Episode 6: Libido, Accelerators, and Brakes!

This episode has been plagued with problems and technical glitches, but fear not, in the end we triumphed!

In this episide, the three of us talk about Emily Nagoski’s book Come As You Are: The Surprising New Science that Will Transform Your Sex Life, which attempts to take a rigorous look at how libido works. (Spoiler: It’s complicated, and no, men aren’t always horny.)

Nagoski talks about “accelerators,” social and situational factors that drive us toward sexual engagement, and “brakes,” social and situational factors that hold back our libido. The book offers a quiz to help you understand how your libido works, though as we discuss in the episode, there are some problems with it (Nagoski seems to be coming from looking at libido from a narrow perspective of one-on-one monogamous encounters without factors like kink or fetishes).

Here’s the transcript:

Franklin: Hello, and welcome to Skeptical Perverts, the podcast where we look at human sexuality through an evidence-based, skeptical lens! I’m one of your hosts and part-time mad scientist, Franklin Veaux.

Joreth: Hi! I’m your co-host and Renaissance cat, Joreth! I have a background in human sexuality and relationship communication, I’m kinky, solo polyamorous, on the ace spectrum, chicana, feminist, my gender identity is “tomboy”, and my pronouns are she/her but I use masculine titles.

Eunice: And I’m Eunice, your friendly neighbourhood queer, kinky, grey-ace demisexual. I’m an East Asian cis woman, hailing from the British side of the pond, with a large pot of tea and a correspondingly sizeable dose of genteel snark. This week: libido! More specifically, spontaneous versus responsive libidos. We’ll also be talking about the excitatory and inhibitory sexual systems. A lot of what we’ll be discussing came from the book Come as You Are: the bestselling guide to the new science that will transform your sex life by Dr Emily Nagoski, specifically the revised and updated edition that came out in March 2021. 

Franklin: This book is really interesting, and I highly recommend it for a number of reasons. We took a look at it and some other sources for this episode (check out the show notes online), so let’s get started: Joreth and Eunice, you really wanted to talk about this topic, so what are spontaneous libido and responsive libido?

Joreth: Spontaneous Libido or Spontaneous Desire is what we think of as just “libido” – a person feels sexual arousal, and thinks “hey, I’m aroused, I should find something to have sex with!” This thought process is largely subconscious and nearly instantaneous, and if the person already has a regular sexual partner, then the question is answered for them without any conscious questioning of it. They feel arousal first, they go looking for their partner. 

Franklin: I like how you said “something to have sex with,” not “someone to have sex with.” 

Joreth:  That was deliberate!

Franklin:  That’s basically how I work! I’ll be walking down the street minding my own business and then Wham! Hey, I’m horny! It comes out of the blue, without necessarily being attached to any triggering sight or sound or anything. When I tried bremelanotide like we talked about in the first episode, I felt that same thing but a thousand times stronger.

Joreth: Hah, yeah, that has maybe only happened to me a handful of times in my entire life, and usually under very specific contexts, which we’ll get into later. A Responsive Libido or Responsive Desire is when the body has sexual things happening to it and then the brain goes “oh, right, we like this! OK, fire up the engines everyone, it’s time to have sex!”

Eunice: In many ways it’s hard to even really talk about this clearly — we barely have suitable words to describe the experience of responsive libidos, because we live in a world where spontaneous libidos are considered ‘the norm’ or ‘the ideal’ or even ‘what sexual desire looks like’. In that situation, how do you talk about having a responsive libido in a way that doesn’t sound like you’re saying “my unusual way of feeling sexual desire”? But having a responsive libido is not only entirely normal and usual, but Dr Nagoski suggests that everyone basically has it. It’s just that some people have the spontaneous version as well. 

Joreth: Yeah, it’s so frustrating because society 1) assumes that Spontaneous Desire is the default form of libido, making any other form of libido “deviant” automatically and then 2) assumes that Spontaneous Libido is the MALE default, which then if you follow that to its logical conclusion, means that women all have the same sex drive and that it’s deviant while all men have the same sex drive and that it’s the “normal” version.

Franklin: Assuming that spontaneous libido is ‘male’ and responsive libido is ‘female’ seems to fit what we see in a lot of romantic comedies, but I have to say I’ve known men with responsive libidos and I’ve dated women with spontaneous libidos, so calling them ‘male’ and ‘female’ libidos seems a little farfetched.

