How to Want to Have Sex

How to Want to Have Sex

How to Want to Have Sex

By Emma McGowan

Have you been feeling like your sex drive just isn't what it used to be? Maybe you and your partner have mismatched libidos and it's causing tensions in the relationship. Or perhaps you find yourself rarely in the mood but wish you could flip a switch to feel turned on.

If any of this sounds familiar, you've come to the right place. The truth is, desire comes in many forms, and it's high time we busted the myth that there's only one "right" way to feel horny.

According to Dr. Emily Nagoski, PhD, author of the seminal book Come As You Are, there are two main types of desire: spontaneous and responsive. Folks with spontaneous desire feel the urge to get intimate out of the blue, while responsive desire means you need some warmup to get in the mood. If you need a little extra oomph to get your groove on, you likely have responsive desire. And there’s nothing wrong with that!

Once you understand the difference between responsive desire and spontaneous desire, you'll gain insights into yourself or your partner that will make intimacy so much more fulfilling and fun again. Stick with us, and by the end you'll be armed with tips and tricks to stoke your desire whenever the mood strikes.

Understanding responsive vs spontaneous desire

Okay, so let's start with the basics: What are these two types of desire, anyway? Leighanna Cure MA, MFT-C, founder of Break the Mold Therapy and creator of the sex positive The F*ing Truth webinar series, tells The Pelvic People that we've "traditionally" (aka since Dr. Nagoski released her book in 2015) thought of responsive and spontaneous desire as diametrically opposed types of desire:

  • Spontaneous desire means you're ready to go at the drop of a hat. Your desire ignites suddenly and you want to act on it right away.
  • Responsive desire means desire awakens more slowly through intimacy and sensuality. It's not an on/off switch, but more of a slow build.

Those two definitions are great as a place for all of us to start, but Cure says that in more recent years there have been discussions about whether or not all desire might actually be responsive, just with higher bars for engagement. So, for example, a person that we would traditionally think of having "spontaneous" desire might actually just be more easily turned on than someone with "responsive" desire—but they're still responding to something, even if it's an instantaneous response.

But whether you identify more with the spontaneous vs. responsive paradigm or the responsive desire spectrum makes more sense to you, the important thing is that different people have different desire levels. And sometimes we have to figure out how best to manage that with our partners.

What to do if you have responsive desire

Cure points out that people with responsive desire often have a "wall" up when it comes to sex.

"Responsive desire is very common for people with trauma or people who have/had a very restrictive religion," Cure says. "There's a reason they have closed themselves down to the idea of pleasurable sex."

Whether you have sexual trauma or not, responsive desire means your engine takes a while to start revving. But that doesn’t mean you can’t get it firing on all cylinders with the right techniques. Here are a few suggestions.

Engage with sexy thoughts

Cure says that many people with responsive desire don't actively engage with sexy thoughts when they pop into their head. For example, say your partner is wearing a mini skirt. When you see their body in that mini skirt, "invite that desire in," Cure says.

"Give it an extra 60 seconds," she continues. "Ask: What if I lifted that skirt? Looked under? Touched?"

Regularly engaging with sexy thoughts throughout the day can help get that engine warming up throughout the day, not just when your partner wants to get it on.

Get your mindfulness on

Taking some time each day to connect with your body and breathe can help increase your awareness of subtle sexy feelings. Even just 5-10 minutes a day of meditation or yoga can make a big difference in how well you can tap into your sensuality.

Explore erotica and porn

Diving into some erotica, watching porn, or listening to erotic stories can activate your imagination and get your juices flowing, so to speak! They can also be a great way to learn more about what turns you on, which can be an area that some people with responsive desire struggle with. So explore and see what piques your interest and makes you feel all tingly! Then you can revisit that scene in your mind when you want to get in the mood.

Talk to your sweetie

Talking about sex can be pretty awkward but, unfortunately, it's essential if you're going to create a sex life that both you and your partner love. Communicating openly about your desire challenges and what specifically turns you on can help your SO support you. Ask them to engage in extra foreplay, sexting, or fantasy-sharing. Let them know if there are any pressure-free ways they can help spark your pilot light.

It's also a good idea to be open to "the alternative yes," which we talk about more, below, in the spontaneous desire section. TL;DR: even if you're not up for PIV, consider showing up for your partner sexually in other ways.

Pencil in playtime

Putting sex on the schedule may feel unromantic, but for responsive desire it removes the question of if it’s going to happen, so you can focus on enjoying yourself. This means you’ll have plenty of time to get your own engine going before hooking up with your partner.

Tips for the spontaneous partner to be helpful and supportive

If your partner has responsive desire and you’re more the spontaneous type, there are ways you can not only get more of what you want (aka sex and intimacy) but also gain a deeper understanding of your partner and their needs. Here’s what needs doing.

