Reframing Sexual Desire

Rita Aliperti, MHC-LP March 20, 2022

There’s no single “normal” way to experience sexual desire. Don’t be afraid to pursue pleasure by getting to know yourself better.

When we think about sex, it’s often from a heteronormative and binary perspective. Historically, sex has been identified as an interaction between a man and a woman in which there is penetration between a penis and a vagina. But this definition fails to recognize the nuance that exists in the ways we have sex, whom we have sex with and our sexual desire. Sex and sexual desire are predominantly framed from the perspectives of cisgender men, in which male pleasure supersedes female pleasure. We focus on the differences between men and women without accounting for the similarities. We miss that the sexual organs and arousal process of a cis male is comprised of the same components as that of a cis woman. 

I want to reframe sexual arousal for you as what Emily Nagoski labels as “the same parts arranged differently.” When we develop within the uterus, we all have the same genitals until about six weeks gestation, when they begin to differentiate. In this sense, we have the same genital hardware organized as either “male” or “female”. This information might diminish some of the mystery that we have about people with the stereotypically-labeled female reproductive system. 

You are not broken

As we grow, we absorb different messages about how these parts should work and how we should feel about them. And if our parts do not align with these often outdated and inaccurate messages, we begin to think that we are broken. I’m here to encourage you to get to know your unique sexual organs - whatever their size, color, or texture. Look at them. Touch them. Understand how they work. Do this while reminding yourself that you are not broken. If you’re experiencing physical pain, of course, you should consult with your medical provider. Otherwise, know that your parts are working exactly as they should.

Dissecting desire

Sexual desire is more about your brain than your genitals. Your brain has both a sexual accelerator (responding to sex-related stimuli) and sexual brakes (responding to potential threats). Everything that we perceive as sexual or threatening is learned through experience—which means that inherently sexual stimuli don’t exist. Your brake and accelerator sensitivities, along with what stimulates each, are both unique to you and completely normal. 

Context

What stimulates your brakes and accelerator depends on the context in which the stimulus is presented to you. Basically, if one has a sensitive accelerator, everything hits that; if one has sensitive brakes, everything can become a brake. For example, you may find your partner’s touch to be pleasant when you are turned on, and you may find it irritating when you are angry. Someone who is stressed may interpret anything as threatening, while someone who is turned on may interpret anything as sexual. 

It is also important to note that the brain compartmentalizes desire into liking, wanting, and learning. Liking consists of our interpretations of what is good or bad and to what extent. Wanting activates craving or yearning. Learning helps us link stimuli and anticipate what may happen next. That being said, one may like something without wanting it—or vice versa. One learns what they like or want through their experiences. For most people, the best context for sexual desire is low-stress, highly affectionate, and explicitly erotic. 

Sex and emotions

Our emotional experiences have a significant impact on our sexual experiences. One example is stress. Stress has the power to reduce both sexual interest and pleasure. However, one can effectively manage chronic stressors by completing the stress response. Stress sends signals to our body that we are in danger, in turn causing the fight, flight, or freeze response. After we fight, flight, or freeze, our body needs some indication that we are safe from the threat. To reach this sense of safety or resolution, we must regulate on a physiological level. This could include physical activity such as running or dancing. Once the stress cycle is complete, we can better access our sexual interest and pleasure.

One’s traumas may also impact sexual desire. Especially with sexual trauma, one may interpret anything sex-related as a threat. Mindfulness-based techniques may help manage the trauma response to sexual stimuli. Through such practices, one is able to send signals to the body that they are safe and fully tune into their sensations.

Sex, in the right context, may also help us feel more emotionally connected to our partners. Sex can be used to establish an emotional connection with someone or reinforce an emotional connection that is already present. Using sex for such purposes gives us an incentive to engage in sexual acts, and may in turn help us maximize our pleasure.

Sex and culture

We often have mixed feelings towards sex because of the many contradictory messages we receive about it. Becoming more aware of how these messages conflict may help us to decipher which messages to accept or reject. For example the messages we get about our bodies. Eurocentric beauty standards say that we should be thin, but not too thin. We should have big breasts, but not too big. The list goes on. When we accept these messages we become self-conscious of our bodies, which then interferes with our sexual experience. Preoccupation with our bodies negatively impacts our ability to experience pleasure. This may even create sexual disgust, which is bound to hit our brakes. I encourage you to be more mindful of the messages that you accept and how they are, as Emily Nagoski puts it, “yucking your yums.”

Another contradictory message we get about sex is that blood flow to the genitals and the genital production of natural lubrication are the equivalent of actively wanting and liking sex. The truth is that arousal has more to do with our brains than with our genitals. One may be “non-concordant,” meaning that their genital reaction does not align with our actual desire. In these cases, we get messages that we are broken or that our bodies aren’t functioning properly. I’m here to tell you that you are not. This is perfectly normal.

Desire styles

Desire can be categorized as spontaneous or responsive. Spontaneous desire manifests as wanting sex seemingly unprompted. This is the type most often represented in popular culture, and culturally speaking, it’s what’s understood as the “normal” type—i.e., that’s “how it’s supposed to be.” For the record, in case you were unclear: this is a complete fallacy rooted in fantasy, not real life, nor is it the experience of all people. Responsive desire is when someone wants sex as a response to something pleasurable already happening. One may find that they even experience a combination of both. 

There is no right or wrong approach to desire, and it is important to understand your partner's desire style so that you may modify your approach to sex accordingly. As stated earlier, desire depends on the context with which the stimulus is presented and may change. This does not mean that you are broken. What matters most is creating a context in which you can experience pleasure.

Orgasms

A quick word about orgasms: like desire, orgasms have more to do with your brain than your genitals. What stimulates an orgasm differs from person to person and with context. There is no objective way to measure the quality of an orgasm. This is determined by your subjective pleasure. Explore what releases your brakes and gradually stimulates your accelerator so that you can maximize your “yums.”

Sex positivity

An essential component to creating a sex-positive life is accepting your sexuality as it is and how it fluctuates in each moment. I encourage you to reject the contradictory and inaccurate societal messages we receive regarding what your sexuality should look like. Develop a non-judgmental approach towards your sexuality and allow yourself to fully experience your emotions and pleasure. Refrain from yucking your yums—and remember that you are not broken.

Source: Come As You Are by Emily Nagoski 

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