Sex drive. Libido. Lust. Whatever you call it, sexual desire is a lot more complicated than you might think. In this week’s Body Language, we break down exactly how sexual desire works and all the exciting science around it.
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Sexual desire is the want for some sort of sexual interaction with someone or yourself. Oftentimes because desire in and of itself is not fully understood, it is often referred back to food. So with food, you can have a desire for something, but there is no arousal for it, meaning that yeah, I really want some cake, but your mouth didn’t water, right. So the arousal portion is more of the physical response to the desire. So basically, someone can want to have sex but they may not be physically aroused. And the reverse is also true, someone can be physically aroused but have no mental or emotional desire to engage in sexual activity. This mismatch is called arousal non-concordance, and studies show that women are more likely to experience it than men are. And to understand more about issues like this, it’s important to untangle physical arousal from sexual desire. In fact, there are actually two different kinds of desire.
So desire is actually split into the two. It’s the spontaneous desire as well as the responsive desire. Spontaneous desire is where the thought or feeling of ‘I’d like to have sex’ sort of just pops into your head out of the blue. Responsive desire is where you may not really be in the mood, but after a little warm-up, like kissing, touching, or flirting, you start to want to have sex.
One of the biggest misconceptions about desire is that it should be spontaneous only. This misconception feeds into common stereotypes we see around us, like men having out-of-control sexual appetites or women portrayed as having little innate desire. However, that’s far from the truth. Anyone, regardless of sex or gender, can experience spontaneous or responsive desire.
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The Misunderstood Science of Sexual Desire
It turns out, however, that we only understood half the story. The media mostly cast responsive desire as a women’s issue. Yet Basson said from the beginning that men also feel this slow kind of desire. Close to two decades later, it’s a misunderstanding she’s still eager to correct.
The Dual Control Model of Sexual Response
The researchers liken it to having both a gas pedal (excitation or SES) and a brake pedal (inhibition or SIS) in a car – every person will engage one or both pedals to a differing degree in any particular sexual situation, depending on their unique sexual physiology, history, and personality.
Asexuality: The ascent of the ‘invisible’ sexual orientation
Indeed, asexuality – defined generally as not experiencing sexual attraction – has been called “the invisible orientation”…But asexuality is a spectrum, where some may identify as demisexual, for example, meaning they don’t experience sexual attraction until forming an emotional bond with someone. It’s also not synonymous with aromanticism, which applies to those who don’t experience romantic attraction.
Editor’s Note: At Seeker, we recognize that people of many genders and identities have vaginas and uteruses, and are affected by the topics covered in Body Language: not only women. Where gendered language does appear is in reference to specific language used within the scientific studies cited.
Body Language is Seeker’s latest series diving into the world of female health. For so long, the medical field only used male bodies to conduct research, creating a gap in terms of what we currently know about female bodies. In this series, we’ll be talking to experts to get a better understanding of some of these issues, and we discover how incredibly cool the female body is and how much more we still have to learn about it.
Seeker empowers the curious to understand the science shaping our world. We tell award-winning stories about the natural forces and groundbreaking innovations that impact our lives, our planet, and our universe.