Yesterday I wrote about arousal non-concordance and how sometimes our body’s arousal doesn’t match up with our mind’s arousal. How it can be that your mind might want sex, but your body isn’t ready. Or the opposite can happen. Unfortunately, this confuses a lot of women about their own bodies (and husbands about their wives’). I mean, how do you know when you’re aroused if you can’t trust your body to tell you. Or if you can’t trust your mind to accurately report on your body. Unfortunately society has taught us that in order for a woman to want sex, she should be both mentally and physically aroused. But, as I shared yesterday, there is only about a 10% overlap between mental and physical arousal. So, many wives think they’re never aroused, and so they think they don’t want sex, and so they reject their husbands.
The problem is, a lot of them don’t know about another model out there: that of responsive vs spontaneous desire. I’ve written about this in passing numerous times (sometimes I’ve called it reactive and proactive desire), but I haven’t devoted an entire post to it yet, so here we go.
The study of sexuality has had a difficult history. Back in the dark ages, female sexuality was limited to reproduction. For women to be sexual was considered shameful, only redeemed by their ability to bear children. It’s in the era that they named women’s external genitals the ‘pudenda’, which is Latin for ‘shame’. The male external genitals, by contrast are was named either after a bull, or a whale (the etymology is unclear). The underlying principle was this: men’s sexuality is powerful and women’s sexuality is shameful.
Over the years, we’ve slowly become more willing to discuss the differences between male and female sexuality, but this same foundation still largely exists. Men’s sexuality is considered normative, and women’s sexuality is considered … less than ideal. For example, most of us have heard the analogy of women being like crock pots (slow cookers) and men being like microwave ovens. Of course, there’s some truth to it, or it wouldn’t be so popular. Women tend to take a long time to warm up, but they stay aroused for a long time. Men, on the other hand, can heat up quickly, but when they stop … they cool down quickly too. But, this analogy is still based on the same paradigm, that male and female sexuality are inherently the same. It doesn’t explain the whole story. In fact, it ignores a huge part of it.
Men and women often have very different arousal patterns. Men tend to have spontaneous desire and women tend to have more responsive desire. Two very different types of desire. Of course, it’s not quite as clear cut as that. Men can be responsively aroused and women can be spontaneously aroused, and most of us have both to varying degrees. But, in general and for the majority of men, spontaneous desire happens more frequently, and in general and for the majority of women, spontaneous desire happens more infrequently.
Spontaneous desire looks like this: You’re walking down the road and suddenly think “Wow, I would love to have sex right now.” Or, you’re just sitting in a chair and suddenly you get an erection. This of course is recognized by your brain and you think “Wow, I’d love to put this erection to use right now.” I’ve seen things that say men think about sex every 7 seconds (which seems a bit much) to a few times a day (which seems too little), and often if we’re thinking about sex … we want sex.
Ask a group of women how often they just suddenly want sex out of the blue, and you’re more likely to get answers that range from once a week to once a decade. Of course, there are some who have spontaneous desire pop up more often, and there’s nothing wrong with that. It’s just not what the average woman experiences.
Unfortunately, our society has been trying to tell us that spontaneous desire is not only the norm for both men and women, but that it’s the proper pattern for arousal. In our movies somehow the lead couple manage to spontaneously want sex at the same time. They just suddenly are overcome with a desire to have sex. What are the chances of that in real life? Slim to none I’d say. It completely ignores responsive desire as a mode.
Responsive desire work the opposite and it looks like this. You aren’t aroused at all, but then your husband starts rubbing your back, or stroking your hair, or kissing you and you start to think “Hmm, that feels good…I might be up for some sex”. Or maybe it’s Friday night and you “always” have sex Friday night. You know, it’s not scheduled … but it’s expected. So you allow your husband to undress you and start kissing you and you’re thinking “Well, I’ll do this for him”. You’re not really aroused and so, with the help of lube, sex begins and then you start feeling something. Then you start to think “Oh, wow, that’s starting to feel good. Maybe I do want this….oh yeah, I definitely want this.” That’s responsive desire.
Luckily, we figured this out in our marriage a few years ago, and so my wife will sometimes say “let’s just get started, and I’ll catch up”, because she knows that her arousal patterns is almost always responsive. I think she’s only spontaneously wanted sex three times in our marriage, and even those are suspect (TTC).
