Desire can be a mysterious thing. We can’t simply conjure it or focus it exactly where we want it. Such that, many people feel confused and frustrated by their own desire levels or patterns. Now sex researcher and psychologist, Meredith Chivers has added some important research to the picture and a name for something many people never even knew they had – responsive desire.
The traditional model of sexual desire told us that we would all naturally walk around thinking about sex and wanting to have it – spontaneous desire. This version of the desire story requires very little external stimulation, it feels internally motivated or bodily motivated (being horny) and inspires a person to initiate or seek out sex, or at least be excited about it. Many of us have experienced this type or desire. This model of desire is “I want to have sex irregardless of my environment or current situation.”
Responsive desire, which Chivers research ascribes to women – although what I know about sex at this point, is that it would be silly of us to think that anything will remain in its neat little box of gender or whatever – is desire that is stirred by first getting sexually aroused. This type of desire is dependent on the environment and what is currently going on. This notion of desire really changes perspectives on “normal” desire patterns.
To be clear, this is not another sex expert saying, “Hey, women need more foreplay to enjoy sex.” Hopefully we have already covered that. That enlightened notion is addressing arousal and the fact that women’s bodies have a fairly complex arousal system and it can take more time to get fully cooking, but has always assumed desire to have sex was already present. The conversation around responsive desire is that some women may not feel like having sex at all until they get started and begin to be physically aroused. Desire that follows arousal. That is a new perspective.
This does not mean that women should be pressured into having sex they don’t want because they will warm up to it! Actively not wanting sex is different than feeling neutral or ambivalent. It does mean that some women may want to experiment with going ahead with otherwise appealing sex with an appealing partner, even if they are not feeling super turned on by the idea at the moment because the desire may build with the physical arousal. And for people who are wanting to increase their desire for sex, many of them will be best served by increasing their exposure to arousing stimulation, erotica, massages, dancing close, kisses, porn, all kinds of sensual pleasure. Build pleasure and desire may come (not to get too Field of Dreams on you).
Responsive Desire is a bit tricky and we certainly have more to learn. It will require that we listen to the subtleties of wanting and openness to sex. But for anyone who has ever leaned back into the pillows to let the sweat dry and thought, “Wow, I didn’t think I was that into it before we started but I am so glad we did that! Why do I keep forgetting that I enjoy sex so much!”, Responsive desire may help you understand yourself a bit better.
Don't abstain for Aunt Flo's sake
Put two things that people rarely talk openly about together – sex and menstruation – and what do you get? A lot of myths, exaggerations, unexamined worries, and questions..and a lot of people not talking about what they are doing. Despite old cultural taboos about the nastiness of menstrual blood, a woman having her period is perfectly viable and healthy sexual partner. Some women suffer considerably while menstruating, for others it is a mild annoyance and they would be happy to engage in sex play during their bleeding time. An overview of all studies done on sexual desire and sexual activity levels and menstrual cycles (up to 1980) found mostly variations. Some studies found peaks at mid-cycle, some pre-menstrually, some during menstruation, post menstruation. (Schreiner-Engel, 1980). So once again, everyone is different. If you or your partner are one of the ones who feel desire during her period, not to worry, you get a thumbs up for all kinds of play.
Not only is sex during menstruation not bad for you, it may have some benefits. Orgasm can be a great way to relieve menstrual cramps and headaches, so that can be a good reason to invite a partner to play with you even while bleeding. Of course is you are feeling shy, orgasms from masturbation work just as well. A really interesting study (Meaddough et al, 2002) found that women who had sex and orgasms during their menstruation were less likely to develop endometriosis than women who rarely had sex during their period. This may have something to do with the uterus’ role during orgasm. Uterine contractions that happen during orgasm actually change direction based on the phase of the menstrual cycle. This is amazing to me. Mid-cycle when a woman is most fertile the uterine contractions pull semen up towards the uterus. But during menstruation the contractions serve to expel material out of the vagina. This can also cause your period to last fewer days as the blood gets expelled more quickly. I find this fascinating fact out in Mary Roach’s Bonk.
Fresh menstrual blood is a normal body fluid and is not going to hurt you. It is fine to get it on thighs, penises, hands, etc. It is even fine to engage in oral sex with someone who is menstruating. Of course, if the woman menstruating is carrying an STD or HIV her menstrual blood can transmit this. So practice safer sex, as always. Otherwise, your main concern is messiness. You can shower first, make gently wiping each other down with warm washcloths part of the play, have sex in the shower (use lube!), or just put down towels or old sheets and clean up after. But there is no need to be afraid of your body or your body’s natural cycles. If you feel desire and you want to act on it, go for it.
