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.
The FDA is holding open meetings in October to obtain patient and doctor input on female sexual dysfunctions, specifically low desire. Now since it is the FDA, they are hoping to gain momentum on developing a medication that can treat lack of sexual desire. Which makes those of us who work with people struggling with sexual concerns sigh with frustration, “As though it is that simple.”
Sexual desire is complex. So much so that we can also say it is mysterious. Why we crave what we crave, why we crave it sometimes and not other times, why we are drawn to certain people, all questions without clear answers. And why we can’t just convince ourselves to want sex when it the person, place or time are convenient? That is a question that many people ask themselves. Low sexual desire is only a clinical issue when someone wants to want sex. But wanting to be sexual is not the same thing as desiring sex in that moment. And so many people are seeking their sexual desire spark to reignite.
There are physical issues that come into play with low desire, certainly. Hormones, brain chemistry, stress levels, exhaustion, side effects from drugs, general health and more should be considered. But so should emotional stressors, lifestyle, religious or spiritual conflicts, body awareness and acceptance, beliefs about sex and pleasure, traumas and fears, self image, lack of sex education, ability to enjoy sexual stimulation, and on and on. And I haven’t even started listing all the ways the relationship the person is in may affect their level of sexual desire. An issue that starts from one stimulus, say back pain, can lead to a pattern of saying no to sex, which leads to distance and resentment in a partner, which leads to less desire to be with them, which leads to less positive thoughts about sex…You can see how things interplay.
Even if the FDA can create a pill that motivates sexual desire would we want to take it? There is a creepy factor in feeling as though your sexual desire is manufactured. What invites us to ask ourselves, what is “real” desire. Desire is not just physical, nor just emotional, or relational. Our sexuality is interlaced with all aspects of our lives; that is one reason it is so potent. Sexual happiness can heal us on many levels and sexual unhappiness can trouble us on many levels. Desire draws on multiple aspects of Self, and my sense is that many of us want it that way.
There is a group specifically challenging the medicalization of sex, called the New View Campaign. Let’s keep our approach to sexual health diverse and multi-dimensional.
Welcome to the world, little one
One of the first sexual interventions a parent makes for a child is the decision to circumcise or not. And, as with many future sexual interventions, the parents may not have the best or most accurate information. We have been seriously misinformed about the foreskin. Many of us grew up thinking it was an unimportant, inconsequential flap of skin. But, generally speaking, our bodies don’t work that way, right? Think about it – how many other body parts do we just figure we can do without?
The foreskin actually has several purposes. First it represents 25-50% of the skin of the penis and is full of nerve endings. The most sensitive nerve endings of the penis are in a ring on the inner foreskin which are stimulated by stretch and movement. The foreskin is a double layer skin system with the inner layer containing glands that produce fluid to keep the penis protected and slippery. The soft internal layer also provides some immune protection with plasma cells, which secrete antibodies, and pathogen-killing enzymes. The foreskin protects the sensitive head of the penis when it is unerect. Without the foreskin the skin of the penis toughens up a bit as it is exposed to more friction through daily life. The foreskin also maintains lubrication and decreases friction during penetrative intercourse by bunching at the opening of the vagina. This could also provide more stimulation of the vulva.
This may be unwelcome information to you, either because you have chosen to circumcise a child or because you yourself were circumcised. But I think it is important to have accurate information about our bodies, including all body parts. There has been confusing information about health risks associated with keeping the foreskin but even in the face of those questions not one world health association actually recommends routine circumcision. In America we are more familiar with the look of a circumcised penis, although that will be changing as our circumcision rates are dropping. The CDC reports that in 2009 68% of US baby boys were not circumcised. Globally the rate of boys left intact is 70 -80%. Religious considerations are a family’s to consider and weigh, but weight them with complete information in mind.
If you are a man who has been circumcised you may feel some grief or anger about this decision that was made for you before you could choose for yourself. You may feel sadness about the unknowns, what might have been with your foreskin intact. It is difficult to compare the experience of a man uncircumcised since birth with a man who was circumcised. The best response is to grieve as you need to and to love your body as it is today. Remember there is much joy and pleasure to be had as you explore what works for you and your body.