If you don’t know about responsive desire then your sex drive can be confusing
Now, if you’re a wife and you don’t know anything about responsive desire, and you’ve been listening to our culture all your life (how can you not), then you probably believe that sex should only happen when you’re already aroused. I can’t tell you how many men have written me with the phrase “when the planets align” when describing their wife’s willingness to have sex. Because in order for their wife to believe she wants to have sex these things need to happen:
- She needs to spontaneously have a desire at the same time he does
- Both her physiological arousal and her psychological arousal need to be in sync (see arousal non-concordance)
- The triggers of our sexual excitation system need to outweigh the triggers of her sexual inhibition system (I’ll write on that in a post soon, I promise)
Frankly, the planets have a better chance of aligning. More often, these types of wives just give in and give duty sex because they feel they are obligated to. And guess what happens? Turns out they enjoy it a lot of the time! Most of them have orgasms, and think, or even say, in the moment “Why don’t we do this more often?” But, then the next time her husband wants sex … well, they fall back on their culturally influenced system of “am I in the mood for sex?” This confuses a lot of men, because they see their wife enjoying sex, having orgasms, maybe even saying they want to do it more often … but it doesn’t ever change. They do everything that society tells them they should do to have more sex. They help with dishes, they make sure their wife enjoys herself during sex, they start with a massage, they go through every checklist. But the problem is that they’re working against a flawed model. The problem isn’t that they aren’t doing enough in most cases. The problem is that their wife is thinking she needs to be aroused before any sexual contact begins.
When the reality is that the data shows that only about 15% of women find they have exclusively have spontaneous desire whereas 75% of men do. On the other side of the spectrum, about 30% of women and 5% of men will never experience spontaneous desire (I want to run my own survey on this to confirm). This can cause some serious confusion and problems if you are expecting all desire to be spontaneous and the bulk of women experience responsive desire more often than spontaneous.
How does this help us?
So, how do you solve this? Well, we need to realize that the problem isn’t the difference in modalities. The problem is the expectation of everyone having spontaneous desire. By knowing about the two different arousal types (if you’ve read this, then you’ve done that) you now become more aware that people are different and those differences can be navigated. They don’t need to be changed. Second, share it with your spouse, so they can understand as well. Lastly, we need to throw out this idea that we should only have sex if we’re aroused. In fact, we should change the word “desire” to “willingness” in a lot of our communications about sex, because that more accurately depicts the attitude and disposition needed. More on that tomorrow.
So, let me know in the comments. Is this news to you? Is this something you knew about? Does it change how you approach sex? Will it spark a discussion in your marriage?
22 thoughts on “Responsive vs spontaneous desire”
This confirms why I have a sex starved marriage. If my wife does not have the desire, sex does not happen.
Maybe you should send it to her. I can remove your comment if that makes it easier.
Thank you! I think this explains my whole confusion over what a libido is. I’ve had friends tell me it must be nice to have a high drive like me. The thing is, I don’t. I have NO drive. If I waited until I felt arousal or felt like having sex, I never would. But for some reason I’ve always understood this concept that my body will catch up, so I choose to have sex and have sex regularly.
I wonder if some of the confusion could be caused because of the way our bodies responded when dating or early in marriage. While hubby and I did not have sex before marriage, we fooled around plenty in other ways and I remember how my body *hungered* for him when we were apart. Perhaps we mistakenly think that this is how it’s supposed to be and in fact *has* to be, not knowing that this lasts only as long as the infatuation stage and then wears off… And that is OKAY. Normal, in fact. To be expected.
My wife has decided to take care of me sexually even though she does not want to engage totally all the time herself. I do not mind, in fact I love it She says she loves it. The times she wants me to take care of her sexually is about 1 in 10. I am willing, but she pulls away or puts up a hand. So, I just enjoy whatever she wants to do to me. I do not feel bad, I do not think of it as “duty sex” (whatever that is, I don’t like the term. To me any kind of sex is good between husband and wife), I think my wife is responsive most of the time, but if she never gets to that level, it does not stop us from engaging sexually to a great degree. She has made a decision to engage sexually, so we just do it. It is great for me and her and our marriage.
Wrong information. Spontaneous or responsive arousal is not gender specific. Anyone can be both or one or the other. Get your facts straight. Lol.
… read the post. I said that.
I have spontaneous arousal…often. I can be sitting at my desk at work and all of a sudden wish my husband was there so I can enjoy him. I’ll wake up at 2am and wake him up because I want it. Of course responsive arousal is a given but it isn’t my primary mode. I will initiate sex just as often as my husband. We will be married 15 years in June and our sex life has only gotten better. I think the idea behind the study is good but things like women being raised in a world that condemns their enjoyment of sex early on taints their ability to just “want” it. I also believe that many men might think too much of their own ability in bed. I’ve spoken to many women who see sex as a chore with their spouse. Not because they don’t love them or find them attractive but because they simply don’t enjoy it with them and yet they enjoy masturbating. This means they don’t know how to work their bodies in actual sex and their spouse might not really know what pleases their wife. That takes communication while in the act. That’s my opinion anyways.
Thank you so much, this is really helpful and I’m going to show it to my husband. All men need to be taught this!
I think all women need to be taught this.
I will preface this comment by saying that my husband and I are not religious and were both sexually active before we met in our 20’s, over 8 years ago.
