Responsive vs. Spontaneous desire
When you think of “desire” what is the first thing you envision? Take a moment to reflect on the sexual tension riddled cultural messaging we’ve received from movies, music, art, and yes, even those steamy fanfiction reads. They all have something in common when it comes to getting in the mood – it happens instantly and passionately. And yeah, it does happen that way sometimes, when we are so sexually charged that lust overrides then it’s wham and bam, but there are many of us who need a little more stoking of that fire called desire. Generally, sexual desire has been approached in absolute terms: it's either there or it's not, it’s either high or it’s low. This approach to sexual desire can seem straightforward, but it misses the whole picture.
In fact, sexual desire, or commonly referred to as libido, can be spontaneous, responsive, or a mix of the two. It also fluctuates and changes through these different types over time and in different contexts. Your age, physical, mental, and emotional health as well as your relationships and sexual beliefs can all impact how you experience sexual desire. Learning more about it now can help you live the sex life of your dreams when (not if) your sexual desire changes in the future!
Spontaneous desire is a spark — or eruption — of interest in sex that seems to come out of thin air. We can understand it as a readiness to engage in sex in any context, without needing much stimulation. It’s when the mental interest in sex arises before there’s any external stimulus for it. For instance, simply seeing your clothed partner as you go about your day and wanting to have sex with them is spontaneous desire. Many people do experience this type of desire at some point in their lives, particularly at the beginning of a relationship.
This kind of desire is usually portrayed in the media. Think back to the last movie or television show you watched with a sex scene. Chances are that it involved two people suddenly exploding with lust and having sex almost immediately. Media portrays sexual desire just like this – spontaneous, always on the boil and good to go. However, it's a bit more complicated than that in real life.
Responsive Sexual Desire
On the other hand, responsive sexual desire is the growing interest in sex that occurs in reaction to sexual stimuli. Often, responsive desire is sparked by touch, physical closeness, or sexual contact. It’s when mental interest in sex comes after external stimulus. Your own awareness of responsive desire can impact your sex life in positive ways. This knowledge helps to remind you that sometimes, you might be mentally neutral about having sex, and it's still worth inviting your partner to engage sexually with you anyway. What is it like to leave room for the possibility of sex? What is it like to, for example, sext or share a little dirty talk before worrying about whether you want to follow through? By giving yourself the opportunity to respond to sexual stimuli, you can open yourself up to more frequent sexual experiences.If you previously experienced more spontaneous desire, a shift experiencing more responsive desire can sometimes feel like something is wrong. Yet shifts in sexual desire are completely normal. Sexual desire ebbs and flows with life. Just because you might want less sex or experience responsive desire doesn't mean that something is wrong with you, with your partner, or with your relationship.
Gender and Desire
Research does note that while men and women are both capable of feeling spontaneous and responsive desire, men skew more stable in their ability to feel spontaneous desire, while women fluctuate in this sphere. Biological elements like pregnancy, ovulation, or being postpartum can all impact the ability to have a knee-jerk spontaneous desire for sex as can your relationship. For example, some people report that they initially experienced spontaneous desire but that as their relationship progressed, this transitioned to being more responsible. This doesn't mean that anything is wrong with you or your relationship! All forms of sexual desire are normal and valid.
Socialized elements may also explain the divide, one being the gender norm of men typically being the pursuers. And even if you are a woman who has a high libido and a natural-leaning sense of spontaneous desire, cultural norms may still shape how you act upon it, which in turn may shape your perception of it. Spontaneous desire has long been deemed as “male” and responsive desire as “female.” But as with most labels, we now know it’s much more nuanced and complex than that. The reality is that both types of desire are healthy and normal for men and women, and both can lead to a fulfilling sex life. The key to navigating differences in sex drives is to understand your own experience of desire, and to communicate that with your partner.
How to Fuel Your Responsive Desire
Responsive desire is more about creating the space for the want to be close and physically intimate, rather than expecting the desire for sex to smack you over the head. One way to think of the difference is that spontaneous desire is more like a gas fireplace and you can flip the switch at any time to get the flame going strong. Responsive desire is more like a wood fireplace that takes time to set up and to fuel the flame.
You need to take similar steps to activate your desire as you do while attending the gym. Plan your intentional intimacy time and do what you need to do to help with your openness to be there and to connect. Making sure you feel connected to your partner throughout the day using love languages is also important to creating a willingness to connect. Once you set the time aside and prepare for that time, then you both can pick what pleasure pie piece(s) you want to enjoy knowing that intimacy doesn’t have to look a certain way because that adds pressure and pressure moves you away from the openness to connect. Once you get moving and grooving then you have created the space for your desire to grow in your mind. And this doesn’t mean one or five minutes. Women’s desire takes time at least 15-30 minutes before physical arousal and sexual desire really climbs.
And guess what, if you have done everything you can to show up to intimacy with as much openness to connect as you can and you are still not open for your intentional intimacy time, or you start getting the touches that could help but your mind just isn’t on board, you can totally raincheck for a different time or activity. Just like the gym, you may have done everything you can to show up and it’s just not going to happen, or you show up and after 15 minutes your mind just isn’t hopping on board. That’s OK! You are not obligated to continue.
Once you attend to the elements needed to fuel the flame of your responsive desire, what tends to happen over time is there is more space for spontaneous desire to occur. Again like the gym, to start you may need to get into the routine but then once you're going and see the benefits your spontaneous desire starts to emerge more.