Joreth: Seems to fit romantic comedies and, like, every dudebro on the internet who swear that women don’t like sex but use it to dupe men into giving them money. And, yeah, I’ve dated quite a few men with responsive libidos. It’s convenient for them to have someone like me as a partner because they won’t get pressured by their partner into sex when they’re not feeling it or have their masculinity challenged when I’m also not feeling it. 

On the downside, though, we might both be open to sex if sexy stuff starts happening, but with neither of us starting it, I’ve been in several relationships where the sex just didn’t happen for months, even years at a time because it didn’t occur to either one of us to start it spontaneously.

Eunice: Oh goodness, yes that sounds familiar, have you been making notes on my relationships?? Before we go any further, one of the things I want to note here is that a lot of the research was done by researchers with assumptions about binary gender, so when we’re referring to studies we have to use the language they used in their write ups. It’s not that we, or Dr Nagoski, think that there are only cis females and cis males, it’s that the scientists who did the research started from that assumption, and often only studied cis people, so we’re having to discuss these studies in that light. And that is something we need to remember throughout. Scientists are also people, who are impacted by the media around them, and their societal conditioning. Which might also explain why it was so much easier to find studies referring to low libidos in women as normal, and only ever as something to ‘fix’ in men.

Franklin: We saw that when we did the episode on aphrodisiacs. Aphrodisiacs are generally prescribed to women, for “hypoactive sexual desire disorder,” and drugs like Addyi and Vyleesi are usually approved and prescribed for women. It’s that societal assumption Eunice was talking about: men are horndogs and women are frigid.

Joreth: So this brings up the issue of low libido vs. responsive libido, which are very much not the same thing. For my entire life, I thought I had a low libido because I didn’t seem to get aroused spontaneously, and I could go for long periods of time not having sex and not even noticing that I hadn’t had sex in a while.

But that didn’t quite match up with what was going on in my brain. See, also from a very young age, I have been preoccupied with thoughts of sex A LOT. I think about sex and relationships all the freaking time. So, for someone who thinks about sex all the time, I’m remarkably uninterested in it. Or, rather, I’m lacking arousal, which is not necessarily the same thing, as we’re about to discuss.

Eunice: Yeah, I have a low libido and I noticed that I can also go long periods of time without having sex and not noticing or missing it. But I can still talk about sex, and sexual ideas, without feeling aroused or actively desiring sex in that moment. That’s basically the state I was in when I wrote most of the sc-ifi erotica books with Franklin! Plus arousal and desire are not the same thing. It’s the difference between being mentally interested in sex and being physically ready to have it.

Joreth: Exactly. Once someone told me about the phrase “responsive desire” and I looked into it, everything seemed to click into place for me. I can talk about sex and think about it, but my body is not physically, sexually aroused. And then I can clinically talk about sex as an academic topic, and even as a fun and flirty topic, and still not be interested in having it. 

However, when I’m mentally receptive to sexyfuntimes happening, and then someone I want to have sexyfuntimes with starts doing sexyfuntime stuff to me, THAT’S when my body starts responding with lubrication, blood flow, nerve sensitivity, etc. And in the context of a regular partner, that can happen frequently, always in response to the sexyfuntimes, though.  Only very rarely, and in very specific circumstances, will I feel arousal with no deliberate trigger, like right after a breakup, which is something we can talk about later if there’s time.

Eunice: Yeah, there’s a difference between being aroused and desiring sex, and desiring sex with an actual person. There really are times when I just can’t be bothered with having another human around, you know? 

Franklin: Whereas my sexual experience is quite different. I’m capable of having sex when I don’t feel desire—I have an agreement with one of my partners where under certain circumstances she’s allowed to demand sex from me regardless of how I’m feeling and I’m not allowed to say no—but for most of the time my sex drive is a “touch to start” kind of thing. It goes from zero to 60 faster than a Tesla Model S Plaid.

Eunice: Oh, there have been a number of times when I told partners “hey, I’m not currently aroused but how about you get started without me and I’ll join in when the old arousal systems kick in?” because I really, really need a good long run up at the thing. It’s a pretty consistent pattern and timeframe, but I can’t just jumpkick the startup phase, y’know, I have to take the long, slow steady route. 

Franklin: And if we get distracted in the middle of the startup phase by talking about ideas for a novel, well…

Eunice: Next thing you know, we have a Google Doc with a bunch of ideas, and a bed full of unused condoms and lube and kinky sex toys. Eh, writers. 

