Reactive vs. spontaneous desire Which desire do you feel?

Reactive vs. spontaneous desire - which do you feel?

When you hear the word “lust” – do you think of hot passion? A warm feeling in your stomach? Hollywood movies and two people tearing off their clothes in the bathroom at a party because they just couldn’t keep their hands off each other?

Or do you think of scenes like that: “I can’t relate at all”? Not because you don’t feel attracted to your partner – but because this urgent, spontaneous desire only rarely comes over you. Some people are ashamed of this thought or even question whether something is wrong with them.

In the end, we are all completely different. Nevertheless, it is very difficult to completely free yourself from the thoughts of what you should want or feel, instead of relying completely on what you really desire. You may simply feel a different kind of sexual desire. This desire is a spectrum with various categories. Knowing where you are on this spectrum – whether at the “spontaneous” or rather at the “reactive” end – can help you better understand your own desire behavior and get what you really hope for from your sex life.

What is spontaneous & reactive desire?

According to sexologist Georgia Grace, co-founder of the wellness brand NORMAL, we are all somewhere on the spectrum of desire. She explains that probably none of us falls 100 percent into the categories of “spontaneous” or “reactive” desire. Nevertheless, it is important to understand these terms in order to recognize that desire does not feel the same way.

“With spontaneous desire, the passion arises out of nowhere,” says Georgia. “As often happens in the early stages of a relationship.” So if you tend more towards spontaneous desire, you often don’t need any external influence to get in the right mood.

With reactive desire, it’s different. “Your body needs a stimulus to even think about sex – like a porn, kisses on the neck, or even the start of sex itself,” says Grace.

She explains that reactive desire is actually the most typical form of passion. But because erotic stories (in books, movies, etc.) often convey something different, and sex in popular culture is often portrayed as something spontaneous, reactive desire does not get “the attention it deserves,” according to Grace.

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It’s true: we have all seen, read, or heard stories that tell us about spontaneous sex – but not necessarily about slowly building desire. Foreplay is rarely portrayed, and hardly anywhere in popular culture does someone need “help” or motivation to get in the right mood for sex.

Instead, this lack of mood is usually expressed on our screens in a different, stereotypical form – as a long-term relationship in which one partner is “not in the mood.” Because we are often told that this is a sign of a broken relationship, it is hardly surprising that many of us feel pressure to have desire for sex at all times and everywhere – and wonder why it doesn’t just feel like we just have to flip an internal switch.

It should also be mentioned that these different types of desire are often presented as gender-dependent. Although desire cannot (yet) be scientifically measured, according to Emily Nagoski, the author of “Come As You Are: The Surprising New Science That Will Transform Your Sex Life,” there are studies suggesting that responsive desire is the primary style of desire for about 30 percent of all women. In an article about the concept of desire, Nagoski also explains that spontaneous desire is actively portrayed as the “norm” in our society, even though many people only desire sex after feeling desire (i.e., responsive desire). This means that you are not “broken” just because you don’t feel spontaneous desire. The intensity of your desire is also not an indicator of your sexual health.

How do you reconcile different types of desire in a relationship?

Let’s go back to the clichéd movie scene we mentioned earlier – where one partner is not in the mood. What if, after this confession, there was an open conversation between both partners about how to build up the mood? (Maybe not right then, but in the future.) What if it wasn’t seen as a problem if someone is not in the mood, but rather as something completely normal?

According to Grace, it is quite normal for this “desire difference” to occur within a relationship. In her therapy sessions, she talks to many couples with different desire styles; one person, for example, experiences more spontaneous desire, while the other needs a stimulus to feel desire.

If this is also the case in your relationship, Grace recommends not seeing it as a problem of a stronger or weaker libido, but understanding that you simply perceive desire differently.

Perhaps the person with responsive desire does not receive enough stimuli to develop a desire for sex; in these cases, Grace works with them on their so-called “brakes” and “accelerators”.

Some people are particularly sensitive to these “brakes” – the triggers that make us feel like sex is not a good idea and make us come up with reasons not to feel desire. These can be stress, worries, exhaustion, or more general societal or cultural factors. The “accelerators,” on the other hand, are the triggers that turn you on. These can be a specific smell, a situation, or a sexual activity.

According to Grace, it is crucial to work on becoming more aware of your own “brakes” and “accelerators” and to learn to reduce the brakes as much as possible and strengthen the accelerators.

But most importantly, the realization that there is no “right” or “wrong” when it comes to desire. We don’t always have to have a desire for sex everywhere and all the time – and if we do, that’s okay too. Consider how you personally perceive your desire. And then do what works for you and your relationship.

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