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Is Sexual Desire Even Important?





Camera pans up: two ravenous lovers cannot contain themselves. They are ripping into each other with the vigor of two teenagers who were told that having sex was naughty. The urge to do that thing despite knowing that being caught might mean a lecture, disapproval, or even eternal damnation is so dang hot that the two can’t keep their hands off each other. I’ll leave the rest to the imagination. 


Jump cut to 12 years, a couple of kids, a mortgage, and a spring break vacation to plan. Those two lovers haven’t touched each other in months; at least, not successfully. Some might say it’s because the ‘spark’ isn’t there anymore. It just seems to have burned out. This spark is what most of us refer to as desire and it is apparently the engine that drives the train of sexual relationships. 


Perhaps it feels like if you aren’t interested in ripping your partner’s clothes off or having your own clothes ripped off, then sex isn’t for you. 


What if I told you that there’s another way to look at this whole thing? What if I said that desire was the wrong metric to look at when thinking about whether, how, and how much sex you should be having? 


Well, that’s exactly what I’m going to tell you! 


I’m drawing this idea from the work of two brilliant sex educators, therapists, and thinkers: Emily  Nagoski, PhD and Cyndi Darnell. The former is most well known for her work in “Come as You Are” and “Come Together,” and the latter for a great book called “Sex When You Don’t Feel Like It.”  The common themes of both of these authors’ works are to re-tool what we think we know about the role sexual desire plays. I'll also offer some ways of thinking about changing things up that are driven by pleasure and connection rather than desire.


Responsive vs. Spontaneous Desire


First, it makes sense to understand the two different types of desire.


“I could really go for some ice cream” on a random Tuesday afternoon… that’s spontaneous desire. It’s the out of the blue feeling that something would be satisfying. We have this type of feeling about lots of pleasurable things. This is one of the ways that people experience sexual desire. The wind blows and sexual activity sounds interesting. This is not the only way that people experience sexual desire though. In fact, it isn’t necessarily the primary way that people experience it! Do a little experiment with yourself. If you find yourself desiring sexual activity, take a second to think about where it came from. Was it truly spontaneous or was there something in the environment that you are responding to? If it’s the latter, you might actually be experiencing responsive desire.


Responsive desire is the experience of becoming interested in and desirous of something given circumstances in the environment. You might really start to crave that ice cream because it’s warm out, you just ate dinner, and you hear the ice cream truck driving down your street. If those conditions hadn’t been met, you may not have experienced desire for ice cream. Well, the same goes for sexual desire. Many folks primarily experience desire for sexual activity in a responsive manner. You may see your partner do something that you find particularly attractive (like being good at their job, being a good parent, standing up for themselves), you might smell a certain fragrance on a partner’s body, you may feel a touch that reminds them of the pleasure that comes from sexual activity that they’ve enjoyed in the past. 


There is no correct way to experience desire. There is also not a correct amount of desire (of either type) that people are supposed to experience. Desire frequency is only a problem when you feel distressed by it... not your partner!


Openness


One of the things I hear a lot from ‘low desire’ partners is that they feel like they need to be all the way into having intercourse before they agree to any type of physical touch or intimacy. That feels like a tall order! And one that is bound to disappoint both partners. In Cyndi Darnell’s book Sex When You Don’t Feel Like It she offers up the idea of fostering a sense of openness that might look different from waiting until you are all the way desirous. This does not mean that you should ignore what your body tells you feels good, that consent should not be enthusiastic, or that you should do something just because someone else wants you to. What this means is tapping into what you are open to in the moment rather than driving towards a specific end goal (e.g. intercourse or orgasm). Can you think about being open to some other type of touch without the pressure to go further? When we focus on what we are open to rather than simply what we don’t want, we are likely to do something that feels pleasurable and connecting rather than simply shutting down.


If you’ve worked with me, you’ve heard me say, “everything is about blood flow.” When we are in “no” mode, we constrict, brace, and create high pressure situations. That’s bad for blood flow. When we foster a sense of openness, we breathe, we can be open and creative, and it’s good for blood flow (and erections, lubrication, and orgasms!). 


Variety

 

Imagine if I said “dinner” and that only meant one thing. It meant the same piece of protein, the same starch, and the same vegetable. Every night. It might even be a great meal. You would get bored of it though. You wouldn’t desire it. It would start to feel like a chore. You might need to convince yourself that it’s just better to get yourself through it. Starting to see where I’m going?