Joreth: Right, I didn’t say I *couldn’t* have sex when I don’t feel desire. And in fact, I would say that the majority of my sex was that way, either we started first and the desire came along later, or I made a conscious decision to have sex for non-desire-related reasons so we had sex and the desire never [heh] arose. 

Now that I understand that my arousal can kick in later, I am much more able to consider “am I in a mental state where I COULD get turned on, or am I just not?” and if I am, then I can allow a partner to just start with me and I’ll catch up as long as they do the groundwork, aka foreplay. Of course, technically I can have sex when I don’t feel desire at any point during the process. I mean, I have innie parts, so all I really need is some lube, which can be store-bought. But that’s a whole other kink.

Franklin: Or set of kinks, really.

Joreth: Yes, several of which I have. 

Franklin: Oh, I did not know that about you! I just learned something new about you!

Joreth: One of the pros of a long distance relationship? We can go this many years together and still be learning new things about each other sexually? Point is, I’m very glad to have learned this phrase some years back, because it’s really opened up my sex drive. Now, instead of just saying “sorry, honey, not tonight, I’m not interested”, I can say “hmm, I’m not currently aroused, but if you do X, I could probably get revved up” or “I’m not aroused at the moment and not likely to get it up, but I’d be happy to do this act for you!”

Eunice: I don’t know whether it was a function of age, experience, or more knowledge, but being able to say to a partner “I’m not interested in having an orgasm right now, but I’d be up for helping you to one” really made a huge difference for how willing I would be to get up to sexyfuntimes.

Franklin: Or “I’m not interested in having an orgasm but I’d be up for helping keep you from having one,” as I recall.

Eunice: Only with people who like that sort of thing, of course! And you do keep coming back for it, so…

Joreth: 15 years together, Franklin…

Franklin: You are both terrible people! 

Eunice: You really seem to have a type, huh? 

Franklin: On advice of counsel, I have no comment on that at this time.

Eunice: Communication, it works a treat! That one sexy trick that they didn’t teach you in all the magazines!

Franklin: That is a really good point, though. A lot of the stuff that’s missing from pop sex advice seems to revolve around learning how your libido works and then communicating that to your partner. Magazines are so fixated on whipped cream and fuzzy handcuffs, they miss the basics: the neurobiology of sexual response.

Eunice: The problem is that they want that magic silver bullet. That one guaranteed, quick, easy solution that will 100% work every single time. And that just doesn’t exist. Unless you include an actual bullet vibe, I guess…

Franklin: Trufact: I once ordered an entire case of bullet vibes. A case of bullet vibes is more bullet vibes than you think. One of the reasons I love Come As You Are is it introduces the idea of competing excitatory and inhibitory neural circuitry that regulate sexual arousal, which Dr. Nagoski describes as an “accelerator” and “brakes.” The excitatory circuitry increases arousal, while the inhibitory circuitry decreases it. These systems are both active all the time, to a greater or lesser degree, and together they determine if you’re turned on or not.

Joreth: Which brings us back to our first episode on Aphrodisiacs. First of all, there’s no distinguishing between “low libido” or hypoactive sexual desire, and “responsive desire” in the general culture. Second, there’s the whole cultural bias about spontaneous desire being the “default” setting. So anyone who has anything that deviates from that category is looking for or is told they need that magic silver bullet to transform their sex drive into one that more closely resembles a spontaneous libido.

Franklin: Thinking about the difference between responsive and spontaneous libido, and our very different reactions to PT-141, I wonder if there’s a connection between the efficacy of melanocortin agonist aphrodisiacs and libido style. I don’t want to lean too heavily on anecdotal results with a sample size of two, but wouldn’t it be ironic if bremelanotide works better on people with spontaneous libidos than on people with responsive libidos? And I wonder how that ties into the excitatory and inhibitory circuits? If I ever get a huge pile of money, I’m going to put so many people under an fMRI machine while they have sex!

Eunice: Yeah, we’re giving you this one for free, sex researchers, just get us some usable data back!

Joreth: I would love to see a study where they screen people for responsive vs. spontaneous libidos, then double-blind give them either a placebo or PT141 and see if there are any significant differences between the 4 groups. If that did turn out to be the case, it would be incredibly frustrating, given that the whole reason why I would be interested in something like this is to make it more like a spontaneous libido, only to find out that it couldn’t work on me because I don’t already have one?

