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Sexual Desire and Libido: What Sex Therapists Want You to Know


Book Cover of Desire: An Inclusive Guide to Navigating Libido Differences in Relationships by Lauren Fogel Mersy and Jennifer A. Vencill

Challenges with libido and sexual desire are one of the most common issues that sex therapists work with. Often, we find that misinformation around the processes of sexual desire influence our clients' experience of their libido. In this blogpost, we're sharing some foundational information and reflection questions about sexual desire from the book Desire: An inclusive Guide to Navigating Libido Differences in Relationships, written by psychologists and sex therapists Lauren Fogel Mersy and Jennifer A. Vencil.


Sexual desire is known as an incentive-motivation system, meaning we require an incentive or motivator to provide or reinforce desire for sexual activity. If sexual activity isn’t motivating to us in some way, or if we are not consistently getting something positive out of the experience, sexual desire can be difficult to experience. Recognizing and identifying our own unique motivations for sex is important to connect with our sexual desire.


I am motivated to be sexual…

  • Because I feel attracted to someone

  • To relieve stress

  • To feel attractive or desired

  • To help combat symptoms of depression

  • To be physically active

  • To experience pleasure

  • To feel a sense of spiritual connection

  • To reconnect after conflict

  • To celebrate something

  • To boost self-esteem

  • To help reduce menstrual cramps

  • For physical touch

  • To be playful or have fun

  • To feel a sense of comfort

  • To act out a fantasy

  • To feel close to someone

  • To help fall asleep

  • To feel alive

  • To improve or maintain physical health

  • To express love

  • To get pregnant

  • To maintain a sense of physical intimacy

  • Because I’m feeling horney

  • To help grieve/mourn

  • To reduce pain

  • To feel good

  • To alter my mood

  • To experiment or try something new

  • To feel loved

  • To relax

Reflection Questions:


Are any of your sexual motivators missing from this list? Did any of your answers surprise you? Why or why not?


Sexual Desire Versus Arousal


Desire and arousal are two different things. Sexual desire is a mental and psychological process, defined by our interest in seeking out and engaging in sexual activity. Sexual arousal refers to our bodies getting turned on, a physiological process. Many people experience sexual desire and arousal simultaneously. However, these processes aren’t always in alignment. For example, we might be quite mentally interested in sex (desire), but struggle with physical arousal, or vice versa.


The Two Types of Sexual Desire


Spontaneous Sexual Desire: An interest in sex that comes on suddenly.


Many people experience spontaneous sexual desire simultaneously with physiological arousal. Spontaneous sexual desire is culturally seen as our main cue for sex to begin: we experience a sense of horniness and react by pursuing sex with a partner or through self-stimulation. Spontaneous sexual desire is often what people are referring to when they say they have “lost” their desire or that their libido is “low.”


The ability to experience spontaneous sexual desire is influenced by:


  • Sex hormones (e.g. estrogens and androgens/testosterone), which are different from person to person and can be impacted by menstrual cycles, pregnancy, menopause, or certain medications

  • Neurotransmitters, which are the chemicals that send signals to our brain. Neurotransmitters like dopamine and norepinephrine tend to be at higher levels with new partners and often plateau anywhere from a few months to a few years.


Some people experience little to no spontaneous sexual desire and often find themselves waiting long periods of time for this sexual cue.


Responsive Sexual Desire: An interest in sex that occurs in response to some type of physical sensation.


For many people, responsive sexual desire is their predominant experience of their libido. This means that significant physical arousal may need to happen before sexual desire occurs. Because spontaneous desire is culturally seen as the norm, a large percentage of the population are misrepresented and misunderstood, leading to beliefs that something is “wrong” with them.


There are four foundational requirements for responsive desire:


  1. Consent: For responsive sexual desire to occur, we must truly be open to receiving stimulation. We don’t need to feel turned on, but an openness to engaging in physical stimulation is key to developing responsive libido. Pressure from a partner or self-pressure to engage in physical or sexual touch is not fully consensual, and is unlikely to trigger responsive desire.

  2. Pleasure: Physical stimulation must be pleasurable. Simulation that is unintentionally painful, or that causes physical and emotional discomfort, is unlikely to result in responsive desire. Touch that feels neutral to us is also unlikely to build spontaneous sexual desire.

  3. Focus: We must be able to focus on the stimulation that we are experiencing. Even if we are fully open to physical stimulation (consent) and it feels good (pleasure), our minds may be occupied or distracted which impacts our ability to perceive physical pleasure.

  4. Timing: The amount of time and the context required to build responsive desire varies from person to person. Some people require a brief stimulus (e.g. a quick thought, image, fantasy, or a scene from a movie) that leads to responsive desire. Others may require a longer or multiple stimuli (e.g. lots of touching and kissing, enjoying quality time and emotional connection with a partner).


Reflection Questions:


Do you see yourself in either of these desire types? Have you experience one type more than another? Neither? If you have a partner or partners, do you and your partner(s) have different types of libidos? Have you noticed your desire type changing over time, or throughout the course of a relationship?


Curious about exploring your experience of sexual desire? Connecting with a sex therapist can help! Check out our team or schedule a free consultation for support.

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