The hopeful, helpful, empowering guide for when you don't feel like having sex

An Essential Guide To Understanding How We Get Turned On

An Essential Guide To Understanding How We Get Turned On
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What do you think about when I say sexual health?

Hands up if its STDs, pregnancy and contraception?

Me too.

But we ALL have a sexual health, just the same as our physical and mental health.

Our sexual health also includes our “sexual wellbeing”. So although its important to look after ourselves physically & sexually (read STI checks and contraceptive pills)- it’s also about feeling good and getting the most out of the relationships you choose to have. Which is often the forgotten chapter in our sexual health education.

And just as we get colds or feel down from time to time, our sex drives can also vary.

Which means, having a low sex drive sometimes is completely normal, healthy, and nothing to worry about. It waxes and wanes and is affected by what is happening in our lives and how we feel. If we are good in ourselves both physically and mentally, we’re more likely to have a higher level of sexual functioning.

What is your sex drive?

Your sex drive is part of what is known as your “sexual response”.

Sexual health professionals agree that roughly your response has three parts:

Desire: When someone really wants to have sex with someone else, it is called ‘desire’. Your desire to have sex (libido) is in your mind.

Arousal: When someone is really turned on or horny it is called ‘arousal’. This is about the process that your body goes through to get ready for sex.

Orgasm: I don’t need to explain this one, right?

Sometimes they can happen at the same time, sometimes they work independently from each other.

For example, you can be aroused but not feel desire, e.g. when men get hard-ons on the bus. I get this when I’m wet, but my head’s just not in it to win it!

You can also desire someone but struggle to get aroused. For example worrying about having sex so you can’t get wet, or after drinking heavily.

What scientists don’t agree on is what order they go in.

The classic model goes like this:

The essential guide to your sex drive

If your sexual response is like this, it means that you have more “spontaneous” desire.

*note not everyone experiences it like this or achieves orgasm to have good sex!

Spontaneous means desiring or wanting sex BEFORE any sexual behaviour or contact. So this is seeing someone you fancy or randomly thinking about/remembering a sexual event (desire) and then getting a fanny gallop (arousal).

Lots of men tend to be more spontaneous- they say men think about sex every 6 seconds so this makes sense! (But have they been socialised to be?).

Because this is the most well known form of sexual response, not fitting this model can feel like there is something wrong with you.

However, Emily Nagoksi (a sexual health guru) thinks lots of women tend to fit a different model called “responsive desire”:

Responsive desire: a “new normal”?

This is sexual desire AFTER/IN RESPONSE TO sexual behaviour or contact. So this is when you start to have sex or be touched (arousal) and you aren’t that bothered, but then move to the “hell, yeah!” (desire) mood soon after! This means your process might look a little more like this:

Responsive sexual desire

Nagoski also designed a handy chart on her website that you can work out which type of response you most align to (reprinted below).

Spontaneous Desire Responsive Desire
  • Sexual desire feels like it appears “spontaneously,” out of the blue
  • Totally normal and healthy
  • Culturally sanctioned as the “expected” desire style
  • May include more frequent desire for sex  – multiple times per week
  • May include desire in a wider range of contexts
  • May feel like “too much” desire, in a negative context
  • Sexual desire emerges only in an erotic context, after sexy things start happening.
  • Totally normal and healthy
  • Culturally medicalized as “low” desire – perhaps because it’s less frequent in men?
  • May include less frequent desire for sex – less than once a week in most contexts
  • May include more context-sensitive desire, preferring things to be “just right”
  • May feel like “no desire,” in a context that hits the brakes


Most (if not all) people will recognise points in their life when they have struggled with either arousal, desire, or orgasm. Or all three. We might switch between spontaneous and responsive sexual responses too depending on our wellbeing. Its all completely normal!

If you are still worried, read about when low sexual response might be called as a problem and it might be time to seek help.


Mother Pearl



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