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RSVP Needed: Do You Have Responsive Desire?

Tell me if this sounds familiar: “It’s not that I don’t like sex, or don’t want to have it at all. It just takes me a while to get there.”

We get sold a lot of lies about sexuality and how we “should” be sexual, and one of the more harmful ones is the idea that being sexually “normal” means being instantly aroused at the thought of getting it on. The truth is, we all need the right circumstances and stimuli to be all-systems-go– it’s just that those things are very different for different people.

So let’s talk about responsive vs. spontaneous desire.

Spontaneous desire isn’t necessarily all that spontaneous at all– it just means that the person can feel turned on in a lot of circumstances and/or with very little stimuli. That’s the stereotype of the cisman who sees an erotic image (or just an attractive human strolling by) and gets immediately hard. People who get aroused that easily do exist, and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that kind of desire. What’s wrong is that spontaneous desire is seen as the “right” or better way to be sexual– probably because it IS more common in cismen, so it’s part of our “male as default normal” social conditioning.

Responsive desire, on the other hand, means that you need a few stars to align before you start to feel down for sexytimes. Maybe you need a relaxed atmosphere, or to be showered and wearing something you feel sexy in. Maybe you need a few hours of flirty sexting over the course of the day, or some no-pressure cuddling and kissing. And you know what? If that’s you, there’s ALSO absolutely nothing wrong with that!

Many people of all genders are wired for responsive desire. It’s thought to be more common in ciswomen than cismen, but that doesn’t necessarily take into account the ways in which AFAB folks are socialized to repress and control their sexuality or the ways in which AMAB folks are pressured to be hypersexual all the time. Regardless, it IS very common– but also very misunderstood.

First things first: What’s really going on?

Because being “not sexual enough” (whatever that means) is so stigmatized in our culture, lots of people suffer deeply anytime they don’t feel sexy on the reg. It gets even worse when their partner is more of a spontaneous desire type who wants more sex than they do. For many of those folks, learning the term “responsive desire” can be an absolute game-changer.

However, there are also other reasons that you might be feeling low desire these days, so let’s take a look at them and see whether you can rule them out:

  • An excessively stressful or tiring time can simply leave you too worn out for sex
  • You might be asexual (which is simply an orientation and not something you need to change)
  • If you don’t have a regular partner, you might be demisexual and need an emotional connection before you feel a sexual spark
  • You could be on a medication with sexual side effects– whether you decide to change that medication or not is entirely up to you and how important sex is to you vs. the benefit you get from that medication
  • Depression can change your desire for sex (JoEllen Notte’s wonderful book The Monster Under the Bed is about exactly this)
  • Ordinary fluctuations in your relationship might be having an effect– for example, perhaps your early, New Relationship Energy phase is ending and you’re settling into a cozier dynamic
  • Hormonal or medical conditions like hypothyroidism can affect your desire for sex
  • Coping with sexual shame or trauma (even if it happened long ago) can take sex off the table for some folks

Of course, it’s also possible for one or more of these things to be going on AND for you to be a responsive desire type. But if you’ve read this article and explored a more responsive approach to sex, and you’re still not feeling it, it’s worth considering whether there are other factors at play.

Brakes & accelerator theory

Renowned sexologist Emily Nagoski, Ph.D., didn’t come up with the brakes and accelerator theory of sexual desire, but her book Come As You Are is one of the best and most accessible explorations of it. (She also discusses responsive desire at length.) While it’s aimed at ciswomen, I think just about anyone can take a lot away from reading it.

The basic idea behind the brakes and accelerator model, more formally known as the Dual Control Model developed by Erick Janssen and John Bancroft at the Kinsey Institute, is that there are two forces at play in sexual desire. Your “accelerators” are anything that get you ready for sex; your “brakes” are anything that dampen your desire.

Everyone’s accelerators and brakes are their own unique mix. And what’s an accelerator for one could be brakes for another– for example, images of rough sex, or the possibility of being seen or heard during sex. It doesn’t matter so much what they are, as that you’re able to discover what they are and use that information to get you in the sexy headspace you want.

The idea is that, in order to feel sexual, you try to push the accelerator and let up on the brakes. So if your brakes include “feeling anxious about the kids walking in” and your accelerators include “having a long candlelit bath”, then you might plan for someone to take the kids, or to spend a weekend at a hotel with a great big soaking tub.

