We grow up internalizing a lot of myths around sex. When it comes to sexual desire specifically, there’s one that pops up time and time again: men want sex more frequently than women.
It’s a trope that is repeated over and over in popular culture: framing men as animalistic sex pests who are driven by an urge to hump anything that moves, while women would rather snuggle up to a romcom. This isn’t a cultural phenomenon; there’s scientific research which supports the idea that women are more likely to have low sexual desire. However, this perceived gender difference (that is limited to cis men and women) may actually have more to do with how we traditionally assessed sexual desire.
We are fed one story of sexual desire, that our so-called “libido” can be high or low. These myths are just that: myths. In reality, there are different kinds of desire: spontaneous and responsive. They mean what they say on the tin, and learning more about whether your own primary desire style is more spontaneous or responsive could revolutionize the way you view and enjoy sex.
Let’s delve into the world of spontaneous and responsive desire.
The history of sexist sex myths and the study of desire
These enduring myths were set in stone hundreds of years ago, when they were seen as scientific facts. Throughout history, female desire has been demonized and medicalized, leaving no room for female pleasure. In the 19th century, husbands were expected to ‘coax’ sexual desire out of women. If they then displayed “too little” sexual desire, they risked being diagnosed with “Frigidity”, while those who showed too much were cast as “nymphomaniacs,” were given “invasive diagnostic tests, torturous treatment and in severe cases institutionalization in a mental asylum.” Either way, women lost out. Men, on the other hand, were thought to naturally have more sexual desire than women. The male equivalent was “satyriasis,” yet it was from the essential death sentence of nymphomania as they weren’t forced into barbaric treatment for it.
This continued throughout the 20th century, when psychoanalysts started telling women they were immature if they couldn’t have vaginal orgasms, while “sexual fulfillment was [seen as] vital for a happy marriage – and by extension also for a healthy society.” Yet men and women were seen as sexually incompatible.
“Women’s sexual problems were cast as technical problems to be understood in terms of social phenomena and resolved through education regarding the profound physical, emotional, and spiritual differences between men and women,” wrote author and academic Katherine Angel in this 2010 research paper, “The history of ‘Female Sexual Dysfunction’ as a mental disorder in the 20th century.”
Things changed when William Masters and Virginia Johnson, pioneering researchers within human sexual behavior, outlined a four-stage Human Sexual Response Cycle (excitement, plateau, orgasm, and resolution) in the mid-20th century. They tried to emphasize the similarities between men and women, yet this wasn’t great either.
Then, in 2000, Rosemary Basson, director of the Centre for Sexual Medicine at the University of British Columbia, came up with the sexual response cycle. She argued that sexual desire was not linear, that intimacy is important and desire can be responsive (to someone or something else) or spontaneous.
In TV shenanigans, “desire is simply there,” writes Katherine Angel in Tomorrow Sex Will Be Good Again, “then follows some quick groping, the insertion of a penis, some breathless moaning, and grateful, giddy mutual orgasm.” In romcoms, desire is a wild, untameable thing. More often than not, it is the man that is “crazed with lust” while the woman swoons, ready to be “taken” by this dashing gentleman.
This fictional gender dynamic reflects and reinforces societal expectations of sexual desire. This perception, writes Angel, that women have low sexual desire “may stem from a failure to distinguish between two different kinds of desire: spontaneous desire and responsive desire, with the latter… more common in women.”
Basson’s model challenged the idea that women’s sexual desire needed fixing by arguing that women may not have “low” sexual desire, they are just more responsive – and possibly haven’t come across much that they like responding to.
What is spontaneous and responsive desire?
Have you ever wondered why your partner seems ready to go after little more than a sexy look, a slight touch, or even just the slightest hint of sex, yet you take a lot longer to warm up? If this sounds familiar, know there’s nothing wrong with you, or your “sex drive.” You may be someone who experiences responsive desire, while the person you’re having sex with is more of a spontaneous type.
Clinical sex educator Gigi Engle describes it as having “sexy-minds” or “sexy-bodies.” People can flip between the two but may lean more heavily one way. A sexy-minded person (spontaneous desire), she says “is someone who needs the context of a sexual experience/interaction to become fully aroused… if you’re in the right headspace, desire can manifest.” Meanwhile, a sexy-bodied person (responsive desire) is someone who is “easily aroused, thinks about sex often, and often uses sex to relieve stress.”
How does this play out in the moment? “Spontaneous desire comes on without an outside influence,” Edwina Caito, sex expert at sex blog Bedbible, tells Mashable. Meaning, you can think yourself horny. The mental desire comes before the physical arousal.
Responsive desire, on the other hand, is in response to physical stimuli, she says. The physical arousal comes first and the mental desire follows. For example, your partner runs their hand up and down your inner thigh while you’re watching a film, and it triggers some sexy thoughts. Caito gives the example of reading a particularly steamy love scene and feel a “familiar tingle downstairs” or you return home to your partner laying out a surprise romantic dinner, go in for a hug and “before you know it, the plates are on the floor and you’re having sex on the table. That’s reactive desire.”
The gendered desire debate
There’s an ingrained stereotype that men are naturally hornier than women. As “pick-up artist” Neil Straus writes in The Game: “Show a man the cover of Playboy, and he’s ready to go. In fact, show him a pitted avocado and he’s ready to go.” Women, in contrast, “aren’t persuaded as easily by direct images and talk.”
This gulf between cis men and women is explored by researchers, who quote widely accepted statistics that 75 percent of men and 15 percent of women report that they primarily feel spontaneous desire, whereas 30 percent of women and 5 percent of men report that they primarily feel responsive desire.
Research outside the gender binary is severely lacking, leaving non-binary and trans people and their experience of desire out of the conversation entirely.
