Sex Drive: what it is, what it isn’t, and what this means for your sex life
Sex drive. We’ve all heard the term before, and we likely all have an idea of what it means. What if I were to tell you that what you think you know about “sex drive” is wrong? The most recent research on sex and sexuality informs an updated and more nuanced idea of the concept of “sex drive” that can better support people who are struggling.
What it isn’t
You’ve likely been taught that the desire for sex is a drive, an internal push to engage in sex. What we know now is that this term and definition are factually incorrect. Unlike the human drive for food, water, and oxygen, we won’t die without sex. The word Drive implies two things. That we will die without it and that it is solely a forward momentum pushing us towards something. What we refer to as a “sex drive” is actually neither of those things!
First, let’s address the term “drive” in the context of survival. In scientific literature, the term drive is reserved for activities that are needed for survival. Like the drive to eat, drink and breathe. Unlike these activities, we will not die without sex.
Second, the term drive implies that there is only forward momentum, pushing us toward the activity. Again, think of hunger, thirst, and suffocation. What we think of as the “drive for sex” is actually two simultaneous operating systems, moving us towards two different outcomes.
What it is
What we are actually referring to when we think of “sex drive” is desire. Desire is the psychological want or longing to engage in sexual activity. Desire is impacted by an individual’s sexual excitatory and sexual inhibitory systems. So, instead of one system propelling us forward to have sex, we actually have two systems that can be, and often are, activated at the same time.
We can think of these systems as sexual accelerators and sexual brakes. The accelerator system is all the things that turn us on. The brake system is all the things that turn us off. For both the accelerator and brakes, these things might be feelings, thoughts and fantasies, external sensations, sensory stimuli, and, most importantly, the context. As Emily Nagoski says, “Desire is the result of the interplay between context and what we find pleasurable.”
What this means
When we are trying to improve our sex lives, we often focus on the accelerator system, anything to “spice things us”. Think toys, games, role-playing, scheduling, dirty talk, sexting, etc. This can work for some folks, and that is wonderful. But for most people, this is a temporary fix at best. Think of driving a car and hitting the accelerator and brake at the same time; what happens? What we know about desire is that the brake system has a much stronger effect than the accelerator.
Rather than adding things to the accelerator, we should be focusing on removing things from the brakes. Think of a sensual space, inviting scents and sights, reduction of stress, childcare, reduction of expectations, working on trust issues, etc. What we should be doing is getting familiar with the things that hit our brakes and focus our efforts (collaboratively if you are with a partner) on reducing or removing them. For 90% of people, stress hits the breaks. So if you are struggling to identify the things that hit your brakes, a good place to start is with what causes you stress.
Nagoski, E. (2021). Come as you are: The surprising new science that will transform your sex life. Simon and Schuster Paperbacks.