I was recently at a talk on menopause. The event was a “speed date your doctor” approach. Every 20 minutes the group of people switched tables and got to ask their doctor different questions about their challenges, specific to menopause. When most of the participants got to my table there was a sense of “I don’t know what to ask but I want the information.” This is pretty common when it comes to sexual challenges. We know we want help but we don’t know what we don’t know. And what we do know is that we want something better than what is.

I anticipated this might happen so I had a little spiel up my sleeve that I give pretty often to clients. I knew the information was impactful and it turned out that they thought it was too.

If you are interested in being a fly on the wall of that room that day, today is your chance. Here is what I shared with them:

As a society we are given a message about sexual desire. The message is “if your desire doesn’t match your higher desire partner then there is something wrong with you and you need to get help.” Statistically, we see in research that this tends to be for women, or vulva owners (the one who needs the help) to a male counterpart (the one we are suppose to strive to live up to), though we know there are a lot of different ways relationships can be formed (male to male, female to female, open, non-binary).

Here is why that message exists… because women weren’t expected to be included in research until the 1980s. So what does that mean? That means that when researchers were studying men and their sexual health, they typically assumed women functioned the same way. As women our sexual desire was seen as equal to that of men. HOWEVER, in recent years through the work of Rosemary Basson, Emily Nagoski and the like, we have come to find out that in fact, women do have different types of libido than men (and yes, this is a generalization based on the research. Men can be the lower desired partner and women can be the higher).

For years, women have been compared to the male counterpart. If our libido or desire didn’t match their higher desire, then we must be in the wrong. We must be broken. We need to be fixed.

If we break down desire and arousal we can see that desire actually comes from the brain, our thoughts. While arousal comes from our body, nipples getting erect, lubrication in our vagina. For many women desire (the thought) actually comes AFTER arousal.

Think about a sexual situation you’ve been in. How many times did you not want to have sex before the situation but once you started kissing, being touched, being stimulated that your mind then got on board and was like “mk, I could get into this!”. That’s because your desire came after your arousal. This also means you likely have what is called responsive desire.

Responsive desire is about needing something in your environment to respond to for your desire to say “I want to have sex”. This could be your partner listening to you, empathizing with you, asking about your day that makes those desire thoughts chime in. It could be a full body caressing experience. Maybe it’s being in a hot tub together and enjoying the slowness of life. Maybe it’s having your partner check in on you while you’re at work “Hey, I know you have that big meeting coming up, how are you feeling?”

For many guys or penis owners, we see something that’s called spontaneous desire. This is when a guy comes into the room, says “wow, I just got an erection and can have sex right now!” Meanwhile you’re deep into a crime thriller in your pjs with 0 intention of doing anything sexual. Like a negative 10% chance. I’m exaggerating a little bit and also not. What the male partner here is experiencing is called spontaneous desire.

Here’s the discrepancy. Society has taught us that as women, if we don’t match our spontaneous partner’s desire, then there is something wrong with us. When in reality, we might just be experiencing desire in a very different way. A way that might mean changing our mindsets on how we’ve thought about sex in the past. A mindset that says , I don’t have low libido, my libido is just different than yours. A mindset that says my libido isn’t low, my season of life has just changed and I need something different for my desire to activate now.

Now, can some of you be women and have spontaneous desire, yes. Can some of you be men and have a responsive desire, yes. Does that mean there is something wrong with you, no. You’re just different from your partner. That’s quite literally it. An important piece is learning how to strip away the messages society has ingrained in your head about desire, and learn how to use each other’s desires in a way that works for that individual.

So how do we start doing that?

You have to start talking about what we call your brakes and accelerators. Your brakes are those things that your partner does or in the environment that make your desire and arousal start slowing down or shutting off. For instance, if your doing the dishes and your partner comes up from behind you and grabs your breasts, that might be a hard brake and maybe even the airbags have gone off. Your nervous system is saying absolutely not. Take note of the things that might be brakes for you. Accelerators are those things that make your desire or arousal go up. I heard some people say, holding my hand in public, sending sweet texts during the day, giving me a back massage. What are the accelerators for you?

I do want to add a side note here that accelerators should not be those things that your partner “should” be doing to add to the shared partnership of the household. That should be a completely different conversation though it might contribute to your brakes and accelerators. The equality in the relationship and shared responsibilities needs to be there no matter what. Talk to your partner about what you believe your desire level is, responsive or spontaneous. Share with them your brakes and accelerators.

The Jar Exercise

Now, there’s one more bonus piece I am going to share with you in hopes to make this more fun. This is what I called spontaneously scheduling sex or intimacy. One of the most requested questions we get in our office is “how can we make sex more spontaneous?”. The answer is usually it’s something you have to make a priority on your schedule just like anything else you find important. But, let’s try and make it fun!

You and your partner will both take out a jar a piece of paper and a pen. On the paper you’re going to write down all the things that bring you pleasure when it comes to intimacy, connection and/or sex. Nothing goes on the list that your partner has said is off limits. Next you rip or cut each of those ideas off your list, crumble it up and put it in your own jar. Remember, your partner has their own jar. This jar will be a jar that your partner will pull from.

You and your partner will decide how frequently you want to connect in a week. Let’s say it’s one. You then need to decide who will go first. So, let’s say it’s you. You at some point in the week will pull from your partner’s jar. You will then plan a time where you will invite your partner into that situation and then connect with them over that situation. This to you will be scheduled but to them will be spontaneous.

Here’s the other kicker, you will also want to know how your partner wants to be initiated into a sexual or intimate experience. Maybe they’re initiation style is sitting with them and asking them about their day, empathizing, validating and remaining curious about what they’re saying. Maybe they want you to make out with them. Maybe they want you to attack them in the hallway. You’ll want to know what works for your partner and then use that initiation style when bringing them in to the activity that you’ve pulled.

Lastly, you want to have conversations about what that was like for them, what went well, what they would want differently next time. Get detailed. “I do love that you surprised me by attacking me in that hallway, but I think I realized I like that better as a fantasy than in real life. Next time can we try you coming up and giving me a hug and inviting me into the room?” “I liked that we tried out being spontaneous but I think I might actually knowing when the activity will happen. Can we try out you letting me know when it is planned and see what that’s like? I think if you could do it in a way like texting something really sweet about it or leaving me a nice note inviting me earlier in the week?”

So, we talked about desire styles, brakes and accelerators, and the jar activities. My hope for you is that this helps you start to reshape the way you think and experience intimacy within your relationship. That we move away from feeling broken, feeling not good enough, and instead move toward different being okay, how to work with our differences, and how to connect in a way that feels good for both of us, in a very honest way.