Have you ever seen a movie where two characters are on a date, they take one single look at each other, and the next thing you know they’re getting hot and heavy? Nearly every rom-com has one of these scenes, and for many people, this fiery, spontaneous desire for sex is relatable. For others, however, this is an entirely incomprehensible moment. For me, I’ve never been able to get turned on simply by thinking about sex or taking one look at my partner. This is because I have “responsive desire.” And while responsive desire is a common, normal, and healthy way to get turned on, for a long time, I was sure there was something wrong with me because my sex life didn’t look like scenes from rom-coms.
I had good reason to think there was something wrong with me though. I, like many other people, learned that I was supposed to experience sexual desire spontaneously—that I should, out of the blue, want to get it on just at the thought of sex. But the thought of sex alone doesn’t do it for many of us. You see, there are three different ways to experience sexual desire—spontaneous desire, responsive desire, and context dependent desire. And one of the keys to a healthy sex life is understanding your desire style and what it means about your sex life. Feeling overwhelmed with yet another thing to learn about yourself? Don’t worry, we’ve got you covered. Read on for our guide to the three desire styles, how to figure out yours, and what it means for your sex life.
What are the different types of sexual desire?
Spontaneous desire is what we see in movies—when a couple is on a date and they give each other one quick look, and boom, they’re in the bathroom stall having sex. When someone has spontaneous desire it may feel like they get turned on almost out of nowhere, or just at the thought of a fantasy, or seeing someone they think is hot. It comes on fast and doesn’t take much time for them to be in the mood.
Responsive desire is pretty much the opposite of spontaneous desire. Responsive desire is slow. If someone has responsive desire they usually don’t want sex until after they’re having it. Yes, you got that right—there are lots of people who don’t actually want sex until after they’ve started making out, watching porn, playing with toys, or whatever it is they’re into. That’s because people with responsive desire (hello, that’s me!) need sexual stimulus (aka anything our brain considers to be sex related) to get turned on.
Context Dependent Desire
The third type of desire is what Emily Nagoski, Ph.D., Sex Researcher and Writer calls context dependent desire in her book Come As You Are. People who have context dependent desire find they experience spontaneous desire in some situations, while in other situations, they experience responsive desire. Picture it this way: at the beginning of a relationship your desire is spontaneous—just one look at your partner and you want to have sex—but months or years into a relationship, you find your desire is more responsive—it takes a little more time to get the fire started. I talked with Carol Queen, Ph.D., and Staff Sexologist at Good Vibrations about context dependent desire and she said that things like major stress at work, becoming a parent, or even worrying someone can hear you having sex can all change whether your desire is more spontaneous or responsive.
How to know what your desire style is
If you’re holding your breath, permission to exhale. The point here isn’t to stress out over putting yourself in a box, but to give you information you need to have the sex life you want, so take what you need and leave the rest.
You may have spontaneous desire if: you get turned on just by the thought of a partner or a fantasy. Having spontaneous desire can feel sudden, almost like you want to have sex out of thin air. You might even find that you initiate sex or want to initiate sex often since you find you can get turned on pretty quickly or just when you think about sex.
You may have responsive desire if: you find that you get turned on after you’ve started using your favorite sex toy or after your partner has begun touching your favorite spots. You might notice that you go through your days without seeking out sex and you usually get hot and heavy after someone else has initiated or after you’ve encountered something your brain considers sexual stimulus, like a sensual massage, or even a sex scene in a movie.
You may have context dependent desire if: you look back at your life and remember times where you felt spontaneous desire and times when you felt responsive desire. As you read the definitions of the desire types, you might have related to both of them. In fact, Nagoski speculates that most of us probably have context dependent desire and that many of us have probably experienced both spontaneous and responsive desire at some point in our lives.
How does your desire style impact your sex life?
One of the most common complaints I hear from people with responsive desire is that they feel broken. And guess what happens to your sex life when you feel broken? Your libido tanks, it’s hard to find pleasure, you get worried about your performance, the list goes on. You get it. So let me be crystal clear. You aren’t broken. Responsive desire isn’t an “ailment” that needs to be “cured.”
Having responsive desire also means that in order to get turned on, you likely need to intentionally seek out sexual stimulus. This means pulling out that vibrator, reading or listening to erotica, asking your partner to kiss your neck, back, or whatever spot does it for you. Learning what you need to get turned on can be a game changer for people with responsive desire.
While spontaneous desire is the fastest route to arousal, it’s not necessarily simpler or easier to work with than any other kind of desire. People with spontaneous desire tend to be the one to initiate sex, and for some people, initiating sex can be really hard, or even feel off limits. Women, for example, are often seen as “gatekeepers” not initiators, so some women struggle to initiate sex, or are even labeled a slut or unladylike. So let’s set the record straight—wanting sex does not make you a slut. Spontaneous desire people can also get tired of initiating sex because they want a turn to feel desired.
If you have context dependent desire, you might feel confused or even frustrated as to why, at times, your desire feels so spontaneous and why, at other times, it’s responsive. Please remember, you’re not broken when your desire is responsive and you’re not “too much,” when your desire is spontaneous. It’s natural for your desire to change along with the circumstances in your life. Excitingly, there are ways to hack context dependent desire by re-creating contexts in your life that have been conducive to spontaneous desire in the past. While my desire leans toward being responsive, I do find that when I’m less stressed, when my mental health is on the up, or when I feel emotionally connected to a partner, my desire becomes more spontaneous. But these are just my conditions for being more spontaneous—it’s up to you to figure out what yours are (luckily, Nagoski has a quiz for this).