Desire, Spontaneous vs Responsive10 Min Read
Spontaneous vs Responsive
Have you ever experienced the surge of sexual desire that often accompanies a new relationship?
If so, you’re in good company: According to research, the early stages of a new relationship correlate with an 18 to 36 month period of intense emotions and hormones (1). It’s what experts call “New Relationship Energy” (NRE) or “the state of limerence”.
After this initial stage, people often feel a sense of loss or confusion when their sexual desire returns back to — or even dips below — baseline after many months of spiked curiosity and activity (1).
The question is why does that new excitement start to drop back down? And how does someone handle changes in their sex drive, while making sure a partner still feels wanted? Let’s look at typical patterns of desire and some solutions for when people feel things start to wane.
Desire vs Arousal
Desire is not to be confused with arousal, which means becoming physically turned on for sex. Someone who is aroused may still not have a want for sex — in other words, they struggle with desire. By contrast, someone who has an arousal issue may love sex and wanting it often, but have difficulty when it comes to how their body physically responds to stimulation.
Spontaneous vs Responsive Desire
There are two primary types of desire: Spontaneous and responsive.
Spontaneous desire is defined as the natural urge for sex, without the need for sexually relevant stimuli. This is the typical experience during NRE, or during a person’s youth, when their hormones are typically higher — but it is not exclusive to those time frames.
Responsive desire is also known as contextual desire. This refers to someone wanting sex when presented with sexually-relevant stimuli. In other words, the arousal often builds first, and the desire follows.
According to researchers, women are more likely to have responsive desire and men are more likely to have spontaneous desire. However, more people fall into the responsive category over time. As a result, people often think their desire for sex disappears — in reality, it has often only shifted.
The Over-emphasis on Spontaneous Desire
Media and porn make it seem like spontaneous desire is the only way to engage in sex. This is the typical male-as-default scenario at play, as men are more likely to feel spontaneous desire than their female counterparts. In other words, what is considered “normal” for men is thought of as the universal “normal,” which couldn’t be farther from the truth.
As researcher Emily Nagoski explains, “This style is so privileged in our culture, so valued, that it’s easy to feel disempowered if that’s not your primary style.” The idea that men always can spontaneously develop the immediate want for sex is detrimental for everyone, and can cause men to feel pressured as well as women. This kind of thinking tends to overemphasize men’s love and need for sex, which can lead to men questioning their own masculinity in times when their desire wanes.
Whether you experience spontaneous or responsive desire, roughly 30 percent of women and 15 percent of men will experience low desire at some point in their lifetime (3). It can become increasingly difficult to find a way to seek out or engage in sex if and when this happens. Because let’s be clear: shifts in sexual wants will likely affect almost everyone, and these changes bring about questions without obvious solutions.
Areas to Think About
There is likely never just one answer to addressing a loss of desire (6). Here are some common areas to look into:
According to many researchers, stress is the number one libido-killer. It is a survival response that ultimately puts sex on the back burner. Therefore, it’s important to practice basic self-care and find ways to unwind. Take baths, exercise, possibly try meditation —anything that promotes relaxation and stability is fair game.
How Are You Thinking About Sex?
As reseacher Katherine Rowland explains in The Pleasure Gap: American Women and the Unfinished Sexual Revolution, “Individuals should stop beating themselves up for not wanting sex or feeling like they want sex less than they should, and instead re-envision what kind of sex is worth wanting in the first place.”
Rowland argues that a woman’s diminished sexual interest has to do with how she is taught to approach sex (3). Women may initiate sex for motivations regarding self-worth, closeness to a partner, or as a way to demonstrate interest — just to name a few — and these ideas are linked to how the media portrays the female body as a gift for men, and regards female pleasure as a secondary intent.
For example, consider what life would be like if women orgasmed every time (or most of the time) during intercourse, and their male partners never did? How uncomfortable would both people feel? This thought experiment demonstrates how easy it is for pleasure to take a back seat — no wonder women experience lower levels of desire over time! This same thought process can absolutely apply to men as well, especially if they find their typical sex lives unenjoyable. Therefore, it’s worth sitting down and really thinking through your genuine needs and desires — and how your partners or sexual activity are or aren’t meeting those demands.
There’s no neat answer when it comes to how hormones might affect a person’s desire. Some experts believe they can play a role, and note that if we already recognize “raging hormones” as a reason for a young person’s high sexual desire, we should also consider later-in-life hormonal changes as a reason for low desire as well. (6).
