Understanding how your sex drive works

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

Understanding how your sex drive *actually* works is totally fascinating, and you’ll discover what you’ve always been taught about how our sex drives work is a lie!

This post is about the 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

Which means 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.

Which model do you follow?

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:

Image result for normal

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. 

So defining what a low sex drive is for a woman, when it becomes a problem (and for who!), can be really difficult.


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, which model of desire do you identify with? Have you ever switched from impulsive to responsive, or visa versa?

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