I came up into my sexuality with what I thought was a perfect understanding of how desire worked. It’s only now that I’m in my 30s that I finally understand how desire actually works—and not just desire in general, but my desire personally. And my understanding of desire came after I disentangled myself from a lot of the myths that are embedded in desire.
Like most people, I grew up thinking that sexual desire was an untamable and mysterious force that lives inside your body, its purpose being to jumpstart and facilitate erotic longing deep in your loins. As I understood and witnessed it, desire was very important; no romantic relationship could survive without it, and if yours lacked it, your relationship needed an intervention. It was stressed that you had to find a partner whose desire matched yours because, try as you might, mismatched desires cannot be reconciled.
Some other desire “facts” that shaped my experience: Desire is spontaneous and involuntary—it happens to us rather than it happening with our control. Everyone is said to both have this internal mechanism of longing somewhere inside of them and experience it in the same way. If you don’t have desire (or don’t have enough of it), there is something wrong with you, as desire is a natural part of being human, a biological imperative to mate and fall in love. Therefore, those who don’t desire in the “right” way are disordered, diseased, and missing an essential part of their humanness.
I held those stories in my mind and my body about desire, many of which came from the pages of Cosmopolitan, bestselling love and relationships books, therapists, films, and well-meaning friends. And upon getting this information, I waited with bated breath for desire to hit me like it seemed to influence others.
I waited for the sparks, the unbridled passion, the fanny flutters. I waited for desire to awaken and possess me, for it to turn me into a nymphomaniac. I waited and waited, and when it still hadn’t arrived to the degree I was promised, when my desire stayed elusive, finicky, and sometimes nonexistent, especially when compared to my others’ desire, I diagnosed myself with having a desire disorder. Shortly after that, I had a mild breakdown.
I was all too quick to pathologize my low sexual desire because that’s what I was taught to do, and that’s what everybody else was doing to me. I spent much of my 20s trying to solve my desire like a mathematical equation, adding what I thought I lacked (confidence, courage, sex positivity) and becoming people that I wasn’t (Beyoncé, Rihanna, Dita von Teese) in order to overcome this hardship, thinking that there was something I was missing, something that I needed to do, or think, or heal within myself that would unlock my desire.
It felt proactive, like I was working hard to correct something that was broken inside of me, not realizing that in my attempts to “fix” myself, I was actually harming myself.
Troubleshooting my desire looked like doing multiple sets of kegels daily because someone mentioned that there might be a correlation between a strong pelvic floor and strong sexual desire; watching porn when I didn’t want to because I thought that maybe if I was exposed to sex more often, I could train my brain/body to want more sex naturally; and following advice on the internet that said that if I didn’t want to have sex, have sex anyway because it was my wifely duty to do so.
The amount of times I decided to override my wants, violate my boundaries, and interrupt a visceral no in my body to try to create a sexual desire that wasn't there, all to contort myself into being a kind of desire that I just didn't have, is evident in the way that when sex is on the table today, sometimes I still have trouble discerning if my "yes" is really a yes or if it's a "yes" I feel I should offer.
This conditioning around desire is carved deep in my body after decades of repeated messaging from a sex-obsessed culture that has told me that there is only one way to desire which is for it to be high, reliable, and never-changing.
In my work as a sexuality doula, I've heard from clients and students (usually women and nonbinary folks) who have received the same pressures to be who they're not sexually, to do whatever it takes to raise their desire levels to be a worthy partner, to coax the sex out of them with medications and violation of self.
They've jumped through similar hoops, harmed their bodies in similar ways, and carried the weight of their sexual relationship on their shoulders because those with low sexual desire are always responsible for the lack of sex. They're tired. They want freedom, intimacy, and loving relationships that aren't at the expense of their authentic sexual selves.
In my work, I act as a guide for them as they explore alternate avenues of sexual liberation that hold the nuances of their desire and create more room for them to be as they are sexually without pathologizing them. How I hold space for them through this is similar to the way I held space for myself as I found peace with my own sexuality and unshamed my low desire, which started with educating myself about how desire works and creating new stories I could embody when it comes to my desire personally.