Eunice: I wonder if the pathways that PT-141 works on to kickstart the arousal are the same parts that spontaneous libidos are already using? Which would explain why that happens, if indeed it is happening. Jamming your proverbial finger on the accelerator button won’t do much good if you’ve also got your foot flooring the brake, I reckon..

Franklin: Come As You Are has a couple of quizzes designed to assess whether or not your inhibitory or excitatory systems are more active. It’s quite a simple test, but we thought it might be interesting to take the quiz and see what happens. The questions are all ranked from 0, “this is not me at all,” to 4, “this is totally me.” 

The quiz has 10 questions total and the score is out of 20 points(?) on each half – the excitors and the inhibitors.  We’re going to include our final scores and a bit of commentary here.  The entire conversation where we all took the quiz together is about an hour and a half long, so we broke that up into a recording on the excitor questions and a recording on the inhibitor questions, and both of those recordings will be made available to our Patreons.  So if you want to hear the whole, unscripted conversation, become a patron on Patreon!  Here’s the summary with our scores:

Franklin: So the scores go from zero to 20. My score on the inhibitor section is a one. So I guess that means I—

Joreth: You have no inhibitors.

Franklin: And my sexual brakes as she calls them.

Eunice: You are not inhibited at all.

Franklin: She refers to sexual brakes and sexual accelerators.

Joreth: You have no brakes on your libido.

Franklin: And the purpose of this question. I have few brakes on my libido. I do have brakes on my libido, but my brakes are not the things that she thinks they are. Brakes tend to center on: is my partner engaged as my partner active is my partner having a good time here? Do I feel safe with this partner? Have we negotiated what’s happening? Is this a context that I feel I have given informed consent to and my partner has given informed consent to? Are we all fully on board, but the things that she thinks about as brakes? Or not, the things that inhibit my libido. So what did you guys score?

Joreth: Actually, I think I scored fairly low. I expected to score higher. I got a 12 out of 20 on this. I expected to have much more sensitive brakes and I think part of the problem is, like you, Franklin, I do have quite a few inhibitors in my own brain. I just don’t think she touched him.

Eunice: Interestingly, I got 10 and that actually totally tracks with what I thought I had, which is I have medium level brakes. Brakes are not my issue, like they’re not the worst thing, but they’re also not like this means that they’re just kind of about average. My problem is that I don’t have many exciters like I have. We haven’t done the questions for the exciters yet, but my prediction for myself is that I will have a lot lower score for the exciters. I just am not getting like I’m not hitting that accelerator as much is what I predict is what I think.

Franklin: So how did we do on the expanded section? I think I scored a zero on the question about smells and I still ended up with a 14, which I guess is probably above average. I don’t know. We don’t know what the norms are for these and I got a 14 which is fairly high for the exciters and a one which is very low for the inhibitors.

Joreth: Oh, that’s true.

Eunice: I got 8/8 out of 20 for exciters, yeah.

Joreth: I got nine, so nine out of 20.

Eunice: That’s like fairly consistent for people who have a responsive libido. You know responsive libidos because quite frankly, these questions are not maybe focused in areas that would be nuanced enough for me to dig down any deeper into this. But like it for me at least, it feels pretty accurate to me that my inhibitors are kind of about like middling, but my exciters are kind of on the lower level ’cause it’s not that anything is super sensitive, it’s that it’s insensitive.

So what did we learn?

Franklin: Looking at the list of exciters, a lot of my personal exciters don’t appear there. I’m also confused about some of the inhibitors.

My takeaway from the quiz is first of all, it’s highly vanilla and mononormative. Second, I self-identify as someone with a spontaneous libido and I match the description of someone with a spontaneous libido pretty well, but I absolutely don’t see myself reflected in those questions. I think the idea of accelerators and brakes is good, but the questions in the quiz absolutely don’t fit me, and don’t describe the way my accelerators and brakes work. You can’t look at this quiz and get a good understanding of my libido.

Joreth: I’m with you, Franklin, when I read a description of Responsive Desire, I think I fit quite squarely in the description, but the questions made assumptions about sex and how we might like or not like stuff doesn’t line up. She has a very romance-novel view of sex where sex, and specifically women’s bodies, are beautiful and she wants very much for all of us to agree that this is all beautiful and that somehow sex is only going to be good once we all agree, and there is this one type of transcendent, soul-stirring sex that we should all be reaching for, and I just don’t agree. 

