When we talk about sex drive, desire, and sexual arousal, most of us have no idea what causes any of it or why our bodies do what they do.
We’re over here thinking: I don’t know. I don’t want sex with my partner. I don’t know why? Or perhaps it’s: I want sex all the time. Like, excessively. I don’t know why! Help!
Sex education in schools is low-key a nightmare, parents don’t have honest discussions about sex with their children, and in short, no one knows what the hell is going on.
If you have a high sex drive, low sex drive, or a bit of both at different times, it’s not exactly clear why that is.
To get to the bottom of this puzzling affair, we turned to the groundbreaking work of Emily Nagoski, PhD., author of Come As You Are. Here is what we learned about why you have a high or low sex drive.
Brakes and accelerators
Sexual response was originally thought to happen in four phases according to findings published in the 60s by sex researchers Masters and Johnson: Excitement, plateau, orgasm and resolution. Their research contended that these phases occur in a linear way—i.e. always one after the other. Then in 1979, Helen Singer Kaplan proposed the Triphasic Concept, which added desire as the first phase, followed by arousal and orgasm.
But, wait, there is more to it than that. We humans are not some patterned creatures who follow a linear pattern every time we have sex, and many people don't always have an orgasm.
Enter the Dual Control Model. This model speaks to a system of "accelerators" and "brakes" that govern sexual response in a non-linear way. “Accelerators” are things that propel you towards sexual feelings, toward wanting sex. Your “brakes” are sexual inhibitions—they hold you back. When your brakes are going strong your brain is thinking: Nope. Now is not the time for sex.
Every person has both an accelerator and brake system—and each person's set functions differently.
The Dual Control Model builds upon Masters and Johnson’s original model, as well as Kaplan's. Instead of a “one thing leads to another” style response cycle, it looks at the ways our brains and bodies respond as an overlapping system. Phases will happen at different times for different people.
Sexual response is complex system. This model shows how much variance there really is in human sexuality. Using this model has the potential to help you (or your partner) see how their sexuality is unique, not lacking.
Non-Concordance and Libido
We need to understand that there is difference between your mind being turned on and your body being turned on. Desire and arousal are not the same thing. Desire is what happens in your brain and arousal is what happens in the body. For most women, there is non-concordance. This means your brain might be turned on, but your vagina doesn’t get wet or vice versa.
Don’t get down on yourself about non-concordance, try to look at it neutrally and without judgement. Know this the way women experience sexuality and it’s perfectly normal and healthy. Nagoski says that there is barely ever concordance between desire and arousal in women.
When it comes to breaks and accelerators, some people have stronger breaks and others have a stronger accelerator — figure out where you lie on that spectrum.
What it means if you have a sensitive accelerator
If you have a high desire for sex, get turned on spontaneously, use sex to deal with stress, etc., you probably have a sensitive accelerator.
This could be wonderful and amazing, or perhaps not. It’s all about how you feel about your sexual desire and the sex you’re having in your relationship.
It can be difficult to have a high desire for sex and constantly be in the mood if you partner has more sensitive breaks. We praise women who are down to get it on with their partner whenever, but it can come with its drawbacks. We can’t put emphasis on the high desire partner’s needs nor can we shame the high desire partner for wanting sex “too much.”
It’s all about compromise. Whether you have sensitive breaks or accelerators, you will need to find ways to work around both partner’s needs.
What it means if you have sensitive breaks
You likely need sexually relevant context in order to get in the mood. If the context isn’t distinctly sexual or hot, you probably aren’t going to be into it. Have you noticed anything like this when it comes to sex?
You likely don’t respond to what Nagoski calls spontaneous desire. It’s not really your jam to think about something sexy and suddenly want to get it on in the grocery store while buying organic produce.
You prefer candles, a romantic dinner, and seduction. You need your brain to understand that this is a sexual situation, one that turns you on, in order to become turned on.
There is nothing wrong with this. It’s just the way you operate. Knowing these things about yourself can help you better assess and articulate your sexual needs. Have an open discussion with your partner about what your body needs and figure out the same for them.
Just because your brakes are sensitive or your accelerator is always primed and ready to go doesn’t mean you’re banned from enjoying sex. Not even close.