I’ve spent 2015 traveling all over the U.S., teaching to people about the science of sex, and talking with them about their own sexual wellbeing.
And there was one scientific idea I taught that people told me, over and over, everywhere I went, had changed their lives and made them feel for the first time in years — in some cases the for first time ever — that they are normal.
That idea is responsive desire.
Now I want to tell every one — and I want you to tell everyone, too.
first: how desire works
Suppose you’re just flipping through channels, not even thinking about sex, and your sexy, loving certain-special-someone comes along are starts massaging your earlobes in that amazing way they have. Your brain goes, “Ohhhh that feels nice. Do more of that!” And then your certain-special-someone begins to nip and bite at your earlobes in that super-extra-special way they have… and your brain goes, “Hey now! How about some sexytimes!”
Pleasure comes first. Then desire. It’s called responsive desire, and it’s healthy and normal.
But it’s not what we were taught is “normal.” Most of us were taught the standard (but wrong) cultural narrative of sexual functioning:
Step 1, you want some sex — Erika Moen illustrates this as a lightning bolt to the genitals; Step 2 the lightning bolt motivates you to go and get some sex, which increases lubrication and bloodflow to the genitals; and finally Step 3 you have an orgasm, probably during penile-vaginal intercourse. (Because systemic heteronormativity.)
This is certainly how it seems to work for some people, at least some of the time. Spontaneous, out-of-the-blue desire for sex, followed by bloodflow changes culminating in orgasm. But for a lot of people, all three of these things — desire, arousal, and orgasm — work differently, at least some of the time.
We can talk about arousal and orgasm another time. Today, I want to tell you the truth about desire.
Spontaneous desire is the standard model, and it can be healthy and normal. Responsive desire is another healthy, normal way that people experience sexual desire. Instead of emerging in anticipation of sexual pleasure, like spontaneous desire, responsive desire emerges in response to sexual pleasure.
Responsive desire isn’t so much a lightning bolt, heralding the approaching storm, as it is a slow, rolling thundercloud that comes along at the same time as the freshening rain.
Or, here’s a helpful analogy for responsive desire that I learned from sex therapist Dr Christine Hyde:
Imagine that a good friend invites you to her party, and you accept the invitation because she’s your good friend. The closer you get to the night of the party, the more you’re like, “Ugh, there’s going to be traffic, I have to get a baby sitter…” and even the night of the party you’re thinking, “I have to put on real clothes and wear make up, this is such a hassle!”
But you go, because you said you would, and she’s your good friend.
And when you get to the party… and you have a great time!
That’s responsive desire.
It’s normal and healthy!
(For a more thorough discussion, see The Science of Saving Your Sex Life.)
How many people experience responsive desire?
There isn’t yet a scientifically validated instrument to assess responsive desire directly, but a number that researchers generally agree on is that responsive desire is the primary desire style for roughly 30% of women, and most people experience it at some point in their lives.
When I wrote a New York Times op ed about responsive desire, I got more emails from men than from women saying, “Thank you for this language, it describes what I’ve been experiencing,” so even though it’s tempting to think, “Women are responsive, men are spontaneous,” it’s clear that both men and women can experience both desire styles — and we don’t yet have research on folks outside the gender binary. (Because systemic ciscentrism.)
next: the paradigm shift
Don’t get me wrong: spontaneous desire can be fun.
But it’s the fun — not the desire — that matters. Wanting sex is not the central feature of sexual wellbeing. The central feature of sexual wellbeing is: Liking the sex you have.
Let me make the rhyme for you, so you’ll remember and tell your friends:
Pleasure is the measure.
Of sexual wellbeing, I mean. Pleasure. Not how much you want sex, not how much sex you have, or with whom, or what you do, or where or how often. The key to assessing your own sexual wellbeing is not how much you want sex, but how much you like the sex you are having.
Pleasure is the measure.
I’m not sure how we got to a place, culturally, where we came to value the craving for sex so much higher than the enjoyment of sex — it probably has something to do with Puritanim and something to do with capitalism, I don’t know. Maybe one of you knows. But for me what matters most is that you feel free to let go of the idea that there is a certain amount of “wanting” you’re supposed to be experiencing or else you’re “broken,” and embrace instead the idea that if you’re having fun a the party, you are doing it right.
then: the problems
I believe that the folks at Sprout Pharmaceuticals — the company that owns Flibanserin, the so-called “pink viagra” — have good intentions. I believe that they want to help women who are struggling with sexual desire.
And I believe that they feel sure — as most people do— that lack of spontaneous, out-of-the-blue desire for sex is a problem. A disease.
They are wrong — as you now know.
It’s not their fault, really, that they’re wrong. Cindy Whitehead, Sprout CEO, isn’t a sex researcher, educator, or therapist. She’s a marketing professional, and she’s darn good at her job. But why would she believe anything except what mainstream culture taught her?