Biology, and humans specifically, are just gross, and ridiculous and totally inefficient, and that should be OK. There are a lot of different kinds of sex and different kinds of sensations that are not always transcendent but that doesn’t mean they’re “lesser”. There is absolutely nothing that is “beautiful” about your kazoo ball gag, Franklin – it’s silly and absurd and messy and it shouldn’t have to be “beautiful” to still have value.

Eunice: I mean, that kazoo ball gag was also hilarious. And the humiliation is a kink some people would definitely enjoy. But yeah. Her view of ‘good’ sex was…sweet, and charming, and always focused on mutual pleasure and connection. Sometimes we just want brain melting intensity and the ability to rub sweaty gross human fleshy bits together and that’s ok, you know? Or, in my case, I occasionally quite enjoy the kind of sex that isn’t intended to lead to orgasms for me, but will lead to many, many, probably way more than they wanted, orgasms for my sex partner. *cough*Franklin*cough*.

Franklin: The thing about forced orgasms is they’re the closest thing in the real world we have to ‘Blessings’ in our science fiction novels, drugs that let you change your feelings or responses to sex at will. Forced orgasms sound hot when you’re aroused, but once you’re done, you’re done, you don’t want them, and they aren’t hot any more. Which is what makes them hot.

Eunice: And that’s what makes the difference between a person who goes “I didn’t like that” and your response of “I didn’t like that, when can we do it again?” So…you’re welcome?

But back to the quiz! The fact that in a 10 question quiz there were multiple times where we debated what the question was actually trying to ask, and came up with multiple interpretations that would give different responses did not lead me to feeling confident about the answers I gave. I don’t even know if they were answering the actual questions as she meant them to be asked. She mentions:

Don’t mistake this for actual science! It’s a Cosmo quiz adaptation of the science, intended to guide you in your understanding of how your internal sexual response mechanism may influence your response to sexual stimulation, but it is just an approximation.

Now, in the footnotes she says that hers was adapted from Milhausen et al., “Validation of the Sexual Excitation/Sexual Inhibition Inventory” and Janssen et al., “The Sexual Inhibition/Sexual Excitation Scales—Short Form.” The originals are a little longer and more specific, but not by much! And some of the questions are exactly the same, or in some cases a few questions smashed together. This quick version she offers is very accurately described as a “Cosmo quiz adaptation” though — with many of the same fundamental issues and unconscious biases you often get in Cosmo magazine.

Franklin: Yeah, Cosmo tends to be mononormative and vanilla too. The problem, I think, is the idea about what sex looks like. We all carry templates around in our heads about what things are, and it’s easy to grow up in a monogamous, sex-negative society so that when you hear the word “sex,” you think “a man and a woman on a bed surrounded by candlelight engaging in missionary-position intercourse.” And if that’s the image you have, the questions you ask about sex will unconsciously lean that way.

So you end up asking questions like “If it is possible someone might see or hear us having sex, it is more difficult(?) for me to get aroused.” This really assumes that sex is private and done in couples; many people don’t have either of those ideas. And “Sometimes I feel so “shy” or self-conscious during sex that I cannot become fully aroused” is quite different for exhibitionists, where self-consciousness of the right kind can be a turn-on! There are many different varieties of self-consciousness, and some people find some of them hot. 

The quiz in the book borrows from the Sexual Excitation/Sexual Inhibition Inventory for Women, but some of the questions, like “Seeing a partner do something that shows their talent or intelligence, or watching them interacting well with others can make me very sexually aroused,” squish multiple questions together.

Eunice: Which explains why sometimes it was hard to answer her version. You’re effectively trying to answer two or three questions in one numerical response, when you might have different answers for each bit. I wonder, looking at the questions she picked and the ones she left out, whether she just selected the ones that spoke to her, and ignored the ones that she didn’t quite connect with. There’s a section titled ‘Sexual Power Dynamics’, for example, that includes questions like “Feeling overpowered in a sexual situation by someone I trust increases my arousal.” That directly speaks to a kink mindset! Like, that’s a major part of many people’s submissive preferences. And she just totally misses that entire bit of the quiz out. 

