Which Type of Sexual Desire Do You Experience?

Sex & Relationships

June 21, 2021

*First published in the Gratefull Company’s July 2021 Digital Newsletter

We often hear about intense sexual desire – the kind that just hits you unexpectedly, out of the blue. In our culture, we hear that sex is “supposed to be spontaneous”. Desire is something you have or you don’t have, and people simply have different levels of sex drive and there is not much you can do about it.

But what happens if you don’t experience spontaneous desire? It turns out, many people do not. Instead, many people experience responsive desire – that is, desire in response to something. The concept of responsive desire was first proposed by Dr. Rosemary Basson, a Canadian gynaecologist, who noticed that many of her patients said they did not experience spontaneous desire. However, they often reported that once they began a sexual encounter, they experienced a shift from feeling sexual neutral to feeling turned on and desirous.

When Dr. Basson inquired further with her patients about what helped to turn them on, she discovered that there are many factors that are in our control that can contribute to responsive desire. So, if you don’t experience spontaneous desire, never fear! This second (and equally powerful) type of desire is accessible to you.


  1. Sexual stimuli – you need the right turn-ons. These often fall into the categories of the five senses. For example, visual stimuli might be seeing your partner in a particular pair of jeans. It could be the smell of perfume or cologne. It could be a particular type of touch, like a kiss on the neck. Seems simple enough, right? The thing is, many people don’t know what their sexual stimuli are. Moreover, our preferred stimuli change over the years and even from day to day. It can take some exploring to determine what your sexual stimuli are at any given time, and it can take skillful communication to determine what your partner’s are. A good place to start exploring sexual stimuli is with a healthy curiosity and openness to exploration!

  2. Context – you need to feel safe and comfortable. This can mean the physical space you’re in (the lighting is good, the temperature is good, the kids are asleep, your in-laws are not sleeping in the next room, etc.). This can also mean the relationship space you are in. For example, if you and your partner were just in an argument or you are feeling very annoyed by them, it could impact the likelihood that you will experience desire!

  3. Brain – it helps to be “in the moment”. During a sexual encounter, many people experience non-erotic thoughts – the mind wanders and you start thinking about other things. This experience is normal. As much as possible, practicing mindfulness – being present in the moment and practicing nonjudgmental awareness can be helpful in redirecting your attention back to the present moment. Sometimes the thoughts can be persistent and/or distressing and include anxiety, stress, and performance concerns. If you are experiencing these types of thoughts before, during, or after sexual activity, you might benefit from working with a therapist to address these thoughts with cognitive behaviour therapy or another evidence-based modality.

  4. Sexual arousal – feeling “in the mood” can contribute to desire. This can be the mental space of feeling turned on, and it can also be the physiological indicators of sexual arousal such as genital throbbing and swelling, heart rate increase, and increased breathing rate. The mental and physical aspects of sexual arousal don’t always line up during every encounter, but either of them can make sexual desire more likely.

  5. Outcomes of previous sexual encounters – positive reinforcement never hurts! If you have had positive sexual experiences in the past, it is more likely that you will want to be sexual again in the future. These positive outcomes can include more than just pleasure and orgasm – it could be having fun, experiencing closeness with your partner, and so on.

All of the above factors can be explored and practiced so that you understand yourself and your partner better and can set yourself up to make sexual desire more likely!

It is important to note that there may be periods in your life during which you experience spontaneous desire, and periods when you do not. There may be days when you experience spontaneous desire and days when you do not. Luckily, you don’t have to give up on desire altogether. Remember, there is more than one way to experience desire and they are all valid and can all result in a satisfying sexual experience.

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