Basson, the creator of the sexual response cycle, argues that desire in women “may emerge if the conditions are right,” conditions being: “the power dynamics, the safety and trust, the reason sex is occurring, the eroticism available, her relationship to her body, pleasure and the presence or absence of stimuli that she finds arousing.” Women, Basson concludes, experience arousal, and then desire, in a circular loop.
Engle seconds this: “Desire is not something that bubbles up out of nowhere. It is a complex psychological and physiological response that is born out of biological, psychological, emotional, and relationship factors.” If you’re stressed, tired, hungry, nervous or fearful of sex, it’s hard to feel turned on.
It’s why Emily Nagoski, author of the bestselling non-fiction book Come As You Are and credited with popularising “responsive desire,” argues that responsive desire is “healthy, normal” while not feeling an “out-of-the-blue desire for sex” shouldn’t be viewed as a dysfunction like it currently is in the Diagnostic DSM.
The argument for categorizing “a lack of spontaneous desire” as a psychological defect was bolstered by the long-held belief that we all have an in-built “sex drive.” Why? Well, if sex is a drive, our desire for it should come on spontaneously, like hunger. We should crave it, feel an uncontrollable urge for it when we see a hottie or the thought of sex crosses our mind. If we don’t, well, there must be something biologically wrong with us.
The reasoning that we are driven to seek out sex is simple: if we don’t reproduce, the human race will perish. This kind of makes sense, yet Nagoski refutes the existence of a “sex drive,” pointing out that there is A) no physical evidence for it, and B) the “drive” in a biological sense is a “motivational system to deal with life-or-death issues, like hunger or being too cold. You’re not going to die if you don’t have sex.”
This research was crucial to challenging how we view, treat, and demonize desire. Finally, there was a strong scientific argument that people who need some time to get in the mood aren’t defective. Yet while Basson was tapping into very real gendered power dynamics within heterosexual sex, this strict division of desire, that men are easily excitable and want sex while women consider it is problematic.
Framing male sexuality according to the “steam boiler model” (that is like an overheated engine, incapable of switching off once it gets going) implies that women owe men sex, to get them off.
Viewed in this way, sex can become a chore for women who are expected to serve men’s “biological entitlement.” This isn’t exactly going to make them flush with desire. Meanwhile, it fuels pressure for men to always be up for sex, leading some to engage in unwanted sex.
This is a cliched way to view desire that doesn’t account for queer, gender-fluid dynamics, and healthy sexual relationships between men and women.
It’s also not true that women aren’t able to be as horny as men. Spontaneous desire flowed from Caito at Bedbible, “like sweat on a humid summer day” from the age of 15 to menopause. She says that her vivid imagination had her “replaying a particularly incredible intimate night, over and over in my head, keeping me in that heightened state of desire.”
The men Caito slept with always thought she “was some sort of nymphomaniac” because of her high desire. She laughed it off, but this call back to 19th-century policing of female desire is the real implication of gendered stereotypes of desire in modern times.
She adds: “As women, we are conditioned to believe men are the horny ones and we are to respond to their desires, i.e: swooning, melting, getting weak in the knees and ultimately ‘giving in’ to their desires as they were the ones who put us in the mood.”
Therefore, she continued, “I don’t believe women will answer polls and studies honestly. However, whether that is intentional or women don’t recognize this spontaneous desire, remains to be seen.” This socialization also leads us to “believe men are always ready and raring to go — but this just isn’t true,” Engle says. It can leave men feeling insecure if they experience responsive desire.
Craig, whose name was changed for privacy reasons, has experienced this crushing pressure, and has witnessed “men shame each other for not taking up every opportunity to have sex, even if that meant being unfaithful to a partner.”
He recalls one particularly traumatic time: “I once had someone I was dating tell me in no uncertain terms that if I wasn’t ready to go 24/7 that I wasn’t a real man and that she could and would replace me with someone who was. That definitely left a mark on me and has influenced my self-image and how I approach relationships now.”
Social norms around sex seem to be evolving, but there’s still a lot to unpack.
Am I broken?
There’s no wrong way to experience desire, but believing that there is can ruin our experience of pleasure.
“Thinking we should just ‘be horny’ is a one-way ticket to a dead sex life,” Engle says. “Everyone loses if we don’t look at how complex desire is as a manifest human response.”
Whether you are single or in a partnership, folks with the more responsive style can have better sex by doing some self-reflection by asking, what turns me on? What do I respond well to? How can I communicate this to my partner(s)?
If you are in a relationship, you’re more likely to lean towards responsive desire anyway, Engle explains. However, one of you could shift there sooner – and this can be jarring for both parties. So, if you do want to experience “spontaneous” desire, Engle says that Consensual Non-Monogamy (CNM) “can reawaken some of the feel-good chemical rush” that comes from new relationships.
You don’t need to try CNM if it’s not for you, though. “Learning which kind of desire you lean towards and which your partner leans towards can be a big first step in better co-creating a sex life that works for both of you,” Engle says.
She suggests making time for intimacy – which can be kissing, cuddling, or spending time together – to let desire bloom. “It’s about being receptive to desire in your mind to give it roots to grow in your body,” she says. “When we start to take time to stoke that fire, we begin to want sex more. Because desire and libido are not ‘drives’ like hunger or sleep. You won’t die without sex, but it can be deeply unpleasant. The more you engage with it (and the better it is), the more you’ll want it.”
Sexual desire has been mutated by sexist science and stereotypes in popular culture. Framing sexual desire as being high or low is reductive, and harmful. It’s likely to make you feel bad about yourself, and alienate you from any partners who don’t exactly match your “libido.”