“If you are someone who doesn’t feel randomly and spontaneously turned on all the time, there’s nothing wrong with you. It’s totally normal to go through periods where you don’t feel like having sex.”
The phrase “sex drive” represents a myth: that the desire to have sex is a drive, a necessary survival instinct, like hunger. It implies that if we don’t get sex, we’ll die. We won’t! We can go long periods without sex, and whether that bothers us or not, we’re not going to die. No one has ever died from not having sex.
Connection and touch, on the other hand, are needs. Humans are social animals. Long periods of isolation, whether that means physical isolation or simply living a life without meaningful human touch and connection, can be damaging for us. Babies who aren’t touched as infants can have disrupted hormone patterns, higher stress, and social and behavioral problems when they grow up. Solitary confinement as a form of punishment in prisons is increasingly being understood as a form of torture. For that reason, it can feel for some of us like sex is a need, especially if that’s the only place we are accessing touch, intimacy, affection, and connection with another human being.
All that being said, low sexual desire is a very common problem, especially for women (at least, according to self-reported surveys). But it’s possible women are self-reporting low desire simply because they have a different desire pattern than what they think is normal.
In 2001, Dr. Rosemary Basson suggested that sexual desire may not be the sudden, random hunger that it’s often portrayed to be, but rather something that arises in the right environment in response to the right stimulus. While some of us have spontaneous desire—that sudden urge to have sex apropos of nothing—others have responsive desire, which means the urge arises in response to the right cues.
Emily Nagoski explains in her book Come as You Are that 95 percent of men have spontaneous desire, while only 70 percent of women do. That means a whopping 30 percent of women need certain conditions to be in place before sexual desire can happen at all.
It goes like this. We all have an internal sexual system with two modes, which Nagoski refers to an accelerator and a brake. The accelerator is the sexual excitation system (SES) and the brake is the sexual inhibition system (SIS). The SIS will activate when, for whatever reason, it doesn’t seem safe to have sex: There are other, more important priorities (finding food, getting the kids off to school, big meeting coming up), there are threats in the environment (tigers! cell phones buzzing!), and so on. When the SIS is relatively quiet, the SES may activate—but only in response to the right kind of sexual stimuli. That could be some sexy music, the right kind of affectionate touch (which has the double benefit of reducing stress), your partner in a sexy new outfit, the right kind of porn, or whatever turn-ons work for you.
Generally, most of us are hanging out in a sexually neutral place, neither turned on nor off. For someone with spontaneous desire, the brakes are mostly off and the accelerator is sensitive. Someone with responsive desire may just need to make the choice to take the foot off the brake (usually by reducing stress) and find some good ways to hit the accelerator.
Most relationships start out with lots of hot sex. New partners can barely take their hands off each other. Then, as the relationship gets closer and more secure, sex drops off. Dating a new person is its own major sexual stimulus—simply the presence of that person is going to be a turn on. In the early days of dating, our minds are already on sex—we’re in the mood before we even show up to a date. When we get closer to someone and more used to that person being around, the relationship isn’t centered around sex anymore. That’s okay—it just means we need to make some choices to get out of the sexually neutral zone.
If you are someone who doesn’t feel randomly and spontaneously turned on all the time, there’s nothing wrong with you. It’s totally normal to go through periods where you don’t feel like having sex, and that’s just fine. But if it does bother you and you want more sexy energy in your life, the recipe is simple: Reduce stress and increase appropriate sexual stimuli.
Yes, that means you might have to plan for sex. Schedule some time with your partner where you don’t have to be anywhere for a while. Put your phones away and turn on some relaxing (sexy) music. You could take a hot shower, put your lotion on slowly. Dress in something that you find sexy. Take in your partner, hopefully wearing something that person finds sexy. Take the time to cuddle, hug, and touch each other. Take the pressure off, take your time, and you may find that you are more than ready to have some hot, satisfying sex with your intimate partner.