It’s also important to know that your brakes and accelerators can get pushed at the same time, which is why it can be hard to feel ready for sex even if your favorite sexy stimuli are on hand.

What does this mean for responsive vs. spontaneous desire? It means that spontaneous people have fewer or less sensitive brakes and/or more or more sensitive accelerators, while responsive people have more or more sensitive brakes and/or fewer or less sensitive accelerators.

Figuring this out for yourself (ideally, with your partner/s if you have any) is a huge first step towards understanding and honoring your responsive desire. Emily Nagoski has a worksheet up that can give you a place to start.

What responsive desire DOESN’T mean

Here’s a few unhelpful beliefs you might have encountered that are absolutely not true about having responsive desire:

  • You’re “broken”
  • You’re frigid
  • You’re not really sexual/not sexual enough
  • You need to work on boosting your sex drive*
  • You’re sexually repressed or prudish
  • You don’t love your partner
  • You aren’t attracted to your partner
  • You’re secretly a different sexual orientation

I know it’s hard to kick out the brain weasels, but try to remember that responsive desire doesn’t mean you’re any of these things!

*A word about the term “sex drive”: Sexologists have shown that sexuality is not in fact a drive like hunger or thirst, and that treating it as one creates a dangerous atmosphere of entitlement and hysteria. Rather, it’s a desire. You can read more about the debunking of the “sex drive” as part of unlearning these harmful beliefs about responsive desire.

So I’m a responsive desire person…what now?

How do you put all this into action to have the kind of sex life you want?

First, work on accepting that responsive desire is common, normal, and not something you need to work on or change. If you have one or more partners, talk to them about it and show them this post to help them understand where you’re coming from.

Second, spend some time reading more about brakes and accelerators and discovering what yours are– and what you can do to ease up on the brakes while hitting the accelerator.

Third, but kind of at the same time as the second step, give yourself the chance to explore intimacy and connection without the pressure of sex or orgasm. (See our post about de-centering orgasm for help with this.) If you’re having sex solo and it’s been difficult to enjoy it or feel inspired to do it, try indulging some of your accelerators without pressuring yourself to get off. 

If you have a partner or more than one, plan times together to enjoy touching, cuddling, kissing, massaging, or other kinds of intimate contact without any expectation of sex on either of your parts. Responsive desire folks often feel arousal-crushing anxiety or pressure when they feel that contact with their partner must lead to sex.

During those self-love or partnered times, if you feel like you’re getting turned on and want to shift into sex, go for it! That’s clearly the kind of space-setting you need for sex. But your partner should know that expectation still has to stay off the table in the future and that you still have to feel comfortable saying “not tonight” in order for you to get to that yes.

Since getting into the right headspace isn’t as spontaneous for you, lots of juicy lead up can help. Sexting each other, teasing each other, sharing fantasies hours or even days before you have sex, taking time to relax or groom, sharing a sensual meal, listening to the music that puts you in your groove– starting early and creating a slow burn can make a huge difference.

Fourth, try sharing new or suspected accelerators to give you more options. Maybe there’s something you’ve wanted to try– a new position, a bit of kink, a style of lingerie– that would get you going, or a circumstance you haven’t had that you think might help you get in the mood– being playful or romantic together, planning for morning sex, hearing your partner verbally admire your body.

Finally, practice asking for what you want! It’s totally okay to want to incorporate a vibrator into partnered play, or to say that you’re too tired at bedtime to start getting sexy then, or that you need sweet nothings whispered or some hot dirty talk to get you going. Even if your partner has the most spontaneous of desire and is raring to go the moment you glance at them flirty, you have a right to negotiate for the things you need in order to feel aroused. For many partners with mixed desire styles, it can even turn out to be incredibly hot to take things at the responsive partner’s pace.

When you understand responsive desire and what it means for your sexuality, you can find yourself shifting from frustration, worry, and tension to peace, pleasure, and joyful connection. Don’t lose hope– it really is possible!

Do you need to do a deeper dive into learning about your sexuality, or do you need more help working through issues in your sex life? Check out one of our sexuality classes or contact us for services that include sex therapy and sex coaching for couples/moresomes or individuals.

Rebecca Rose Vassy is a sexuality and relationship educator and coach with The Pincus Center, specializing in polyamory, queer identity, and kink.

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