Despite early predictions that March 2020 and beyond would yield a COVID baby boom, data has proven a little, well… deflating. Sex therapists have seen more and more couples and individuals claiming low desire or diminished sexual frequency, wondering why prolonged time at home hasn’t yielded more time spent capitalizing on it.
Several things are likely to blame for a decrease in desire for sex during the pandemic: Stress, of course, can reduce interest in sex even in the best of times, but overfamiliarity likely plays a role right now as well. As famed sex therapist and author Esther Perel writes about in her bestseller Mating in Captivity, sexual desire for our long-term or live-in partners often requires a little time apart to flourish.
It’s true that we tend to want our partners more when we have just the right amount of time away from them – to miss them or yearn for them. We also tend to experience the most desire when we – and they – feel the most alive, when we’re doing things that showcase our interests and talents. In the space between ourselves and our partners, desire can find its spark, paving the way toward arousal and sex.
We call this kind of desire – the kind that sparks when we miss our partners or sense some of their “otherness” – spontaneous desire. Spontaneous desire is the kind we see in the movies and on TV, and it’s the kind many of us (but not all of us) experience during the initial honeymoon (also called limerence) phase of dating. It tracks a familiar pattern: Desire occurs first, sometimes springing seemingly out of nowhere, and is followed by arousal, which is then followed by sex and hopefully satisfaction.
This isn’t the only pathway to sex, though. There are actually two kinds of sexual desire: Spontaneous, which we just covered, and responsive, thoroughly research by sex educator and author Emily Nagoski and covered in her book Come as You Are.
Responsive desire tracks a slightly different path than spontaneous desire. Arousal comes first in response to some sort of sexually relevant stimuli, like touch (think: caressing or a kiss on the neck) or an erotic scene in a novel. It’s after the initial arousal (or, as Nagoski says, pleasure) that desire for sex shows up. Responsive desire explains how sex can be the last thing on your mind until you see an amazing sex scene in a movie or your partner touches you in just the right way.
According to Nagoski’s research, all genders experience both types of desire, generally at different times in their lives and relationships. There seems to be a sort of interplay between the two: When novelty, distance, intrigue, and mystique are high, spontaneous desire can dominate a person’s experience of their own drive. When familiarity and closeness are high, responsive desire can dominate. While research indicates that men tend to experience slightly more spontaneous desire than women, and that people in long-term relationships experience slightly more responsive desire than people who have just started dating, people’s relationship with their own desire varies widely. Some people experience almost exclusively responsive desire, for example, and often wonder why sex isn’t more top of mind – even though it’s a completely normal and valid way to experience sexuality. On the other hand, some people will experience spontaneous desire throughout the entirety of their lives and relationships.
Hormones, children, work stress, grief, and yes, global pandemics can all shift the way we individually experience desire for sex and for our partners. Many (if not most) people have found that desire for sex with their longer-term partners has decreased during the pandemic, which is completely normal under stressful and sometimes cramped conditions. For those who would like to reconnect with their partners sexually, it’s a great time to explore responsive desire and see what works – and what doesn’t.
The Maybe Zone
Because responsive desire means that arousal and pleasure precede wanting sex, a few things need to be in place to make room for it: Intentionality, willingness, and a non-demand approach to sexual pleasure. Responsive desire is about wanting to want to have sex and being willing to see if you might experience desire after setting aside time for touch, connection, or any other sexually relevant stimuli. This means that “maybe” is a completely legitimate and important response to a sexual overture from your partner.
It also means that yes, scheduling or planning sex can be a great idea, even if that just means letting your partner (or yourself) know that you want to set aside a little time to be together later that night. I often find that when clients start to schedule more time to experience responsive desire, they also find themselves experiencing a bit more spontaneous desire as well, since lingering memories of pleasurable and satisfying sex can serve as a salient stimulus for more sex. Knowing your partner prioritizes time and energy to connect with you sensually or sexually can also be deeply validating.
Responsive desire eliminates pressure for one, both, or all partners to be “in the mood,” since desire follows physical or mental stimulation and arousal. Arousal doesn’t always follow stimulation, though. Sometimes stress, grief, physical pain, or non-concordance (a fancy way of saying your body’s response isn’t matching your brain’s) precludes your or your partner from getting into it. When that happens, it’s important for all parties to accept that “maybe” has become “not tonight, honey.” No one becomes aroused by feeling pressured or like they’re failing.
Beyond planning ahead and carving out time and space to connect sexually, creating obvious cues can help facilitate responsive desire. Sex therapist and educator Barry McCarthy suggests relying on sensual (but not necessarily erotic) touch to pave the way. Caressing one another, embracing your partner from behind, dancing together, giving or receiving a massage, and lingering on a kiss are all great ways to get started. These sorts of initiations begin in a space that is more sensual than erotic – since transitioning to erotic touch before all parties have entered a state of arousal can be a counterproductive and cause self-consciousness.
In my next post, I’ll cover obstacles that can crop up when we start carving out time and space for sex: like stress, rejection, and sexual encounters that feel a little too routine. Stay tuned!
Navigating spontaneous and responsive desire can be tough. If you think you could benefit from some professional guidance, contact me directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.