How many times have you heard the terms "high libido" and "low libido" thrown around? Maybe you've even assigned yourself completely to one category thinking "ah, well I just have low libido," and that's the end of thinking there's anything you can do to change it.
As humans, we are hard wired to want to put things into neat boxes with distinct labels, but when it comes to sex and sexuality, there are about a million little factors that contribute to our relationship to self and to partner(s) that simply won't fit into a box... no matter how hard you try. This binary mindset around libido - either you have it or you don't have it - eliminates the MANY different things that contribute to our experiences of arousal and desire. Furthermore, focusing on if we inherently crave or don't crave sex, the actual experience and enjoyment sex can be overlooked.
How does desire actually work?
Sex Ed, Hollywood and societal norms continue to reinforce stereotypes that the desire to have sex typically hits like a when in reality many people experience desire that only emerges in response to sexual pleasure. Here's one helpful way to unpack spontaneous vs. responsive desire:
- Spontaneous desire: partner A sees partner B step out of the shower, and just from seeing partner B's naked body, partner A starts thinking about having sex. This mental switch ON causes increased blood-flow to the genitals. If partner B (freshly out of the shower) was keen, partner A would likely be ready for action right then and there!
- Responsive desire: partner B steps out of the shower, sees partner A laying on the bed and thinks, "I should take the trash out." It's not until partner A starts gently stroking partner B's back when they get into bed that partner A starts thinking "oooh that feels kinda good." This stimulus creates space for more positive feelings of sexual desire but in response to the pleasurable stimuli.
Spontaneous desire is by no means inherently "better" that responsive desire, and not mutually exclusive; sometimes you might feel lightening bolts, something you might need to experience feelings of pleasure before feeling ready to have sex.
Note: current research on the topic of desire is still quite limited and needs to be expanded beyond heterosexual relationships of cisgender people.
Desire, regardless of type, is not the only measure of sexual wellbeing
Emily Nagoski, Ph.D, and author of the New York Times bestseller Come As You Are explains, "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."
By fixating on labels like libido, drive, and desire, the actual experience of sex is often overlooked. Nagoski explains how "focusing on whether or not you CRAVE sex often distracts from whether or not you ENJOY sex."
Sexual wellbeing is not about
- your drive, libido or desire type
- how much sex you have
- what you do while having sex
- who you have sex with
- where you have sex
Sexual wellbeing is about
- pleasure: how much you enjoy the sex you are having!
Refocusing on how you experience sex
Labeling helps us compartmentalise. Labels help us make sense of ourselves and others by categorising into "I am not this" and "you are that." Labels also convey that something is absolute; missing out on all the many aspects and complexities that make us human.
Shifting away from labels like libido and drive and towards the experience of sex is a fundamental first step to creating safe spaces where we can explore our own unique experiences of pleasure.
Start by reflecting on what kinds of sexual experiences have felt most pleasurable to you in the past? What about experience that haven't felt so pleasurable? Beyond just your accelerators and brakes to sexual desire, what makes you feel comfortable and safe with your partner(s) during sex? Exploring your own pleasure and facilitating regular, open, and honest communication with your partner taking into consideration the many different unique aspects that contribute to desire and enjoyment is far more helpful than assigning a label that will end up doing more harm than good for your pleasure potential.
As Nagoski says, "pleasure is the measure."