Sexual desire (or sex drive, or libido – however you want to call it) is a rather misunderstood concept to this day. And not without reason. Due to the lack of sexual education in the majority of the world and mixed signals regarding sex in the media, it’s natural that people are confused.
The good news is that many sex researchers are working hard to shine a light on our bodies and our relationship with sex. One of those sex researchers, Dr. Emily Nagoski, has done an amazing job explaining the human sexual desire response mechanism. In her book, Come as You Are, Dr. Nagoski uncovers the science behind sexual desire and explains the complicated nature of what turns us on and off and why.
The Dual Motor of Human Sexual Desire
When we think about sex drive, we tend to cling to the comfortable belief that men and women are different when it comes to wanting sex. The popular belief is that men always think about sex and want sex, while women are simply not as sexual.
It’s natural that this sort of false understanding of sexual desire has deep roots in our society which is based on patriarchal values. Many people still consider sex to be over with male orgasm and male pleasure still holds more value than female pleasure.
However, more and more research has shown that men and women don’t have different levels of sex drive. Rather, different people have different sexual desire response styles – some have spontaneous and some responsive. In her book, Dr. Nagoski goes even deeper into the science behind our sex drive and explains the dual model composed of sexual accelerators and sexual brakes, responsible for what turns us on and off, when, and why.
Dr. Nagoski also breaks down the myth of sex drive differences between men and women by explaining that differences between men and women are less prominent than the differences within each group. Therefore, it’s not about men and women but rather different people and their individual sexual desire responses.
Sexual Accelerator Explained
The sexual accelerator or sexual excitation system (SE) is part of the dual sexual desire motor responsible for ensuring that we’re turned on and ready for sex. When we go about our day, this part of our nervous system reacts to different stimulants like smell, touch, taste, or look. If something clicks, we get the signal telling us to “turn on!”
What’s interesting is that the accelerator works without us knowing about it. As Dr. Nagoski writes in her book, “SE is constantly scanning your context (including your own thoughts and feelings) for things that are sex-related. It’s always at work, far below the level of consciousness.” Knowing that, no wonder that so many people aren’t aware of different things at play when it comes to being horny.
Sexual Brakes Explained
On the other end of the spectrum, yet an equally important and powerful part of our sexual desire mechanism, is our sexual brakes, otherwise called the sexual inhibition system (SI). They are there to prevent us from wanting to have sex.
Like the accelerator, the brakes also scan our environment for different triggers as we go on about our days. But instead of sending the signal to “turn on!”, they send a signal to “turn off!” at a particular smell, sound, imagery, etc.
While it might seem as if brakes are there to ruin all the fun, they have a very important reason to be there. Dr. Nagoski explains, “this brake is responsible for preventing us from getting inappropriately aroused in the middle of a business meeting or at a dinner with our family.” Our sexual brakes are there to make our lives easier.
What Does It Mean to My Sexual Desire?
The existence of sexual accelerators and brakes gives us an insight into how to improve our sex lives depending on individual circumstances. Once we get to know our sexual accelerators and brakes, we’ll better communicate with our partner about what we want from the relationship. And the same goes for our partner.
Understanding the dual sexual desire motor can also help heal trauma and recognize any toxic relationship patterns we might have. Sometimes we might be putting ourselves into situations like having sex with an ex who won’t commit to a serious relationship without knowing why we do it.
When we invest the time and effort into figuring out what makes us want to have sex and what ignites the passion in the bedroom, we can move away from the destructive behavior and learn to enjoy sex without the negative impact of having the wrong partners.
Context Also Matters for Sexual Desire
Of course, our sexual brakes and accelerators are not the only things that impact our libido. Context also plays a very important part that can make all the difference when it comes to feeling turned on or off in sexual situations.
Dr. Nagoski also separates context into two categories:
- Emotional context: involves our inner world and things like stress, love, and other feelings that all play an important part in how we have sex.
- Cultural context: it’s about the world we live in and the society and its norms. Believe it or not, societal norms dictate how we have sex more than we consciously understand.
Context plays a crucial part in getting turned on and activating our sexual accelerators. If we’re stressed, then our brakes might be working overtime, completely silencing the accelerator signals because when the “flight, fight, or freeze” mechanism is at play, there is no place for thinking about getting laid in your brain.
The same goes for our body image. Our image of what’s sexy and what’s not can be impacted by the media and the message we are told every day within a society with certain beauty standards. If we don’t look the way someone tells us that we should look, our brakes might always be on, turning us off from sex.
Learning about the context and how it works with the dual sexual desire motor can help us overcome any struggles with getting turned on or wanting to have sex.
Everyone’s Different but Normal
Our sexuality and desire are very complicated and difficult to grasp when you first start learning about them. However, the beauty of our sexuality is that we’re all different yet completely normal.
No matter what our fantasies, turn-ons, and needs are, we’re normal and deserve to have all those needs met by our sexual partners. It also means that if we feel that the flame in the bedroom had died down with our long-term partner, it’s not the end. If both parties spend the time learning about each other’s brakes and accelerators, it’s possible to rekindle the flame and discover new highs of sexual pleasure.