a couple holding hands in bed: surprising things a sexologist wants you to know about sexual desire

If you told me when I was a younger woman that sexual desire is not something that just happens, and it actually requires ‘stoking’ and effort, I really would not have believed you. So, the chances are that your beliefs around sexual desire are also rather skewed and could do with some revising.

Here are my top five things that everyone should know about sexual desire:

Sexual desire is rarely spontaneous

While we all want to feel like sex out of the blue, at the exact same time as our partner, and at the exact moment we can actually have sex… the chances of this happening are very low. If we both wait to feel like sex in order to have it, we’ll be kept waiting a long time. Most people experience responsive sexual desire far more frequently!

Responsive sexual desire is when we experience desire in response to something we see/ hear/ feel etc. For some people, they might not realise that they are responding to something sexual and think that they are spontaneously experiencing desire. For others, they experience desire when their partner initiates sexual contact; in response to it.

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You’ll probably start feeling like it once you’re having it

Most people don’t actually feel like sex when they start having it. Think of it like going to the gym: few people feel like going to gym, and negotiate with themselves about it, perhaps going anyway. Once there, they don’t regret going, and may actually think “I’m so glad I pushed myself and exercised. I’ll go again tomorrow…”

Then tomorrow comes around and they go through the same negotiation process all over again. Desire is very much like this! I often suggest to clients who label themselves as ‘someone who just doesn’t want sex that much’ that they have sex despite this, because they are likely to feel like it only once they are having it.

a couple in bed together feet showing below the duvet: surprising things a sexologist wants you to know about desire

Foreplay needs to happen outside the bedroom more than in it

I hate the way that the word foreplay is understood – it really limits the experience that lends to building up desire and arousal. What we do before intercourse is actually sex… it’s all sex. And if we could change up how we define foreplay we could really do ourselves a favour in expanding our view of the effort that goes into desire for sex.

If we think of foreplay as any intimate interaction between a couple (from helping each other with chores and the kids, to sending each other affectionate or loving WhatsApp messages during a work day), then we realise that a lot goes in to ‘stoking’ the fires of desire and arousal.

That it’s not going to work if we think it’s just getting into bed and giving each other oral before anything else! The more effort we put into showing our partner love, affection and desire for them outside of all things sex (again, I mean everything we do sexually), the more desire is likely to be responsive when we do get it on.

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The brain is the most important sexual organ

The previous point also has a lot to do with this point. Arousal is experienced in our bodies and minds. Sexual desire is actually experienced in our minds. It’s a psychological experience of wanting and so if we are feeling loved, appreciated and desired by our partner outside of them initiating sex, then we are actually more open and willing to experience desire when it is felt. You really need to believe that your partner “wants you” and not “wants sex”.

However, you also need to recognise that sometimes you are psychologically not in the right place to be open and willing. Covid is a great example: the pandemic has placed shocking strain and pressure on us all, in varying ways… none of which has lent to the ‘right’ headspace for sex! Our brain is our most important sexual organ, but know that this can also be negative for us when our frame of mind is off.

There is no such thing as high or low libido

This is a short, but crucial point: there is no such thing as high or low desire, there are only differences in desire! The sooner a couple accepts that there is almost always going to be a difference in how much they each want sex, the more likely they are to tolerate the distress that the difference brings up and be able to move through that period of time.

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Catriona is an accredited clinical sexologist, psychotherapist, sexuality researcher & speaker. She is an expert in the field of sexual behaviour, intimacy, relationships and mental well-being, with a particular interest in helping people create or reestablish sexual intimacy and empowering women to embrace their sexuality. She has delivered her expertise across media, business and private platforms and is a globally recognised voice in the field of sex, pleasure and relationships. She runs a global practice online, consulting with clients from around the world, but has a practice in Johannesburg, South Africa and London, United Kingdom.