just the tip: arousal isn't a light switch

There are several myths when it comes to desire and arousal.

Myth #1: Desire is a Light Switch: It’s Either On or Off

Many of us grew into our sexual selves being told this. When you’re attracted to someone, you’re supposed to always be ready to fuck them. As if just the sight of your lover should make your genitals respond. Psychologists refer to this as “spontaneous desire.”

Attached to spontaneous desire is the notion that when you’re turned on, you stay turned on — thus the light switch.

And sometimes for some people, there is spontaneous desire — a constant readiness to get it on —especially at the beginning of relationships. But not for everyone and not all the time. Expecting spontaneous, consistent desire is an example of a one-size-fits-all approach to sexuality that just doesn’t work for most people.

An Alternative Perspective: Responsive Desire/Arousal

In the early 2000s, Dr. Rosemary Basson published an alternative perspective she called responsive desire. She included a diagram that she uses with clients in therapy. (The diagram you see here is a version reimagined by Sexology International.)

The gist is that desire or arousal is often a response to other things, such as emotional closeness and/or sexual stimuli. For instance, some folks don’t tend to experience arousal until they’re being touched by a partner.

And let’s talk about the whole consistency issue. I don’t know about you, but frequently during sex, I’ll be thinking about what I’m going to eat afterwards, and then maybe we switch positions or my partner (consensually) slaps me in the face, and all of a sudden I’m back in the game. Or sometimes that doesn’t happen, and I tap out and decide I’m done for the night.

It took me a long time to realize this was OK and normal. Sometimes I last a long time, and sometimes I don’t. But desire and arousal don’t have to be this solid, unwavering thing to be healthy. It can flicker like a flame and still be fun, pleasant and sexy.

In this alternative framework, even the meaning of arousal is called into question. Does arousal mean you feel changes happening to your genitals? Or does arousal mean you’re emotionally turned on? Different people will identify their own experience of arousal as different things.

About spontaneous versus responsive arousal, sex educator Emily Nagoski writes: “I can’t count the number of women I’ve talked with who assume that because their desire is responsive, rather than spontaneous, they have ‘low desire’; that their ability to enjoy sex with their partner is meaningless if they don’t also feel a persistent urge for it; in short, that they are broken, because their desire isn’t what it’s ‘supposed’ to be.”

Let’s get rid of this harmful idea that desire is supposed to be spontaneous or even frequent.

What if you try kissing and cuddling with the understanding that maybe the affection will stir a desire for something more? And the understanding that if there’s no strong desire, that kissing and cuddling are still meaningful.

You’re not broken if you don’t get turned on by the sight of your partner. Understanding this means that perhaps you can look for things that do turn you on. Touch? Emotional intimacy? Looks of lust and compliments from your partner?

To give you an example, at the moment, the biggest thing that makes me desire penetrative sex is to plan something elaborate and new.  Like a fun new role play scenario. Basically this is because I don’t crave penetrative sex very often. I’d much rather tie someone up or be tied up. And I’m owning it! Which leads us to the next myth.

Myth #2: Being Aroused Means You Want Penetrative Sex

In a previous post I wrote about how penetrative sex is often seen as the end-all-be-all and that it’s expected of us. In the heteronormative world, it’s “home base” and “nothing else counts.” And (eye roll) queer sex isn’t real, right?

Alternative Perspective: It All Counts

The sexual or physically intimate activities that feel best will vary from person to person. Just because you may feel physically and emotionally ready for some form of sexual activity does not mean that penetrative sex is the only (or best) option. Believing that penetrative sex is expected of you when it doesn’t sound appealing or feel good can shut down your desire, period.

This may be due to trauma or pain or simply our preferences (or often a mix). Whatever reason(s), it’s OK to want what you want. And the more you feel at ease talking to your partner about what you want, the more at ease you’ll be in the moment when you’re pursuing it.

In summary, you can claim your own concepts of desire and arousal.

For instance, some people may initiate sex for emotional reasons when they aren’t particularly aroused — they just want the intimacy. And there’s nothing wrong with this.

What Happens If Your Desires Don’t Match Your Partner’s?

Therein lies the rub.

What happens if your partner wants penetrative sex every day and you’re totally fine with that particular activity happening once a month?

First off, I think it’s important to talk about where this need comes from. Is it just a physical drive or a need for closeness? Basically, is penetrative sex really the only option? 

Sex therapist and LCSW Kathy Slaughter explains how partners can take turns doing things one partner or another is more interested in: “It doesn’t mean like every single time, but it just means being aware of how your sexuality works and trying to do what you can to meet your partner where they’re at if it’s not going to be costly to you.”

Non-monogamy is another option for some. Then one person isn’t someone else’s only sexual outlet.

This is something each couple will have to navigate for themselves. Together, you can investigate the myths and harmful scripts that so often govern how two people think their sexual relationship is supposed to work. Break them down and find what works for you. 

What If There’s Actually a Problem?

As Nagoski noted, many individuals are conditioned to believe that something is wrong when they don’t experience spontaneous desire, which may not be realistic. So when can you know whether your lack of desire or arousal is actually problematic?

Well … let’s break down what a problem might mean.

1) Is it related to pain?

Dr. Natalie Rosen suggests seeking external help when pain during sex is chronic, especially if it’s occurring at other times besides sex.

2) Is it related to trauma?

Trauma can impact one’s desire for physical or sexual intimacy. The thing to know here is that it’s perfectly fine to take any sort of touch or activity off the table until it feels good and safe again.

3) Are you asexual?

If you identify as asexual or demisexual and you’re quite happy about it, that’s great. Then, there’s no problem!

4) Are you experiencing a consistent lack of desire for sex, AND you do not think it’s related to physical pain or trauma, AND you are stressed out about it?

In this case, it’s possible there’s a biological issue that a gynecologist or physician may be able to find and treat. Or it could be related to medication you’re on or another mental health issue. Depression, for instance, can impact one’s desire for sex.

In addition, our sexual selves are complicated and are impacted by sleep, stress, the state of our relationships, our sense of self, and so much more.

A sex therapist, psychiatrist, or somatic body worker may be able to help you build more confidence and work with your situation. Seeking help doesn’t mean there’s something wrong with you.

But I think there are alternatives if you’re stressed about a decreasing libido or the infrequency in which you feel “in the mood.” In the case of responsive desire, sometimes you just need to increase the amount of things you’re responding to.

I’d feel remiss if I didn’t mention that only you can know if emotional closeness is an issue. Many folks need this emotional closeness in order to desire sex. 

And some folks just need more sleep, and money for babysitters or weekends away.

But, what if you need to connect to your own body and perhaps your partner’s body in a new way?

Let’s end on some fun empowering alternatives. Seek out experiences that help you explore your body and/or sexuality in new ways. Some of these are not sexual and won’t leave you a raging sex machine. But what they will help with is you connecting with your body, your desires, you ability to say yes and no to things:

  • Try a cuddle party 
  • Take Tango lessons
  • Buy a new toy
  • Watch queer porn
  • Book a session with a Dominatrix
  • Go to a workshop at your local feminist adult toy store

Photo by Reinaldo Kevin on Unsplash

Jera writes about sexuality, spirituality, and social justice. They are the author of Just the Tip, a queer-friendly, sex-positive, relationship advice column and the editor of Sacred and Subversive,...