You aren’t going to hear me say you need to go out and get handcuffs, a swing, and the most sophisticated sex toys in order to introduce variety. You sure can, and I love that for you. But you truly don’t have to. 


What does seem right to me, though, is that we need to have something to look forward to about sex. One of the ways to accomplish this is to rid ourselves of the idea that intercourse is somehow superior to other types of sexual activity. Intercourse won’t always work. Be it age, disability, health concern, or what have you. The overwhelming majority of folks will experience some type of difficulty with sexual functioning in the course of their relationship(s). If we can move towards sexual satisfaction being separate and distinct from the success of intercourse, we are far more likely to be successful!


So what’s on your sexual menu? Again, no need to get fancy. Sensual massages or ‘heavy petting’ can be quite nice when one or both partners aren’t open to intercourse. Have you thought about changing the time of day? What about keeping the lights on? Just some ideas. Expand your sexual menu and dinner won’t feel so boring, forced, or bland. 


Pressure


Now this is a word all too common in couples’ sexual dynamics. One partner feels like there isn’t enough sexual activity happening, the other feels bad, the one who feels bad starts to guilt or shame themselves into trying to get there. And as we know, guilt and shame are not the motivators we have been trained to think they are. If they were, I probably wouldn’t have a job. That’s how good people are at guilting themselves!


So, how do you get this out of the sexual cycle? Well, first you have to acknowledge that it’s there. And you probably have to talk about it, maybe even with a professional (Hi!). The partner feeling the pressure might need to feel like they have more say in the dynamic for the time being. They may need a moratorium on intercourse or sexual touch to give them time to rebuild their sexual experiences as a positive and worthwhile endeavor instead of just something that's done to please someone else.


I’ll challenge you to try to find ways to replace pressure with pleasure! Emily Nagoski says that “pleasure is the measure” and that it’s less about how much sex we’re having, but how much we enjoy what we are having. So what needs to change for each of you to enjoy what is happening rather than counting days, weeks, months, or even years since you’ve last been sexual? 


The Dreaded Schedule


A lot of people roll their eyes at this one. You might need to schedule sex. I’m so sorry to burst your bubble, but people do it all the time when they’re dating and don’t blink an eye! Why would sex spontaneously happen when you’re both tired, working demanding jobs, trying to raise rugrats, managing in-laws, among a thousand other things?! I often encourage folks to find multiple times throughout the week to dedicate to physical or sexual connection. If you’ve read all of this, you know that doesn’t mean you have to have intercourse. If pleasure is your metric, you could theoretically never have intercourse again (if you’re both okay with that) and have a massively successful sexual relationship! So find 2, 3, heck even 4 times in a week (whatever feels good to you) and commit to seeing what you’re open to in those times. If a brief snuggle and a head rub is what you’re up for, great! If one of you wants to masturbate and be held by the other, great! If you want to engage in some sort of synchronous sexual activity or intercourse, also great! I will remind you though that pressure can’t be a part of this. If one partner says, “I’d love you to rub my feet” then that’s what they’re up for. If that changes, they’ll tell you… I promise!


Wrapping it all up


So maybe desire isn’t the one ring to rule them all after all? Perhaps, we can shift from getting hung up on waiting around for this thing that may or may not come (hehe) and shift our attention towards the things we have more control over. We can stack the deck in our favor and create circumstances that reduce pressure, help us feel openness, and increase variety. 


At the end of the day, it probably won’t hurt to get really focused on talking about this with a professional in counseling. At B’well counseling, we work with people, not problems. We don’t believe that the biggest priority should be finding out what’s ‘wrong’ with you so we can ‘fix’ it. Rather, we think it makes more sense to get to know you and help you get to know yourself better. We also think it makes sense to acknowledge the role of the chaos and broken systems around us in our problems. It’s our hope that you’ll learn some useful skills along the way, but more importantly, that you’ll come to have a better relationship with yourself and those closest to you. 


So whether you’re looking for a therapist to address your relationship to people, your body, your identity, your career or our dumpster fire of a world, we think we might have some fresh perspective to offer you. Reach out today through the contact form on our website or just send any one of us an email. We can’t wait to hear from you. And until then, be well. 

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