Tom is not meeting my eyes as he sits in my office. He quickly blurts out that he has been looking at porn online, pretty often, and is worried that he has changed his desires and that now he will never be satisfied with the sex he and his wife have.
Sarah says she is frustrated with sex with her partner and practically whispers, “Could my using a vibrator have made it so I can’t orgasm without it anymore?”
Both these people are asking a similar question, “Has something I have done changed my sexual responses permanently? Am I still normal?” And of course, the really unspoken question, “Is sex dangerous? Can I ruin myself in some way?” The thing is we have been led to believe that sex is dangerous, that there are bad behaviors, that we are all just one misstep from being a damaged sexual being. But the truth is, we, as humans, are a lot more adaptable than that. And now we are finding brain science to back that up.
There are two brain concepts that are helpful here. One is the principle of learned disuse. This is not a complicated thing to understand and we are all familiar with it. If you stop trying to do something, you will more quickly lose the ability to do that thing. Pretty simple. This is true for all kinds of behaviors or skills. But what we know from the frankly amazing extents of human recovery, and now from brain scans, if people work at regaining a skill, even if that skill has atrophied and it is now very hard to do, people can rewire their brain to recover that ability. It may not be easy, it may in fact be quite frustrating especially if you have developed an easier way to meet a similar need, but it can be done. Which bring us to the concept of neural plasticity. Science-y sounding words, yes, but again fairly easy to understand. Our brains our fundamentally flexible, they are ready to learn patterns. In the brain’s readiness to learn patterns we train our brain; it is efficient and designed to respond quickly. So if we do a behavior a certain way several times we are programming our brain to that behavior. That pattern will become the default program for us. Neuroscience researcher, Norman Doidge MD, explains this beautifully with a snow analogy. Think if walking through fresh snow, the first pass through you set down a trail of slightly packed snow. When you walk that way again, it will be easiest to step into the track that is already laid down. Each pass makes that track more efficient for you and in fact, it will be difficult to walk to either side of it; your feet will be pulled into the track already laid down. But you can choose to walk outside that track. It will take more effort but you can eventually lay down a new path in the snow. The same is true for our mind and our behaviors.
So this is true of our sexual behaviors too. Sarah and Tom may have laid down some patterns for themselves that now are holding them back from experiencing other sexual elements that they want. But they can retrain themselves to have new patterns. It may be frustrating at first. It may involve avoiding the easy path that has been working for them in other ways, doing things differently. But the flexibility is there. So, no you are not ruined. You are a creature of habit in ways that go deeper than we imagined, but also a creature of continuous change and growth. If you are willing to be frustrated for awhile, you can make changes, to your sex life and to other aspects of yourself.
Studies looking at teenagers use of condoms suggest that 70 % of sexually active teen boys say they use a condom “occasionally”. The problem is occasionally doesn’t work. If you are effectively aware of a female partner’s fertility cycle, occasionally using a condom may provide some protection against pregnancy, but is still risky. But for use against STDs occasionally just won’t cut it. Age us up a little bit and those same people who have been “occasionally” exposed to STDs are still not using condoms very often. According to a study by the Guttmacher Institute, only 18 % of single women aged 20 – 40 are regularly using condoms.
There are over 24 sexually transmitted diseases that we can be exposed to and many of them are asymptomactic – but still can be spread from partner to partner. And we are spreading them. In the US, one on five people has Herpes. Nearly 50% of sexually active people will contract HPV in their lifetime.
STDs are so common, they are a fact of our sexual lives. It is time we stopped thinking of them as a moral issue or as something only certain people get. The most common excuse I hear for not having safer sex is that the partner seemed safe & responsible. Of course they did – because normal, healthy people have STDs, many of whom have no symptoms and have not actually been tested for any STDs because they didn’t think they needed to be. We need to accept this reality and still do what we can to reduce our chances of being infected. Getting STD screenings can be a part of the new relationship milestones for those choosing monogamy or to be fluid bonded, but for people with new sexual partners using a condom is still the best protection you have. In Victorian England they used to believe that only the “dirty poor” got certain illness, until they found that bacteria causing it was in water and impacted everyone. We don’t assume only certain sloppy people get colds. STDs are easily transmitted, it is time we see that everyone can get them - even that perfect new partner you have your eye on.
A few months ago I was asked to film a series of videos for YourTango's Ask An Expert. It was a good experience and the videos are just starting to be released. Here is the first one on " Are my Sexual Fantasies Wrong?". Check it out -