Rethink "rejection"

If you have spontaneous desire and your partner is more responsive, it can start to feel like you're being rejected all the time. And that's a major bummer. But it's not that your partner doesn't want you; it's that responsive desire takes time to emerge.

"If someone keeps on saying 'no,' your narrative story becomes 'I don’t deserve that thing; I'm not important enough; they don’t think I deserve that thing so I’m doing something wrong,'" Cure says. "The reality is rejection says more about them than it does about you. Rejection is just a person expressing their own inalienable right to autonomy over their own body and needs."

Just as you have the right to want to sex, your partner has the right to not want it, Cure says. The thing you both need to do from there is figure out what happens next.

Cultivate "the alternative yes"

Cure recommends that her clients start practicing what she calls "the alternative yes." Similar to the "yes, and..." prompt in improv theater, the alternative yes encourages people to think beyond PIV sex—and beyond hard "no's."

"If you have spontaneous desire, your horny light is essentially always on, which means it doesn’t take much to get you into sex," Cure says. "But if you expect your partner to be where you are just because you’re there, you can put a lot of pressure on them."

So instead of asking to dive right in (or if you've asked to dive right in and they've said they're not feeling it), have some alternative suggestions ready to go. Would they be up for cuddling? Watching while you masturbate? Using a toy on your body?

Taking pressure off the responsive desire person to be in charge of your orgasm can be a great way to not only get your needs met, but also possibly stoke that desire in them as well.

And if they're not up for any kind of intimacy right now, be okay with taking care of yourself. Masturbation can get you to an orgasm just as quickly (if not quicker; let's be real) as sex stuff with a partner, so go do you! (And no grumbling, please. Complaining about "having" to masturbate only puts that pressure right back in your responsive desire partner's lap.)

Help them relax and unwind

Ask your partner in a non-sexual moment if there are ways you can help get them in the mood when you're feeling it but they're not quite there yet. For example, maybe they can't stop thinking about what to make for dinner, in which case you can offer to make dinner while they go read. Or take a bath. Or do whatever thing they want to do! "If your partner requires more, as long as sex is good, there’s a return on investment," Cure says.

Lower the pressure

Cure also points out that one of the things that puts a damper on the desire of a person with responsive desire is the pressure to have sex. Taking that pressure off, therefore, can be a really good thing for both partners.

“For example, the spontaneous desire person can say, ‘Hey, my horny light is on. Want to join me?’” Cure says. “If the responsive person says ‘no’ and the spontaneous desire person takes that to mean ‘no orgasm for me,’ then the responsive person feels guilty. But if the spontaneous person says ‘Cool, no problem,’ and takes care of themself, that takes the pressure off.” 

The goal, Cure explains, is less about “making” the responsive desire person want to have sex and more about giving them permission to want to have sex. 

Focus on intimacy, not just sex

Cure suggests trying out different types of touch to build intimacy. You can start with the basics: Back rub, shoulder rub, foot rub—you get the idea. You can also take it up a notch with what Cure calls "hand riding," which involves putting your hand on top of your partner's hand while they touch different parts of their own body. With your hand on top, you can literally feel how they like to be touched, making it easier to pleasure them later.

And, of course, non-sexual and semi-sexual intimate touch are super important, too! Cuddle, make out, give compliments. Responsive desire is stoked by emotional and physical intimacy. Don't just initiate sex—initiate intimacy. The rest will come naturally.

Listen and communicate openly

Talk about your needs, desires, and boundaries. Compromise when you can. Feeling heard and understood will help you both feel more connected, which is the foundation for healthy sexuality. Ask what specifically helps spark their interest and be willing to try new things.

The key is simply to be there for your partner with empathy, patience and understanding. Meet them where they're at, focus on intimacy, and create the right conditions for responsive desire to emerge in its own time. With work, communication and compromise, you'll build a sex life and connection that satisfies you both.


So there you have it: A few tips and tricks to put some sizzle back in the bedroom. Remember, desire comes in many forms for many folks. If you're someone who usually needs a spark to get the fire going, that's A-OK. And if your partner is rarin' to go at the drop of a hat, that's alright too! The key is understanding, patience, and meeting in the middle. Try out some of these techniques, keep an open mind, and see what works for you. Before you know it, you'll be fanning those flames and making fireworks in no time.


  • I used to be more of the spontaneous type with a little bit of the responsive type in there from time to time.
    Perimenopause and life happened, and now it’s more responsive type all the time, and by responsive, I mean major mental and physical gymnastics to get me interested. Which is stressing in it’s self, and adds to making it harder to match up the desires between myself and my partner.
    Thanks for the breakdown, I am going to share this with my other and hopefully it will get us a little better understanding of how to move forward with both of us getting what we want and need.

    MeChelle on

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