Plus there’s another bit that’s titled ‘Setting (Unusual or Unconcealed)’, with four questions in there. Those four questions are basically balanced half and half between “being caught, or being in a non-private setting is a turn on” and “being caught, or being in a non-private setting is a turn off”. That’s a typical way to try and get more accurate responses by pairing questions and comparing the answers you get to see if they’re consistent. The author has selected one of those four questions as a stand-in for that entire topic, which is fine except that she really needs to have selected one of the other questions! Because having the question “If it is possible someone might see or hear us having sex, it is more difficult for me to get aroused.” in the excitor section means that giving higher points to it is indicating the opposite of what she meant to indicate! A high score is not saying that “I get excited at the possibility of getting caught”, that’s saying “I am inhibited by the possibility of getting caught”. 

Franklin: I found that confusing, for sure. And for me, there’s a difference between “someone I trust seeing or hearing me in a consensual context,” which is neither a turn on nor a turnoff, vs “some stranger seeing or hearing me non-consensually,” which is a turnoff.

Joreth: So, there’s this other quote in the book that I liked: “It is normal to not want sex you don’t like.” Although there is more diversity among men and among women than between men vs. women, still more have women reported having a responsive libido and more men have reported having a spontaneous libido. That may be connected to the fact that heterosexual sex from the woman’s perspective is generally mediocre to bad, and if the libido is responsive anyway and not likely to start arousal first and then drive the person to finding a partner, the person would naturally not desire sex if all their sex is not good. 

I’ve had to explain to partners before that sex for women is more *expensive* in terms of risks, consequences, and even time and effort in exchange for quality, and sometimes even if I have a spontaneous desire, that desire gets ignored or suppressed because finding or initiating sex is just *not worth it*. Spend enough years like that, and that could condition someone into not having a spontaneous libido anymore, or not recognizing it. As she then says, “[P]erhaps much of what is currently diagnosed as sexual desire disorders can be best understood as a healthy response to dismal and disappointing sex.”

Eunice: And oh man, is it easy and common as a woman to have dismal and disappointing sex with cishet guys…

Franklin: Here again, though, I have a kind of “yes, but…” response. I often have sex I don’t enjoy in the moment, but I do enjoy in the memory. I think when she says “sex you don’t like,” she’s talking about something very specific, and not thinking about those of us who engage in kinks that we might not necessarily enjoy in the moment, but we still see value in anyway.

I’m not a masochist. I don’t enjoy pain. I have several partners who are sexual sadists, and I let them (or should I say let you?) do things to me I don’t like…because getting my partner hot is really nice. I particularly hate needle play, but I have a lover who really digs it, and seeing it get her hot is worth it to me, even though I don’t like it.

Eunice: And yet you keep coming back for more…

Franklin: Exactly! Sometimes I want sex I don’t like. I bet my experience isn’t unique here, and a lot of kinky people who read this book may feel like it doesn’t speak to their experiences.

Joreth: Yes, there is a difference here between “I did not actively receive pleasure from that activity, but I got a payout from it in another form such as a good memory” vs. “I actively disliked everything about this activity.” Like, I “like” flogging even though it hurts, but I DISlike, say, electrical play even though it doesn’t really hurt. I like rape PLAY but I don’t like RAPE. And it’s that kind of expense that I’m talking about.

Sex for people with innie parts in this culture can be expensive, with higher risk of STDs, higher risk of pregnancy, social stigma, and then tack on a responsive libido where there is *effort* that has to be made to get ramped up, and THEN add on typically male partners who don’t know how to make that kind of effort, and yeah, the sex isn’t going to be that great and it’s totally normal to not desire something you don’t like.

Franklin: True. I think it’s easy to conflate those two types of “I don’t like this,” especially when your mental image of what sex looks like is highly vanilla.

Eunice: I mean, even the sex I have that looks vanilla isn’t always actually vanilla. 

Joreth: No, kind of related to vanilla vs. kinky labels but also not, there is another concept I talk about a lot – personality types and boxes. In the book, the author makes a case for *everyone* having a responsive libido, just that some people also have a spontaneous libido in addition. She then says “Research suggests about half of women might be categorized as one or the other, spontaneous or responsive. Most people’s desire style is probably – drumroll, please – context dependent.”

Franklin: I also wonder how much of it is something people can control. I’m the poster child for spontaneous libido, but I make a point to be that way. I deliberately spend time keeping a relatively high baseline level of arousal, and intentionally cultivate a mindset where I think about sex. I do think that makes a difference.

