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Why there's no such thing as a sex drive

By Esther De La Ford // BBC The Social contributor // 03 June 2021

In my opinion, the myth of the ‘sex drive’ is ruining our sex lives and making us feel more inadequate than turned on.

There’s nothing quite like being told you don’t have sex enough, or initiate sex enough, or want sex enough, to kill any residual lingering feelings of possible horniness dead in their tracks. No matter how gently it’s said. Not feeling good enough is not good for relationships, intimacy or sex. And on the other end of the spectrum, feeling like a sex pest because you’re experiencing desire more frequently than your partner isn’t fun either!

If I said that, statistically, men have higher sex drives than women, I’m guessing most people wouldn’t bat an eyelid.

Some people might disagree, saying they or someone they know is an exception to the rule, but generally, many people seem to believe that desire comes more easily and more frequently to men than it does to women.

But, those people would be wrong. It’s because there’s actually NO SUCH THING AS A SEX DRIVE. At all. Well, at least not in the way we’ve all been told.

No Such Thing as a Sex Drive

Did you know there were two different ways of experiencing desire?

‘Drive’ is a word used in science to describe the motivational system we have that helps us navigate life or death situations. Good examples would be the drive to find food, warmth or shelter. Something within us pushes us to search for the things that we most need to stay alive.

For a long time, it was assumed that because some people (most often men) felt the need to seek out sex in response to feeling desire (whether with a long-term partner, or on a night out!) that the desire for sex itself was a drive. But if we go without sex, we don’t die. Unlike with everything else we feel a drive to seek out. Yes, if no one had sex ever again and IVF and artificial insemination stopped being things, we would go extinct. But that’s not how we measure a drive, we measure it based on whether we need something to stay physically alive, as individuals.

So, what do we mean when we say someone has a ‘high sex drive’, if desire isn’t a drive?

We probably mean that they regularly experience and express a desire for sexual intimacy, but breaking this down further, what we really probably mean is that their primary desire style (a term coined by Dr Emily Nagoski) is Spontaneous desire.

The idea of desire styles is that there are two different ways we can experience desire; Spontaneous Desire, and Responsive Desire. Your primary desire style is the style you most frequently experience desire through. This can however change throughout your life.

People who experience spontaneous desire will often experience desire seemingly at random, through a stray thought about sex or seeing their partner wearing something that they really like, and it will push them to want to seek out sex.

Exploring this further, when we say someone has a ‘low sex drive’, suggesting low or infrequent feelings of sexual desire, we probably really mean that their primary desire style is responsive desire. As in, they need something to happen to make them feel physically aroused and remind them they actually quite like having sex, before they feel the desire to seek it out. And what exactly they need will be totally unique to them, and they may even be unaware of themselves.

The idea of desire styles is that there are two different ways we can experience desire; Spontaneous Desire, and Responsive Desire. Your primary desire style is the style you most frequently experience desire through. This can however change throughout your life.

We probably also mean that they aren’t getting exposed to things that make them feel aroused very often.

We have this idea that desire for sex is something that should just happen, it’s not something that should need to be worked at or cultivated. We should just want each other, at least 3 times a week but preferably every day, because that’s the amount we’ve decided means our relationship is passionate and healthy. If we don’t just want each other, it can feel like something is wrong or broken. But I promise that’s not the case.

According to Dr Emily Nagoski in her sex-science book ‘Come As You Are’, it’s estimated around 70% of men typically experience spontaneous desire more than responsive desire.

But for 5%-10% of men and anywhere from 20% - 60% of women, responsive desire is their primary desire style.

What does this mean for your average Joe who doesn’t get turned on by sex statistics? It means that 70% of men don’t have higher sex drives than women, they just often experience desire in a different way.

(Unfortunately the studies that culminated in these statistics only includes cis-gendered men and women, and there is very little research surrounding desire for people whose identities and experiences fit outside of these boxes.)

Put simply, men experience spontaneous desire far more commonly than women, and women are much more likely to experience responsive desire as their primary desire style.

This could indicate that, if you’re a woman who in the past may have thought that they just had a ‘low sex drive’, you actually just experience responsive desire more than spontaneous, and haven’t been finding yourself exposed to things that you respond to very often. This is not your fault, or your partners. It’s just really useful information to have because now you can take action (if you want to).

You can ask yourself; what do you respond to? What arouses you? Thinking back to past experiences where you’ve felt incredibly turned on and filled with desire, what was the context surrounding that experience? Can you pin-point things that you know really ‘did it’ for you in the past?

Finding balance between two people who may have thought they just had mismatched sex drives that they would have to simply live with, can instead be about finding out what both peoples primary desire styles are. Then, if everyone wants to and are willing to do the work and spend the time exploring, and communicating, it can become about exploring what typically triggers desire in the more responsive partner so that eventually everyone is on the same page and can have a jolly good time!

Working with your primary desire styles can help create a level of intimacy that feels right to you both, regardless of how that measures up to your ideas of how much sex you ‘should’ be having.

‘Should’ is the enemy of desire.