In fact the drug is designed — they’ve said explicitly — as though responsive desire were a disease, as though spontaneous desire were the only “normal” way to experience desire.
And that’s a problem.
The drug is designed to create spontaneous desire—and it doesn’t even work for the vast, overwhelming majority of women
even within the highly selective group it was tested on: it was only tested on pre-menopausal cisgender women in monogamous heterosexual relationships, who had not given birth or breast fed in the last six months and had not had depression or other mental health issues that can interfere with sexuality in the last 12 months, among other exclusions. Also 90% of them were white (PDF). (Because systemic racism.)
But millions of women will want it, because the very fact of the drug’s existence reinforces the myth that lack of spontaneous desire is an illness that requires medical intervention — that is:
It makes women focus on whether or not they “CRAVE” sex,
distracting them from whether or not they ENJOY sex.
(That’s not just a problem. That’s patriarchy.)
I’m interested in solutions that work.
Solutions that work are solutions that address the actual nature of the problem.
To go back to Dr. Hyde’s analogy: If you’re not having fun at the party… will a drug that increases your desire to go to the party solve your problem?
And how would you feel, if you took the pill… and it didn’t work?
Yeah. Bad solutions don’t just fail to solve the problem; they actively make it worse.
So let’s think about what kinds of problems stop people from having fun at the party.
IMPORTANT: There are times when not having fun at the party definitely calls for medical intervention — especially if you’re experiencing unwanted pain. If it’s the kind of party where you’re experiencing wanted pain, you go with your bad self! But if it’s unwanted pain, get ye to a medical provider.
If you’re not having fun because there is some other medical issue interfering with your interest in or enjoyment of “parties,” then totes see a medical provider to deal with the problem! A wide range of medical difficulties, from diabetes to depression, can interfere with sexuality. Get that treated, and sex will reemerge as you focus on pleasure.
And sometimes even medical treatments for medical problems can interfere with sex! Talk with your provider about side effects, see what alternatives there are.
Those are all medical problems, with the potential for medical solutions.
But what if the parties just kinda suck? What if the people there don’t know how to play the party games you liked to play, and aren’t interested in learning?
That’s not a medical problem. That’s a communication/relationship problem. If the parties are no fun, then (a) no wonder you don’t want to go, and (b) would increasing your desire to go to parties… make the parties worth going to?
Or what if you don’t want to go to the party because you’re exhausted and overwhelmed by your life and what you really need is a night vegging out with Netflix, not being around people who are hoping you’ll play with them?
That is not a medical problem. That’s a life problem (and possibly an introvert problem). And maybe not even a problem, but just… life.
Or… what if you don’t want to go because you’re totally convinced that your worries about getting a babysitter and getting through traffic and having to put on pants means that you are a failure at parties?
That’s not a medical problem. That’s an education problem.
I believe they mean well at Sprout. I believe they have bought into the standard model of sexual response.
The standard model is about 15–20 years behind the science of sexual response. And the longer it takes us to catch up, the longer people will be stuck with solutions that don’t work.
women deserve real solutions.
The rhetoric of Sprout is “#womendeserve.” Like, women deserve choices.
Yes they do.
They deserve autonomy over their bodies.
They deserve safe, effective treatments for sexual difficulties.
And I believe they deserve science-based, unbiased information about how their sexualities work, free of profit motive.
(…And, if possible, free of patriarchy, ciscentrism, racism, and heteronormativity. Hey, a girl can dream.)
And I believe women deserve pleasure. Sprout has no investment in pleasure, only in creating that “craving” feeling — which they genuinely believe is the only reason anyone would go to the party. (They are wrong, qed.)
So here’s what I guess is my “call to action”:
be my big, giant shovel.
If you agree that women deserve to know the science of sexual desire, could I ask you to tell a friend about responsive desire? Will you tell them that pleasure is the measure of sexual wellbeing? (NB: Pleasure is not always simple.)
Most of the time, being a sex educator is hella fun.
I love that I have the opportunity to help women live with confidence and joy inside their bodies. I have Medium and a bestselling book and the opportunity to travel all over and teach about the science of sex, and that’s amazing.
But drug companies are big and rich and have PR firms and stuff… so even with all the resources available to me, there are days when I feel like I’m throwing sand into the ocean.
I believe in the power of education — but I kinda need a shovel. I need you.
In my last Medium piece, I posited two hypothetical worlds, one where your doctor could offer you a prescription to “treat” your low desire, and one where she could offer you education about responsive desire, where she said, “Pleasure is the measure.”
The prescription comes with approximately a 10% chance of increasing your spontaneous sexual desire, and an equal chance of causing you significant side effects.
The education… well.
You tell me.
And then tell everyone you know.