

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 impulsive and responsive sexual responses too, depending on what stage of the relationship we’re in, or what our state of mind is.

The great news is, both models are totally normal.

I repeat:


However, the classic model has had the most recognition over the years because much of what we know about sex drives is based around how men respond to sex, not women. 

And this matters because SO many women are incorrectly assuming there is something wrong with them if they’re not experiencing “instant desire” before they have sex. And they or their partners label their sex drives as problematic, rather than simply using a different approach to sex that involves understanding that their desire usually arises as a result of touch, play and stimulation rather than before it.

With this different perspective on libido, women are instead not broken, irreparable or empty but rather fully functioning, whole and beautifully sexual beings whose bodies reject the narratives around sex that we’ve always been told!

Sadly we’re not given this information during sex education- we’re only given one story about sex and desire, and if we don’t fit into this we “aren’t normal”. So learning about our sex drives is a powerful and revolutionary act because we can then understand our bodies, needs and desires better in order to really know who we truly are and what we want sexually.

You can read more here on why identifying a low libido in women is an issue.


However, there’s more to our sex drives than just these two types of sexual response

Scientists believe that we also have a “sexual accelerator and a brake” which you can read more about here.

Learning about your sex drive and understanding what’s “normal” is a really important part of sex education that we’re not often told. And without this fundamental information, it can be really tough to even know where to start when your sex drive fades!

So, do you experience impulsive or responsive desire? Let me know in the comments below!

Once you’ve understood more about your sex drive, moving on to understanding why your sex drive is low is the next fundamental step in pursing your desire. Thanks for reading 🙂

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