Eunice: I’m not sure it’s as controllable as she implies? Like, if sexual orientation was a choice, surely straight women wouldn’t exist anymore! And I like men, as a rule. But oh boy, I am so glad I have a choice on the matter. Similarly, if I could choose to have a spontaneous libido, I would. That’s what the aphrodisiac experiment was about. And that’s one of the things that was so alluring about the scifi erotica world we built — that idea of being able to control my own libido with such precision. I think about and talk about and write about sex a lot, but it’s not something I’m applying to me. It’s mental, it’s not grounded in my body. I’m just not aroused most of the time.  

However, the premise of this book is that it can be controlled, by changing the context. And…I don’t know if I fully agree with that, for everyone.

Joreth:  The idea of the Desire classification being context-dependent vs. distinct categories reminds me of the most common and erroneous criticism of personality type systems. People see the systems as being mutually exclusive, self-contained categories so they either dismiss the type system outright as being “bullshit” or they make up these “both” categories that negate the usefulness of the category system. 

I am right-handed, yet I use my left hand, Quite frequently too. I don’t say that I’m “context-dependent-handed”. Yes, I get that “ambidextrous” is a category that exists, but that’s not the same thing – that means that the person can do pretty much everything equally well with both hands, not that which hand they use is “context dependent”. 

Literally everyone who has two hands uses both of them depending on context, to a greater or lesser degree. But we have a *dominant* hand that we use more often, that is stronger, more dexterous, or that can do tasks more easily than the other *even though* sometimes the other hand is better at something. Like, if I’m carrying something in my right hand, the context might make me choose to open the door with my left. That’s not the same as being ambidextrous, and I wouldn’t say that makes me “context-dependent-handed”. I’m still right handed.

These are two independent, parallel scales – one for how much you use your right hand and how easy tasks are, and another scale for your left hand. And if one scale is higher on frequency, ease of use, dexterity, etc., than the other, than we say we are that-handed *even though* the scale for the other hand also has a value.

So the fact that, on occasion, the context allows me to feel desire in a way that might be described as “spontaneous”, I don’t think that prevents me from falling into the category of “responsive libido” because creating those contexts is *work* for me – it’s something I have to deliberately go out of my way to create (or it’s an extreme situation, like a breakup, that doesn’t happen, thankfully, often). So, Franklin, your brain chemistry allows those contexts to exist more or less effortlessly and I have to build them consciously and deliberately. Like being a lefty and taking the time to teach myself how to write with my right hand.

Eunice: Yeah, this is work. Sometimes my partners think I had a period of spontaneous desire, but they just didn’t see the huge amount of preparation that I did. I’m starting anywhere from an hour to several days beforehand so that I can be ramped up enough to match their level of arousal by the time we meet. That’s still responsive, but I’m just deliberately creating my own triggers for that response. 

Franklin: So the tl;dr of our takeaways from this book are:

  • Spontaneous and responsive libido are a thing, even if they’re not necessarily two separate boxes that hold two different kinds of people.
  • Different people have different accelerator triggers and brakes that combine to give them either a spontaneous or responsive libido
  • It’s okay to say “I want to have sex but I’m not aroused yet, so you go ahead and get started and I’ll catch up.” You don’t have to match your partner perfectly in all stages of arousal.
  • Physical arousal is not the same thing as sexual interest or desire.
  • Nobody is broken just because the way or the amount that you respond to sexual triggers is different to someone else.
  • The current research on spontaneous and responsive libidos needs to be more aware that some people aren’t monogamous and some people are kinky, and these differences change the assumptions researchers make about what sex looks like.

Franklin: So that’s what we’ve got. How about you all? Send ideas, comments, or suggestions for future episodes to contact@skepticalpervert.com. And if you know someone else who might enjoy this podcast, why not share the love, by giving us a review on iTunes or Stitcher or your podcatcher of choice.  You can visit www.skepticalpervert.com to check out the show notes for the transcript. And don’t forget to become a patron on Patreon, which is linked on the website. Patrons can hear the full version of the quiz we took, where we elaborated on our responses and griped about the questions.

The Skeptical Pervert is copyrighted and produced by Franklin Veaux, Eunice Hung, and Joreth Innkeeper, edited by Joreth Innkeeper, and the website and show notes are maintained by Franklin Veaux.

Eunice:  And remember, if you’re having trouble getting aroused, you could always force someone else to have orgasms instead!

Franklin:  Right! If the other person is more aroused than you, you could try to catch up, or you could force them to have orgasms until they’re not aroused any more!

Eunice:  And if you get aroused in the process, well…

Joreth:  Give them even more orgasms!

Franklin:  What’s the safeword again?