I have a mostly responsive sex drive now but when my husband and I were first together, I was very much an equal initiator. Now, I’m working on dealing with the trauma, after realization that I was sexually assaulted as a teen, and my high sex drive and level of sexual activity before we met was likely due to my subconscious overcompensating for that assault – I was “in control of my sex life” and having sex whenever and with whomever I wanted. Knowing how into sex I was when we met, and how after a couple of years I just had what looked like no desire for him, it created a wedge between us because he took it as me not being attracted to him sexually anymore, and not for the side effect of trauma that it was later found to be. (I will say here, that in a previous long-term relationship I had the same timeline sexually, but lacked the awareness to question it.)
I think that in addition to how a woman’s sexuality can still be viewed as shameful in our society instead of normal, we should also take into consideration the affect of unwanted sexual attention and/or assault many women experience at very young ages, and how that subconsciously affects our sex drive as adults in a loving, consenting sexual relationship.
Yeah, that’s a good point. They say that about 1/3rd or more of women have been sexually abused as some point? It’s a serious concern.
Unfortunately, one I have no experience or training with, so I can’t speak much to it, but it’s good to remember that it can be a factor.
Right now it’s come out if you look at new statistics 80% of women have been sexually harassed in some form or another. (Npr has an article I think)
I’ve had times in my life when I felt safe and secure and spontaneous described me
After being gang raped and having ptsd it’s hard beyond my own masturbation to want sex and my husband is too scared to trigger me. Super hard situation. Anxiety is a killer
Nice write up. It has been an issue in my marriage mainly because my wife and I have mostly responsive desire. So we keep waiting on the other to initiate, and nothing happens. We tried scheduling the sex, sadly, if felt like a chore or a duty. Not exciting. Is there a solution when a couple both have mostly responsive desire?
I’m curious what you did for scheduling.
If both are responsive, I would probably suggest initiating with pre-cursors instead of sex itself. For example, offer a full-body massage. They get to feel relaxed and touched and you get to feel their body. That might be a good way to warm you both up to a point where your responsive desire kicks in.
This is unfortunate if a spontaneous person wants to feel desired by a responsive one, if feeling desired means not being obliged to elicit the response, but instead, to have it arise because of, you know, desire.
I agree, it is unfortunate if their viewpoint is that they only feel desired if it’s not a response.
This seems very much like an attempt to place a scientific explanation on a marital partner’s, the responsive partner per-se, inability to work harder at something that is important to their spouse.
Would you allow this same logic to be applied to other areas of marital intimacy? Consider the case of a husband who is rarely tender to his wife. His wife has regularly expressed to him her emotional need for affirmation and intimate conversation. Despite this he often ignores her when he gets home from work. He rarely says “I love you”, but will reciprocate “I love you too”. He will engage emotionally and be tender only if she reminds him its important, but then a period of time goes by and she reminds him again.
Would you attribute this behavior to him having responsive tenderness? Would you advise his wife that’s just his nature and she’ll have to accept he is responsive when it comes to expressing tenderness and affection?
It depends which side I’m talking to.
If I’m talking to the wife, then yes, I’ve definitely said things like that. Actually, I’m going to say it again in the next podcast. There’s a question from a wife who’s married to someone with Asperger’s Syndrome. That part of his brain simply does not spontaneously think the way a neurotypical brain does. There are no drugs, surgery or training that can fix that.
Now, if I’m talking to the husband, I’ll try to coach them through ways to either mitigate their own difficulties or put systems in place to help approximate a neuro-typical behaviour.
The alternative that you’re proposing is to tell the responsive partner that they’re being selfish and need to simply do better. For many of these people, they want to improve, but don’t know how. Their brains just aren’t configured that way. Sometimes they’re in tears about it, feeling broken, inadequate and stressed which lowers their drive even more. A good sex life seems out of reach, so they shut down.
I propose they learn about responsive desire. Once they learn about responsive desire, they realize they’re not broken, just different. They work to find ways to leverage responsive desire rather than fight it. Their stress lowers, which helps improve their drive. And they don’t feel inadequate, so a fulfilling sex life feels attainable to them, and so they try to reach it.
So, yeah, I’m going to go with the scientific explanation that promotes unconditionally loving relationships and has a better chance of improving their intimacy rather than trying to brow-beat people into submission out of fear that their spouse will leave if they don’t.
Very well-written response (pun intended) to Lewis regarding your “scientific explanation” of disparities in people’s sexual desires, Jay Dee.
In fact, it has inspired me to read more of your work. It’s all good 👍 Keep it up… (no pun intended😋)
Glad you enjoyed it. I hope you find something edifying on the rest of the blog/podcast that can help you in your marriage.
I wish you’d discuss more the “he has to earn/work for it” syndrom that is so prevelent. It goes with the “when the planets align” theory but is more intentional and is more quickly excused.