Updated: Jan 30
The Art of Reclaiming Sexual Desire, Part 1: Understanding Responsive Desire
Jane Steckbeck, Sexologist and Certified Sex Coach
“To regain our zest for sex we first have to listen to ourselves, present, past and future. Then we have to understand which knobs we have turned off for the sake of survival, or for propriety, which may be another level of survival, or because we simply didn’t know any other way.” Gina Odgen, PhD., Women Who Love Sex: Ordinary Women Describe Their Paths to Pleasure, Intimacy and Ecstasy.
In my coaching practice and my various classes, I’ve worked with hundreds of women and a few men that report feeling very little, if any, sexual desire. Most feel broken or shamed, some simply puzzled.
As usual, it isn’t my clients or workshop participants that are broken: rather, it is a culture that has it all wrong about the realities of desire. In our culture, we’re taught that sex is “natural,” and should come easily. Proponents of this belief point to what happens when two people meet and are highly attracted to one another: they experience limerence, or that heady “falling in love,” “on Cloud 9” feeling. During limerence, we are in an all-consuming state of mind in which we’re hyper-focused on this new person. Sex feels utterly spontaneous, but studies reveal that there are four factors that result in a predictable flood of desire:
1. We are inundated with a biochemical stew that produces powerful feelings:
Dopamine creates feelings of dependency, urgency and hyper-focus. Norepinephrine produces exhilaration and boundless energy that can lead to all-night lovemaking sessions; serotonin decreases, causing new lovers to endlessly obsess about their new love interest and oxytocin enhances our feelings of bonding. Testosterone may also increase for both men and women, further sparking sexual desire.
2. We make behavioral changes that build sexual anticipation:
As a result of biochemical stew, we alter our behavior. We plan our sexual encounters down to the smallest of details: what scent we’ll wear, which candles we’ll light, our clothing, and the romantic location where we’ll meet, to name a few. We take better care of ourselves. We show off our best communication skills, listening attentively for hours and sharing about our lives with startling openness. We do fun things together and delight in pleasing our lovers with little surprises. Seen in this light, there isn’t much spontaneity about it: we carefully plan and orchestrate our desire when in limerence.
3. We experience anxiety, which intensifies sexual feelings:
Anxiety encourages us to ruminate: “I can’t believe I said that…will he/she still like me?” Or, “Does he like me as much as I like him?” Or, “He hasn’t responded to my last text (and it’s been 30 minutes!!!!).” These ruminations heighten urgency intensify feelings of desire.
4. Obstacles arise which further intensifies our desire:
According to sexologist Jack Morin, in his book, The Erotic Mind, obstacles, internal or external, are an integral part of sexual attraction. An internal obstacle could be the classic fear, “Am I good enough for this person?” An external obstacle could be that a partner is married or lives in a distant city.
From this heady mixture comes the mistaken belief that sex is easy and desire is and should be “spontaneous” all the time, meaning that we should feel the urge to have sex based on genital cues and activated hormones. For many people, outside the limited arena of limerence, that just isn’t what happens.
Unfortunately, when limerence wears off, many people assume there’s a problem either with them or the relationship. So, what can couples do to maintain healthy desire levels even in long-term relationships?
Recognize that many women and some men experience responsive desire. Have you ever found yourself thinking, “I enjoy sex once I get started. I just don’t have much interest in getting started!” That’s the underpinnings of responsive desire: it’s the willingness to generate sexual desire by intentionally seeking erotic stimuli. Said another way: it is the conscious choice to be sexual, to participate in activities to generate arousal with desire following close behind. With our cultural messaging about spontaneous desire, we believe that desire precedes arousal when in fact, arousal precedes desire for many.
So, where does this leave the many for whom desire does not come easily once limerence subsides? And what can people do to get over barriers (more cultural and internal messaging) to cultivating healthy responsive desire?
In my next blog and newsletter, I’ll further explore cultural training that makes us resistant to being intentional about sex and ways to charge your erotic life. Join me—it will be worth the read!