1. There is not just one way to experience sexual desire.
Despite having been told that it’s pretty straightforward and immutable, what I’ve learned is that sexual desire, like most things under the sun, is on a spectrum for most people. And not only is desire on a spectrum, but it can also (and likely will) fluctuate based on many different factors: a person’s mental health, their age, the relationship they’re in, their physical health, where they’re at in their menstrual cycle, their emotional state, medications they’re taking, etc.
When I realized that desire is not a fixed experience, it allowed me a lot more room to move along that spectrum without judging myself for it. Essentially, it allowed me to include my humanity and nuances within my desire.
2. Learn your desire type.
Following this thread that not everybody desires the same way led me to learn about two common desire types that people can have: spontaneous and responsive.
Spontaneous desire vs. Responsive desire
If you’re someone with spontaneous desire, your desire for sex tends to come out of thin air. If sex is spontaneously on the table and they feel safe and able to enjoy it, people with spontaneous desire can get turned on pretty quickly. This is the type of desire that we usually see depicted in movies and is often upheld as the desire we’re meant to have, and if we don’t have it, we must strive for it.
Some of us do have it. It just depends on the circumstances. For example, a lot of people experience spontaneous desire at the beginning of a relationship. Then, their desire changes, maybe into responsive desire.
With responsive desire, your desire for sex doesn't come out of nowhere. Instead, it arises in response to sex-related things that are already happening. Often, folks with responsive desire experience their desire emerging as or even before they feel physically turned on. In my work as a sexuality doula, most of the people I've worked with have had responsive desire.
Obviously, there are more than two ways to experience desire, and it's also possible that you can be both responsive and spontaneous. What I've found, though, is that having language that can better describe the nuances of desire can help put things into a new perspective, one that can celebrate our desire variances rather than pathologize them.
For me, figuring out that I was responsive helped me stop feeling shame that my desire wasn't "on" all the time.
3. Desire lives between the ears, not the legs.
I lived for years thinking that desire came from my genitals, and when I was in the thick of it, trying to fix my fluctuating desire, I contemplated going on Viagra to help raise my libido. When I think back to those times, I’m struck both by my desperation and how absurd it was for me to think that a pill that’s meant to target the blood flow in genital tissues is equivalent to creating more sexual desire.
It wouldn’t have worked anyway. Desire lives between our ears, not between our legs. This is one of the reasons “female Viagra” hasn’t been effective. In a lot of ways, we can’t choose the way our sexual desire works and presents itself. As I mentioned earlier, desire for a lot of folks isn’t so cut and dry. It varies depending on the circumstances.
That said, it’s important to also name that our ideas of sexual desire have been deeply shaped by a culture and society that has placed and continues to place men’s sexuality on a pedestal as the end all, be all expression of sexual desire, as something we’re all supposed to strive for (which, the expectations we put on men to be hypersexual and ready to go is harmful in itself, but that’s a whole other article).The moment I asked myself, “To whose standards am I measuring my supposed ‘low’ desire against?” and read about the rich history of female hysteria, frigidity, acephobia, and our culture’s obsession with sex, it helped me stop harming myself and accept who I am: someone who desires differently.
. . .
Having a deeper understanding of the myriad of possibilities that desire can be expressed has helped release a lot of the pressure I’ve put on myself and had put on me by previous lovers, doctors, and the culture at large. Rather than trying to control the flow, timing, and pacing of my desire, rather than constantly looking at the ways it doesn’t measure up against the rigid standards set before me and others, I’ve learned to celebrate my desire—even when it’s low, fluctuating, or nonexistent. I’ve learned to accept myself as who I am sexually.
I no longer see my desire as a mathematical equation to solve but as a continually evolving question that I get to live into.
- Refusing Compulsory Sexuality: A Black Asexual Lens on Our Sex-Obsessed Culture, by Sherronda J Brown
- Ace: What Asexuality Reveals About Desire, Society, and the Meaning of Sex, by Angela Chen
- Episode 56 of the Sensual Self podcast: “I’m Not Broken, I’m Asexual”
- Episode 72 of the Sensual Self podcast: “Refusing Compulsory Sexuality”
- Come As You Are: The Surprising New Science That Will Transform Your Sex Life, by Dr. Emily Nagoski
Let’s make things inbox official! Sign up for the xoNecole newsletter for daily love, wellness, career, and exclusive content delivered straight to your inbox.
Featured image by PeopleImages/Getty Images