When you hear the word “desire” do you think of burning hot passions?
A low urgent feeling in your belly?
Do you think of Hollywood movies and two lovers tearing each other's clothes off, tucked behind the locked bathroom door of a party, because they couldn’t keep their hands off one another any longer?
And then, do you think, “can’t relate”? Not because you aren’t attracted to your partner, but because that urgent, spontaneous desire very rarely grips you. For some, that thought process can lead to feelings of shame or beginning to question whether there's something wrong with them.
At the end of the day, no two people are the same, but it is easy to get bogged down in what you feel like you should want or should feel, rather than tapping into what you actually do crave in the bedroom. Learning whether you have a spontaneous or responsive desire style, or where you sit along the spectrum of desire may help you to understand how you approach our bedroom activities and ensure you’re getting what you really want from your sex life.
What Are Spontaneous & Responsive Desire?
We all exist on a desire spectrum, according to Georgia Grace, sexologist and co-founder of NORMAL, a queer- and women-owner wellness brand. She explains that it’s doubtful any of us will be wholly and entirely spontaneous or responsive, adding that it’s important to know these terms so we can understand there’s no one way of experiencing desire.
“Within spontaneous desire, the desire comes out of nowhere,” she tells Refinery29. “Like how it might be in the early stages of a relationship,” people who tend to experience spontaneous desire often don’t need an external influence to get them in the mood.
With responsive desire, things are different. “Your body needs a stimulus to bring sex to the front of the mind — whether it be porn, your partner kissing your neck, or even beginning the act of sex itself,” says Grace.
She explains that responsive desire is actually the most common way for people to experience desire, but between bodice-ripping romance novels and the way sex is often spoken about in popular culture, it “doesn’t get the airtime it deserves”.
If you exist on the Internet, you’re probably being fed a lot of content that references spontaneous jumping of bones, and not a lot of slow-building desire, foreplay or being introduced to the idea that many people need extra help or motivation to get in the mood for sex.
In fact, the stereotype that often plays out across our screens is a scenario featuring a long-term relationship, where amorous advances are being knocked back by one partner who's “not in the mood”. When this is so often displayed as the tell-tale sign of a relationship being dead in the water, it’s unsurprising that many of us might feel the pressure to be spontaneously crackling with desire at all times and find ourselves wondering why we can’t just flick a switch and be instantly in the mood.
It’s also worth considering how these different desire styles are often presented as gendered. Whilst there’s not yet a scientific measurement for desire, Emily Nagoski, author of Come as You Are: The Surprising New Science That Will Transform Your Sex Life, cites research that indicates responsive desire is the primary desire style for about 30% of women. In an article about the concepts of desire, Nagoski also highlights how spontaneous desire is so actively pushed as the “norm” in society, when, in reality, many people will only feel desire after first experiencing pleasure (i.e. responsive desire). That means, you are not broken or wrong for not experiencing spontaneous desire, and your level of desire is not an indication of sexual wellbeing.
How Can You Navigate Differing Desire Styles In A Relationship?
Let’s return to the Hollywood movie scene we mentioned above. What if, after one party says they’re not in the mood, there was an open conversation between both parties about what could be done to help them get into the mood — perhaps not in that moment, but moving forward? What if not being in the mood wasn’t treated as an issue, but rather, something that’s actually extremely normal?
Having “desire discrepancies”, as Grace puts it, is not an uncommon phenomenon within a relationship. Grace often sees couples in sessions who have differing desire styles, i.e. where one person leans more towards spontaneous desire and the other is more responsive.
If this is something you might be experiencing, Grace suggests that rather than framing it as one person having a higher or lower libido than their partner or partners, she works to help them understand that they are just experiencing desire differently.
Perhaps the responsive partner isn’t getting enough stimulus to become aroused enough for sex, and in these cases, Grace works with them to examine what she refers to as their “brakes” and “accelerators”.
Some people can be extremely sensitive to “brakes”, which are those triggers that make us feel as if sex isn’t a good idea right now and have us finding reasons to not be aroused. They can be anything from feeling touch-fatigued, stressed, worried or even wider issues of social and cultural stresses and anxieties. Meanwhile, “accelerators” are the triggers that turn you on and can be a specific scent, setting, or a sexual act.
Grace says the key is working on becoming more aware of your brakes and accelerators and managing them, trying as best you can to remove brakes and amplify accelerators.
But the important thing is recognising that there is no right or wrong way to feel desire. We don’t need to be always raring to go. But if we are always in the mood? That’s fine too.
The first step is figuring out how you personally experience desire, and then doing what works for you and your relationship.