You’re not the only one wondering.
Hi there! It’s Robin again. Here at Sex Sense, I get a lot of (awesome) questions from folks of all genders along the lines of “why don’t I want to have sex?” “Where did my sex drive go?” “How can I increase my libido?”
The answer to these questions can be very different for each person. However, I wanted to share some of the information we commonly give folks who are wondering about sexual desire. Information about how bodies work can be empowering, and the science behind it is really cool!
Let’s start with a big assumption. We assume that when someone asks, “why don’t I want to have sex?” that they want to want sex. But to be clear, not wanting to have sex is perfectly valid and not having sex is a perfectly valid choice.
Also, the intensity with which a person desires sex and how often they want to have sex will ebb and flow as bodies and life circumstances and relationships change. The ebb isn’t necessarily cause for concern, but for the sake of this blog post, let’s assume that we are talking about folks who want to want sex more.
Am I Broken?
The question underlying most questions about sex drive is “am I broken?” The sense that a lot of people have when they want to want sex, but just don’t, is that their body is broken. It’s not working the way it is supposed to.
And in a small proportion of cases, that’s (sort of) true. There are medication side effects and physical and mental health conditions that can mess with sexual desire. It is worth seeing a health care professional to rule those out.
And when there’s a medical reason that folks are having trouble with sexual desire, we really encourage them to have as much compassion and gentleness with their bodies as they can. Insofar as they are “broken”, it is in a deeply human way deserving of care and patience.
But most of the time, bodies are doing exactly what they evolved to do to keep us safe.
The Dual Control Model
So what do I mean by that? One of our favourite educators and authors, Emily Nagoski explains this better than I can here and here, but I’ll summarize briefly.
In the Dual Control Model of sexual response, there is a brake pedal and a gas pedal. These pedals control sexual desire, and just like in a car, the brake overrides the gas. Stress, insecurity, pain, fatigue, worry, even literal cold feet, or anything else that our nervous system codes as a threat, pushes on the brake pedal, leaving us asking “where did my sex drive go?”
And that’s actually a good thing, evolutionarily. Our bodies automatically and involuntarily focus on survival (fight/flight/freeze) over other less important things (food/sex/sleep). Until we know what’s pressing on the brake, we’ll spin our tires no matter how much pressure is on the gas.
Here’s the problem: the conventional wisdom about how to improve one’s sex life almost always translates to “push the gas pedal harder!” It tell us to add “turn-ons” to our life or relationship. But all the lingerie, unregulated libido-boosting supplements and “101 hot sex tips to spice up your bedroom” in the world will not change the fact that the brake pedal overrides the gas.
So, one of the most powerful things you can do for your sexual self is take an inventory of everything that presses on your brake. Then, as much as possible, try to deal with those things. Next, take an inventory of everything that presses on your gas pedal. Then try to give those things time and space to flourish into desire.
One more thing. Commonly, folks who contact us seem to think that if sexual desire is not spontaneous — if it isn’t, as Emily Nagoski says “a lightning bolt to the genitals,” illustrated humorously here by Erika Moen — then it doesn’t count. Some people even think that it’s a sign something is terribly wrong with their body or their relationship.
While spontaneous sexual desire is a valid way to experience desire, an equally valid kind of desire also exists. It’s called responsive desire. Responsive desire happens only after giving our bodies time to respond to sexually relevant sensation and thoughts. In other words, things happening in the moment that turn us on.
This kind of desire shows up after spending some time cuddled up with a lover, or after reading erotica, or after talking at length with a partner about what you each think is sexy, or maybe noticing them getting turned on which in turn turns you on and the feedback loop sends you both into a delightful swirl of responsive desire. (To be clear, this is not an exhaustive list—do whatever works for you!)
If you’re like most people who predominantly or exclusively experience responsive desire, you’re not broken. You just may not have seen how your body experiences sexual desire portrayed as normal, valid, and sexy in media. The answer may be to simply give your body time to experience the things that will lead to desire.
I hope this information helps, and I hope you go read everything Emily Nagoski has ever written. And I hope you call or email me at Sex Sense if you have any questions.
The Fine Print
Sex Sense is a free, pro-choice, sex-positive, and confidential service. Our team of registered nurses, counsellors, and sex educators offer information and resources on sex, sexuality and sexual health.
Please note: this post contains general information that may not apply to everyone. It is not a substitute for professional medical diagnosis and treatment or counselling and other mental health supports. If this is a topic that impacts you, please feel follow up with questions about your own specific situation. We will answer you privately and provide the appropriate information and resources.