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It's Not a Drive - Understanding Sexual Desire

Updated: Sep 21, 2023

I've been hearing a lot of the same sentiments from clients for the last several years related to frustrations with their "sex drive." Clients expressing low (or high!) sex drive, especially in relation to their partners' and feeling concerned or frustrated by the fact that their desire for sex is less than (or more than) their partners. "How do I increase my sex drive?," they'll ask. Well. The short answer is, you don't. The longer answer is, it's not actually a drive.

Emily Nagoski, PhD, is a sex researcher out of Smith College who's work has centered around women's sexual well-being, relationships, and the prevention of sexual violence and harassment. In addition to research, she also provides sex education and trainings to students, faculty, clinicians, and more on understanding sexual well-being. So, she's kind of a big deal when it comes to understanding sexuality. In her book "Come As You Are," she focuses on women's sexuality in particular, but her explanations around what motivates folks of all genders to want to have sex is applicable here.

Rather than thinking of sexual desire as a drive, where it's either "on" or "off," it is more useful to think of sexual interest as having an accelerator and brakes. Our sexual accelerator (or referred to in the research as sexual excitation) is the mechanism that responds to sexual stimuli in the environment and sends signals from the brain to the genitals to turn on. Sexual stimuli can be literally anything sex related -- this includes our own thoughts and feelings. Sometimes, we aren't always aware of what pushing the accelerator until we are actively pursuing sexual pleasure - this is because this system is always working, just not always consciously.

On the flip side, our sexual brakes (or sexual inhibition) are neurological off signals. According to the research, there are two different types of brakes. One brake sends the turn off signal when potential threats are noticed in the environment - this could be stimuli like risk of STI or unwanted pregnancy. This brake sends steady messages of "turn off" throughout the day so that we don't inappropriately get aroused during meetings, classes, or when we're at the grocery store. The second brake is more like a hand brake, where you can technically drive with the hand brake on, but it'll take longer and use more gas. This type of brake is more associated with fear of performance failure, or put simply, worrying about not having an orgasm.

The differentiation between a "sex drive" and the idea of having a sexual accelerator and sexual brakes is important to understanding that the question isn't "how do I increase my sex drive?" but instead "how do I hit my accelerator more and my brakes less?" The general answer to that is "it depends." What is going to hit the accelerator for one person, may not for another. Do you notice yourself turned on when you watch porn but then get turned off by hearing your roommate in the kitchen? You can see the stimuli that hits the accelerator (watching porn) and what hits the brakes (hearing your roommate). Or, a more nuanced example may be, you're in the middle of foreplay with your partner, and start thinking about how much you dislike your body and all of a sudden the brakes are slammed and you feel turned off. The work here may be more about how to be present in the moment, while also working on decreasing body image distress.

The long story short here is that sexual desire is more nuanced than we're led to believe. Having a discussion in therapy both individually and also in couples counseling (if you're partnered and willing) can help to identify what hits the accelerator and how to keep hitting the accelerator, and what hits the brakes and how to stop hitting the brakes. Once you do, you're more likely to have more enjoyable sex, and who doesn't want that?!


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