Written by Mickie Woods
As a sex and dating coach, I’ve seen the issue of mismatched or opposing sex drives come up in many of my clients’ relationships. I’ve also seen how just a simple understanding of desire can alleviate this issue. Just as people have different love languages, people have different sex languages and the language of desire is an important one! Understanding desire as a whole is complex, but sexologists have simplified it into two main categories.
But first we must understand the difference between arousal and desire. Desire describes having an interest in sexual activity, while arousal is how excited or turned on you get when you anticipate sexual activity. There are two types of arousal: mental arousal and physical arousal. It’s possible that the two won't be aligned (which is called arousal non-concordance) but when both are present, desire comes shortly after and it’s either responsive or spontaneous.
Responsive desire happens when physical arousal occurs before mental arousal. The physical stimulation essentially sparks an excitement in the mind and therefore gets you going. An example of this is when your partner initiates sex and beforehand, you weren’t in the mood, but once you start engaging with them, you become ready. This could also look like all-day foreplay, being turned on by a long romance novel or movie, or any type of extended buildup that excites the mind. Roughly 5% of men and 30% of women experience responsive desire, meaning it’s going to take a lot more than a sexy thought for them to get all the way in the mood.
On the other hand, spontaneous desire happens suddenly and well, spontaneously. According to Dr. Emily Nagoski (researcher and author of Come As You Are), about 75% of men and 15% of women have spontaneous desire. An example of spontaneous desire is when you’re minding your business doing something completely unrelated to sex and you get the sudden urge. This is the type of desire often portrayed in movies in television where people just stumble into sexual scenarios. I like to think of this type as the primal desire as it feels almost instinctual and doesn’t care how relevant or irrelevant sex is at the time.
There are many things that affect whether someone’s desire is responsive or spontaneous, like hormonal balance. Men experience many fluctuations of hormones throughout any given day, while hormones in the female body fluctuate most notably on a 28-day cycle (the menstrual cycle). This fluctuation of hormones (mostly testosterone) in the body play a huge role in how we respond to sex, and because the male body has a ton of testosterone, it responds in greater magnitudes. Additionally, our hormonal balance or imbalance changes throughout our lives — with hormones in the male body peaking at puberty and hormones in the female body peaking in the 30s to 40s range. Essentially, throughout different periods of your menstrual cycle and different periods of your life, your desire can swap between responsive and spontaneous and this is completely normal!
Also, you can easily look back on your upbringing and history of sexual education to understand how you’ve developed your language of desire. If you grew up in a sex negative culture or you’ve experienced sexual shame in your life, you’re less likely to act on a spontaneous desire and more likely to feel more comfortable letting your partner initiate. Conversely, if your upbringing involved positive messages towards sex and encouragement to safely explore your sexuality, you’re more likely to feel comfortable leading in your sex life and acting on spontaneous desire.
Still, a number of people don’t fit in only one category or the other. Instead, they experience contextual sexual desire on a regular basis, which is when, in addition to your upbringing, your circumstances and environment impact your ability to feel sexual desire. This could look like losing all sexual desire due to stress in your life or taking SheOrgasms supplements and feeling ready all the time!
Personally, I like to believe that we aren’t fixed to a particular type of desire. While it is common for men to have spontaneous sexual desires and women to have responsive sexual desires, any gender can experience either forms of desire at any point in their life. When it comes to learning how your partner functions and navigating their desire in a relationship, it’s important to communicate, communicate, and communicate some more. When it comes to honoring your own sexual needs and desires, remember to unconditionally give yourself permission to experience pleasure, stay ready with SheOrgasms supplements, and minimize comparing yourself to others.