Welcome to the World, little one
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.
“I will be arriving in Paris tomorrow evening. Don’t wash” – reportedly written by Napoleon to his lover, Josephine.
Scientists are beginning to believe that humans have sensory receptors in our noses, long recognized in other mammals, that allow us to get information about other people from odors we can’t consciously smell. This ability may affect our sexual choices through the detection of pheromones and other smells associated with health, virility, and more. Fascinating stuff!
We know that scent plays a strong role in influencing our brain. We are born with a strong survival mechanism that causes us to automatically be repelled by unpleasant odors. But our olfactory system sends all kinds of messages to our brain, connecting in large part to the limbic system – primitive structures in our brain that regulate arousal, pleasure and reward, and also long-term memory. If you have ever wondered how you can recognize the smell of your first crush’s laundry detergent on someone years later; this is why - the part of our brain that processes smells is combined with our long term memory storage.
Here’s another interesting aspect of scent’s influence on us, neuroscientists tell us that the sensory experiences of smell skip the thinking and reasoning part of the brain and go straight to the amygdala, which governs our physical responses to excitement and fear. So being exposed to a smell (or for some, just the recalled memory of a smell) can cause a physical response. So it’s true, you can become aroused just by smelling a smell related to a past sexual experience.
Studies focusing on pheromones in human and our sense of smell have found that women near ovulation are drawn to men’s scents who are genetically more compatible with them. Studies by researcher Karl Grammer have found that women find different men’s smells more or less appealing depending on the phase of their menstrual cycle and that men’s testosterone levels increased just by smelling women’s odors during ovulation. Again, remember these are odors that our conscious mind finds nearly undetectable!
For many people, the smell of their partner during sex and on their skin later is a wonderful part of sexual excitement. Maybe for you this is a turn on, maybe not, but it seems clear that your nose is influencing your sexual arousal in ways we are only beginning to understand. Let yourself be interested in what smells appeal to you and which do not. Take notice of smell during your next sexual experience and see if there are any ways you would like smell to be added to your sexual ambiance.
References from Rodgers, Joanne Ellison (2001) Sex : A natural history. Henry Holt and Co, LLC : New York, New York.
Most of you have probably heard by now about Missouri’s Republican Senate nominee, Todd Atkin’s statement that victims of "legitimate rape" don't get pregnant because "the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down." This false belief was being used as justification for denying rights to abortion for rape survivors. You may believe that one man’s misguided beliefs don’t affect you, but the shocking prevalence of flat out wrong information and limitations put around people seeking accurate sex information and education about sex deeply affects us all. In 2013, with all the clear science we have now, we need to ask ourselves –why would Todd Atkin’s still hold this false belief or (in the case that he was purposely giving false “facts”) why would he think that the American public would believe this? Because we are sadly and shockingly underinformed when it comes to sex.
Having taught Human Sexuality in Uganda, I saw firsthand the devastating impact on communities that had been given false information about their bodies and their sexual functioning. I worked with people who had been told that HIV is caused by an unmarried girl touching a man. I spoke to men who had been told as boys that a women’s vagina will trap and tear their penis. I talked with the people there who were taught to be afraid of sex and, perhaps more importantly, we talked about how even these terrifying messages didn’t stop the intrinsic and natural sex drive within them. The people I met in Uganda desperately wanted accurate sexual information; they said their lives were changed by it. And they wanted this for their communities to be healthier and happier. They took risks in being leaders in learning and sharing unbiased facts about sexuality.
In America, even in the liberal area I live in, students in my Adult Sex Ed classes consistently tell me that there was so much about their own body and sexual responses that they didn’t know and were relieved to learn. And I know from my therapy practice that the affects of misinformation and lies about sex go deep and can last a lifetime.
If you were upset by Todd Atkin’s statements, I invite you to use that emotion to empower and motivate yourself. Seek out good sex education, for yourself and for the children in your life. Go buy a book about your body and sexuality. Volunteer for a rape crisis center or an informational hotline in your area. Support scientific research projects. And, whatever your political affiliation, support political candidates who will use accurate, scientifically supported facts when making decisions about your sexual health. It is our right to be informed about our own bodies.