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Understanding Spontaneous vs Receptive Desire

When thinking about Spontaneous Desire I think about the first scene in the show Sex Education where the main character Otis is first discovering masturbation. He is just minding his own business having his morning shower when he sees an attractive lady on the shampoo bottle and has to rub one out. Later that day at the movies there is an alien chick dressed slightly provocatively; he immediately has to run to the bathroom for round two. Another time, he’s on a bike ride and there is some stimulation against his leg; bring it on round three. Finally, and most embarrassingly, his mom goes to the farmers market and leaves him in the car. Just outside, there is a middle-aged lady whose cleavage is protruding so much that it is rubbing against her dog. This precipitates the fourth round in the car, which is rudely interrupted by his mother coming back with the groceries.

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For Otis, arousal was omnipresent. He only needed the slightest bit of encouragement and he was ready! This type of spontaneous arousal is similar to the way desire is depicted in the vast majority of sex scenes in movies. So often the characters are just hanging out and then BOOM they are hardcore making out and super excited. Or in porn, when so often seeing a penis or hearing a seductive voice whisper something dirty in their ear is enough to make the actors appear ready to get in on.

But is this the way desire usually works? According to Dr. Emily Nagoski, author of Come As You Are, it depends. In her book, she discusses that research has found that about 75% of men and 15% of women experience Spontaneous Desire. For these folks, they experience the mental desire first (oh look at that sexy shampoo lady) and that leads to the physical desire (now my penis is hard).

This differs from what is called Responsive Desire, which is less omnipresent and comes mostly in response to stimulation. For example, I imagine a situation where someone initially thinks they aren’t in the mood for sex but once the sensations start to feel good, they end up enjoying it. Or a situation where even though someone doesn’t initially feel turned on, they engage in a physically stimulating activity like getting their vulva licked or a lot of sexy banter, which then leads to intense desire. Research has found that 5% of men and 30% experience this type of receptive desire. This leaves the vast majority of people not fitting clearly into either category.

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One important component of learning about what turns us on is learning what turns us off; Dr. Nagoski describes that in any sexual situation we have an accelerator, which is any sensation, thought, or stimulation that turns us on, and the brakes, which is any sensation that turns us off or stops us from feeling safe or comfortable. Every person has both processes happening simultaneously in any sexual situation and whether their accelerator or brakes turn on at any moment depends on their unique history, physiology, and desires. Some folks have brakes that are more sensitive than others and it is all normal, but understanding what type of accelerators and brakes each person has can help them create positive sexual interactions.

For example, getting my pussy licked turns me on. The sensations on my clitoris, when my partner moans, hearing my juices flowing in my body - all activate my accelerator. However, my breaks would get activated if I get in my head regarding if my partner is still enjoying himself; if he grabs me in a way that reminds me of past trauma, or if he doesn’t smell good. Once the brakes have been turned on, despite the pleasurable stimulation, I am no longer in a state where I can enjoy the situation.

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If you are someone that has sensitive brakes and receptive desire, this is not a bad thing at all. However, it is something to understand about yourself and perhaps discuss with partners. For example, a study found that people are more likely to orgasm when they are wearing socks instead of fucking barefoot. I believe this is because people with sensitive brakes begin thinking, “shit, my feet are really cold”, this puts their brakes on and distracts them from the positive sensation. In all situations, you can learn to discuss with your partner what turns your brakes on so that it is less likely to happen in the future. By learning about ourselves and our partners' arousal styles and specific accelerators and brakes, we can create and facilitate a space for more pleasurable sexual interactions!

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