The Science of Desire: Why Subtracting Adds More

While everyone has moments when they are not as aroused as they’d like to be – whether mentally or physically – it turns out, we may be going about fixing the issue the ‘wrong way’ by thinking of all the ways to add sexiness to a situation rather than removing the things turning us off.
Below, we take a look at some of the theories surrounding the ways our brain generates sexual response, as brilliantly explained by Dr. Emily Nagoski, author of Come as You Are.

What Is Desire?

When we talk about desire, what we are really describing is your body’s sexual response system. Regulated by your central nervous system, it can be thought of as a balancing act between activations and inhibitions, which Dr. Nagoski likens to ‘gas and brakes.’[i]

Basically, activations are all the sexy things about a situation that turn you on, and inhibitions are everything that turn you off.

This idea of placing everything about a situation into the categories of activations (Sexual Excitation Systems – SES) or inhibitions (Sexual Inhibition System – SIS) makes up the Dual Control Model.

What Are Some Examples of SES?

The things that are likely to ‘turn on’ the gas can be obvious, such as pleasant sexual touch like kissing, but can also be things that you respond to unconsciously. It could be the smell of your partner’s cologne, or the sight of them in a sexy dress. It could be supercharged romantic feelings when your partner makes a grand gesture, or even the novelty of a new sexual situation. As well, memories can serve as a strong SES – after all, our brain is our most important sexual organ!

Obviously, not everyone has the same activations. For example, a kinky person would be turned on by the sight of rope, while someone not into bondage may not.

What Are Some Examples of SIS?

When considering SIS, your mind may jump to ‘opposites’ of the above turn on’s, but there are plenty of other things that can take us out of the mood, like relationship conflict, body image issues, depression or anxiety, fears about STIs, damage or perceived damage to one’s ego, or stress.

Again, it’s important to note that these may not turn every person off; some people use sex as coping methods for some of the above, and interestingly, 10-20% of people find that stress actually increases desire.

Why Is Understanding Desire Like This Important?

As Dr. Nagoski has found during her own experiences as a couple’s sex therapist, many people experiencing issues with desire (either their own or their partner’s) will focus on ‘adding gas’ rather than ‘removing brakes,’ which is surprisingly found to be generally less effective.
So the next time you feel like your desire is flagging, take a moment to consider your overall well being and what barriers to pleasure might lie there, rather than assuming the solution lies in sexy costumes or pharmaceuticals!