Libido vs Arousal

One of the most common sex therapy issues I see in my office is libido discrepancy, or in simpler terminology, one partner wanting to have sexy time more frequently than another. This difference in desire can become an escalating cycle, since both partners may develop compensatory thinking and behavior and often feel like they “should” experience desire more like their partner does. (Nothing throws a good sexual connection off kilter like a feeling of “should”!)

An important detail to parse out in therapy as we address this issue is the difference between libido (also called desire or drive) and arousal.

Libido is how often you are interested in engaging in sexual activity. This includes having sexual thoughts or fantasies as well as the desire to initiate sexual activity with a partner. One helpful way to think about libido is like an appetite or hunger: some people have a low grade awareness of hunger for sex all the time; others may feel the sudden onset of a voracious call towards sex; still others may never notice they have sexual hunger, even if months have gone by without having sex.

Arousal, on the other hand, is how turned on or excited you get when you think about sex or start to engage in sexual activity. This includes physiological responses such as the release of natural lubrication, increased blood flow to the genitals, and changes in heart rate and breathing. Not everyone’s arousal looks the same. For example, a woman may be subjectively aroused and experiencing excitation cues, but not become “wet.” (This can occur for a variety of reasons, including hormone fluctuation, and is not a problem if you’ve got a bottle of lube on hand.)

Why is it important to know the difference between these two terms? Because one partner may have more spontaneous desire while another has more responsive desire. Someone with spontaneous desire might think about sex multiple times a day, or even an hour, unprompted or with very little external cues to cause them to think about sex. Someone with responsive desire doesn’t think about sex until arousal is already happening. They may not have a libido response to subtle or even overt cues about sex. To return to the hunger analogy, sex has to be right in front of them – a huge plate of deliciousness ready to be devoured – before libido comes online. Though many times this divide is along gender lines, with women having less instances of spontaneous desire than men, that is not always the case. People can also experience fluctuations in how they experience desire throughout different phases of their lives.

For those with responsive desire, it’s especially important to create a context which invites the onset of sexual energy.  Stress is a huge libido disruptor for most people. However, those with spontaneous desire will still often think to themselves “hey, I can pay these bills later. It’d be nice to go down on my partner right now.” Those with responsive desire will not think of sex while there are dishes in the sink to be done. Those partners need space and time to cultivate emotional and physical intimacy, which sparks arousal and then desire. Date nights, cuddle time, rope bondage classes, tantric workshops, or the 3 minute game are some of the many options available for cultivating an optimal environment to spark desire.

What doesn’t work for those with responsive desire? Adding sex as one more item on the to-do list.

So instead of worrying if you want sex too often or too infrequently, prioritize sensation play and intimacy with the ones you love. Create space and time for true connection and the rest will likely follow.

PostsJo Magliocco