Different Levels of Arousal: Spontaneous and Responsive Desire
One second, two strangers meet at a bar, and in a single scene change, the fire is ignited and it's on. But Hollywood's selling barely half the picture. This passion-filled, steamy desire we watch in rom-coms represents only about half the population, if that, leaving everyone else wondering why their sex lives lack "movie magic."
Don't worry. This cinematic chemistry might be flashy and thrilling, but tons of people have different levels of arousal.
But this profuse, impulsive attraction is not how everyone experiences desire. To get turned on, many people need to gradually open up to the idea of sex play, whether that means using sex toys, kissing or even just weighing the pros and cons. This is responsive desire.
"Picture this: You're in the living room just minding your own business, and your partner walks in and they look hot and suddenly you're really turned on and you want to jump in bed with them now," said Susan Milstein, Ph.D., a master-certified health education specialist and certified sexologist in New York City. "That's spontaneous desire. It's the kind of thing that we see in movies and TV shows all the time.
"Responsive desire is more that our bodies aren't quite turned on, but we're open to the idea of sex play. So while we might not be looking at our partner thinking, 'I want to do them,' you start engaging in sex play and your body and brain get more and more turned on," Milstein added.
Understanding arousal and desire
Spontaneous desire is virtually instantaneous. It happens when the mind and body sync up and sexual desire feels unanimous. It's impulsive and excellent for selling a fragrance or keeping an audience's attention. In these depictions, anything else is classified as "low libido." But that's not necessarily the case. In contrast to spontaneous desire, many people approach sex responsively. The responsive partner might not impulsively feel horny, but could feel open to the idea of sex.
This difference exists mostly because we all have different levels of arousal and desire. Most people might not think so, but arousal and desire operate separately. Arousal is a unanimous response to stimuli occurring in the nervous system, whereas desire refers to the mind wanting something. Just because you don't feel active desire, that does not mean your libido, or sex drive, is low; it may be due to limited communication.
"Responsive desire is when arousal has to happen first before desire. The responsive person may not naturally think much about sex," said Nicoletta Heidegger, M.A., a licensed marriage and family therapist in California. "Instead, they may have to assess the reasons why they want to connect, weigh the pros and cons, have the dishes done and then they have to be open to the idea of getting turned on. Then, once they start to feel physical arousal, they think, 'Oh, yeah, I remember I like doing this; this feels nice. Now I want to have sex!'"
Tapping into your responsive desire
If you find yourself unable to relate to cinematic sex scenes, you're likely someone who experiences responsive desire. This type of desire requires erotic stimuli, which could mean anything from cuddling to watching porn. But this desire can be easily dismissed as low libido, causing unnecessary tension in a relationship. By taking the time to understand responsive desire, a couple can avoid feeling isolated due to mismatched desire and arousal patterns, and eventually improve their sex lives as a whole.
"Understanding that different types of desire exist is important for not only improving your sex life, but also for addressing a disconnect if it exists," Milstein said. "Since we so often see the spontaneous desire portrayed in the media, we may think that if that's not how we feel desire that there must be something wrong with us."
Limiting our understanding of desire to be exclusively spontaneous creates anxieties about a relationship for the wrong reasons.
All media perpetuates the myth that spontaneous desire is the sole form of desire, but Heidegger believes a significant reason for this portrayal is a patriarchal society. Historically, most research centered on desire measured male pleasure and disregarded female pleasure. By expanding the definition of pleasure, we can better understand the modes of responsive desire. Limiting our understanding of desire to be exclusively spontaneous creates anxieties about a relationship for the wrong reasons.
"The biggest myth is that if you really love someone, you'll always want to have sex with them. This is based a lot on what we see in movies and social media; it also comes from the fact that we don't ever talk about desire," Milstein said.
The bottom line is to give credit to your different levels of arousal, because while they might not match up with your partner's, this doesn't signify a shortcoming in the relationship. Instead, set aside the expectation that your life should have more sexy movie magic and find out what stimulates you and your partner. By creating a space for intimacy or adding some exposition, your sex life might just open up.
"It's easy to think there's something wrong in the relationship when our partner doesn't react the same way we do or if they don't react the way we expect," Milstein said. "Learning about the differences can help us understand that it's not a problem with the relationship, it's just that there's a difference in how each person experiences desire."