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A New Understanding of Sexual Desire

Recently, in my sessions with couples, I’ve had the opportunity to explain an important concept we all missed in sex education, and it’s an incredibly liberating one: responsive desire.

If you or your partner find that you don’t tend to want sex but then you enjoy it once you’re having it, fear not. It’s entirely normal. For women, it’s common. Knowing you have responsive desire and adjusting accordingly can really jump-start your sex life.

Read on to learn more.

couple kissing photo

The most common fear when it comes to sex centers around the question, “Am I normal?” And many of our notions of normalcy come from abnormal sources (i.e. movies, TV, the media) where sex manages to be both glamorized and debased.

One of the most dangerous myths is based on old research. The Masters and Johnson model said that desire precedes arousal, and that means that many people–especially women–are led to feel deficient when they don’t experience desire independent from actual physical stimulation (when they’re not aware of their sex drive throughout the functions of daily life.) If we’re not getting horny on a regular basis, what’s wrong with us?

New research has shown that the majority of women and a good number of men fall into the category of having responsive desire. What that means is, you don’t necessarily crave sex but once you’re having it, it’s like, “Hey, this feels good! Why don’t I do this more often?”

The answer is you can forget how good it feels because you’re not routinely cued by desire. Therefore, you and your partner need to figure out a system wherein you create more cues–where you don’t just decide whether you’re in the mood on a given day or night, but you actively work to get in the mood; and you’ll be rewarded handsomely.

With responsive desire, the desire is cued by arousal itself. This is a very liberating idea for many people who thought something was wrong with them, with their partner, or with their relationship. It just means that you have to approach sex differently than if you were driven to do it. You might not be driven there, but you can enjoy it just as much as your partner. It’s akin to starting a stick shift car in second rather than first gear. Once you’re moving, there’s no difference in the ride.

Something to be aware of is if you’ve stopped doing certain things that might lead to sex because you’ve decided it’s foreplay. For example, a lot of couples don’t do open-mouthed kissing unless they already know they’re going to have sex. With responsive desire, that means you’re shutting off a primary route to pleasure.

The act of making the decision–not tonight, I’m tired or I have a headache, etc.–then means that desire won’t be triggered, since desire is simultaneous with arousal. It can also mean that you find you go a looooong time without sex, even though, paradoxically, you actually like sex.

Allow yourself to have an experience that may or may not lead to arousal, and just stay open to the possibility. You could cuddle naked, or give each other massages, or kiss deeply with no stress or pressure. At the very least, you’ll feel close to your partner; at the most, you’ll give your sex life a boost.

A New Understanding of Sexual Desire

Holly Brown, LMFT

Holly Brown is a marriage and family therapist in the San Francisco Bay area. She has a private practice in Alameda ( ). She is also a novelist ( Her latest is HOW FAR SHE'S COME, a workplace thriller which received a starred review from Publisher's Weekly: "This provocative tale will resonate with many in the era of the #MeToo movement."

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APA Reference
Brown, H. (2017). A New Understanding of Sexual Desire. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 31, 2020, from


Last updated: 1 Dec 2017
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