Conversely, Nagoski believes that hormones are the least likely problem when it comes to the issue of desire. Instead, she believes a person’s emotional experiences — such as stress, depression, and so on — are much more likely to affect desire.
Regardless, I believe hormones are always worth looking into; a drop in testosterone, estrogen, or prolactin can create a strong shift in how you experience your sexuality and how you express it. For example, testosterone is linked to both male and female sex drives, so if that shifts, so will the sex (4). While overall hormone levels likely won’t be the only culprit causing change, it could be a factor. As always, talk to your doctor or with a sex therapist if you feel like something is wrong.
Desire can often be compromised by other problems, such as pain. If sex is consistently painful, it makes sense why you might want to avoid it. Should this be the case for you, talk to your doctor straight away. It can also be helpful to find ways to manage pain, such as using dilators, or obtaining a medical diagnosis (6).
"Just Do It"
According to sex expert Bat Sheva Marcus, taking the Nike approach to desire can sometimes help you snap out of a low point. In other words? “Just do it.”
For example, if you previously experienced spontaneous desire that has since shifted to responsive desire, it’s worth noting that your desire isn’t actually gone. She argues that you just need to get into the space to feel it. The more you have pleasurable and consensual sex, the more you realize you actually enjoy it. Your brain’s neuroplasticity can eventually create a more positive link between sex and pleasure, and may lead to a boost in wanting it.
Of course, there is a caveat: Pushing through and forcing yourself to have sex if you really don’t want to is never a good idea — you should consent to every encounter with enthusiasm. What’s more, experiencing pain is your body’s way of sending you a major red flag. Pushing through that may create a link between pain and sex in your brain, making it something you want less and less.
If you continue to experience genuine dread or an inability to enjoy sex, it never hurts to talk to a medical professional or a sex therapist to work through these issues!
Plan the “On/Offs”
Some experts believe that people who struggle with sexual desire can benefit from setting times for sex. While scheduling sex never sounds that great, you may start to realize it’s not a bad solution once you get into the (literal) rhythm. As always, check in with your body and mind — if you or your partner is not enthusiastically consenting to the encounter, stop immediately.
You can also try planning when you are not going to have sex. This can help address fears of intimacy, especially if one partner who is not interested in sex worries that touching or kissing will lead their partner to assume sex is coming. Planning around when you aren’t having sex can really help to remove the pressure, while keeping intimacy alive in the relationship.
Take Your Pleasure Seriously
Desire is intertwined with so many aspects of a person’s sex life, so if you struggle to reach orgasm, have trouble getting aroused, or experience pain, it’s no wonder why you might experience lower levels of desire. But what if you’re just plain unsatisfied with your sex life? How can you foster your own excitement during sex?
The idea that sex is almost always spontaneous and out of the blue is just not how it works for a lot of people. Sure, planning times to have sex might not feel inherently sexy, but it can help you make sure your sexual wellbeing and pleasure are at the forefront of the experience (2). It’s also worth not comparing your sexual self to a prior version of you that existed during NRE. That is not really your baseline level of sexual desire, given that desire is often heightened by hormones and novelty, especially early on in a person’s relationship.
Find What Is Desirable
Two things can be true at the same time: People often need safety and companionship with a partner; those same people often seek out novelty, tension, and mystery, all of which can help build a person’s sense of desire. Bat Sheva suggests tapping into new experiences with your partner, and especially those that push each of you outside of your “usual” roles. For example, she often tasks her clients with going to work with their partner or trying new activities as a couple — in other words, seeing them in a new way outside of the house (6).
Of course, mystery can have its downsides: One of the biggest reasons why people seek out affairs is the way such novelty can increase a person’s sexual desire. This happens for both the person who had the affair, and the person who was cheated on, as the latter can now see their partner as someone they don’t fully know. Of course, take this with a grain of salt, as affairs are rarely good ideas for anyone involved. However, understanding why people seek them out can help bring clarity to anyone who may have experienced a boost in desire during a time of betrayal and pain, and found it difficult to explain.
3. Rowland, Katherine. The Pleasure Gap: American Women and the Unfinished Sexual Revolution. Seal Press, 2020.
4. Roberts, Matthias. Beyond Shame: Creating a Healthy Sex Life on Your Own Terms. Fortress Press, 2020.
6. Marcus, Bat Sheva. Sex Points: Reclaim Your Sex Life with the Revolutionary Multi-Point System. Hachette Go, 2021.