science of us

The Misunderstood Science of Sexual Desire

Photo: John Springer Collection/Corbis via Getty Images

In 2001, at the urging of her patients, clinical sex therapist Dr. Rosemary Basson published a diagram she had been using in her sessions. The diagram showed a relatively new model of sexual interest called “responsive desire,” a slower version that emphasized the many factors that help us get in the mood. In contrast with the notion of lust as a spontaneous drive that hits us out of nowhere — the sudden I-need-to-get-busy urge familiar from passionate Hollywood make-out scenes — Basson had noticed over the decades that her patients, particularly women in long-term relationships, often take a while to get warmed up. Although it was consensual (they were indeed interested in slowly initiating sex with their partner) they didn’t feel physical, sensual desire until some sufficiently pleasant erotic talking, cuddling, touching, or even fantasizing was under way.

“We see women who say, ‘When I get into (sex), everything’s fine. I just don’t have that hunger that makes me yearn for the next time,’” says Basson.

Previously, that kind of gradual response — especially common in women after the novelty of a relationship’s honeymoon period has worn off — got labeled by therapists as a sexual dysfunction, often garnering the old diagnosis of “frigidity.” Basson reassured her patients that they were normal, helping women shed unneeded labels. Responsive desire became incredibly influential.

It turns out, however, that we only understood half the story. The media mostly cast responsive desire as a women’s issue. Yet Basson said from the beginning that men also feel this slow kind of desire. Close to two decades later, it’s a misunderstanding she’s still eager to correct.

Basson, who is now director of the University of British Columbia’s Sexual Medicine Program in Canada, joined other sexologists in challenging the reigning model of human sexual response proposed by famed research team William Masters and Virginia Johnson in the 1960s, and refined by researcher Helen Kaplan. According to Masters & Johnson, sex was a linear journey. There was a start, a middle, and a finish line. First came desire for sex, then came stimulation and arousal, then a short plateau, and finally orgasm and resolution (i.e. taking a nap).

Along with other researchers such as Dr. Beverly Whipple, Basson realized this model didn’t match a lot of people’s experience. She created a circular diagram to show how sex was cyclical: desire often comes in response to something else, like a touch or an erotic conversation. If the sex is good, even the flickering memory of it could become motivation for more sex later on. (Sex never ends, basically.) Finally, encounters don’t have to end with a mutual orgasm. They end with satisfaction, however a couple defines that, whether that’s five orgasms or none.

Sex therapist Dr. Rosemary Basson created a circular diagram to show that sexual encounters don’t all begin and end the same way. Photo: Journal of Sex & Marital Therapy

If desire isn’t always present at the beginning of sex, then why do people do it? We have many motivations for sex other than lust — emotional bonding, wanting to feel attractive, because it felt good last time, and others. A famous 2007 study by Cindy Meston found 237 reasons that people have sex, from relieving boredom to giving someone a gift to wanting to get warm because they felt cold. If sexual touching feels good, then wanting can arise in the middle of sex — the desire to keep going.

The two most commonly repeated reasons in the Meston study were still sexual enjoyment and intimacy. The subjects were both undergraduate men and women, however — meaning a large number of young dudes were in it for the intimacy. “Some young men, probably not in long-term relationships, their reasons for being sexual were often just as based on intimacy as on the expectation of sexual pleasure,” says Basson.

This means a lot of men are out there having sex without lusting after it. Why did this get edited out of the story? Basson says that her work got a deluge of attention from medical journals on women’s health (which were no doubt overjoyed to see any research being done on women’s sexuality, which has historically been neglected). “But also, it’s more jarring or going against the grain to say that spontaneous desire isn’t the whole thing (for men),” she explains. “It may be more difficult to accept that (emotional intimacy) is as important in men as it is in women.” She points out that the male libido is typically viewed as an innate, automatic, animal drive always ready to be aroused. Admitting that that isn’t always true might feel threatening to our concept of masculinity. “Guys only want one thing,” amirite?

Responsive desire looks “just the same” in men, she says. “If a woman wanted to be sexual, she might talk lovingly and erotically to her partner, and if the partner’s a man, the man might then forget his stressful day at work and get his thoughts organized and be willing to respond to her talking and her kisses. Maybe he’d respond quicker than she would, but otherwise, it’s the same.” The only difference between “female” and “male” desire, in this case, is that men, on average, go from noticing a sexual stimulus (like a sexy image) to feeling turned on more quickly than women do. “It’s a matter of time, in our perception of how long it takes,” she says.

What all this really means is that “spontaneous” wanting is a bit of misnomer. Although over-represented in our culture — in romantic movies, people lunge at each other and start kissing — desire is never truly spontaneous. Almost everyone has that memory of lust seemingly arising out of nowhere — both women and men. But it’s just happening so fast that we can’t always be aware of what our motivations and triggers are.

“Something very minimal, like just remembering sex that was enjoyable, maybe just for a second, that can trigger the desire to be sexual,” says Basson. “Some argue that everything is responsive desire. Even if it’s just responding to a barely-conscious memory or a fleeting fantasy.”

Basson says she continues to talk about “spontaneous desire” mainly because her patients respond to the idea — particularly when complaining that it’s not there anymore. They often talk about memories of feeling lust hit them unbidden; something they imagined they used to have and has faded as the years have gone by.

She’s there to tell them that desire is still there — it’s just slowed down. “Spontaneous desire is like a myth or a construct of some kind,” she says. “To patients it feels innate: ‘That hunger is gone and I’m missing it.’”

The Misunderstood Science of Sexual Desire