The Difference Between Spontaneous and Reactive Desire.
If extraterrestrial lifeforms had to develop an understanding of human sexuality purely from pop cultural artifacts, they’d assume that sex happens as a result of a zero-to-100 moment: Two people lock eyes from across the room, and soon enough their clothes are off and they’re all over each other. But desire—as we know—doesn’t really work that way.
Well, sometimes it does. But especially for people in long-term relationships, sex isn’t something that happens the instant you feel horny. A lot of the time, it’s the result of deliberate wooing, or the next step after an emotional moment, gentle or intense. This isn’t to say that there’s a normal way for a person to feel desire, but rather, there are different types of desire—and they were coined by the clinal sexual therapist Rosemary Basson, in 2000, in her research about human “sex-response cycles.”
The two types of desire that Basson explored were “spontaneous desire” and “reactive desire.” Their names should give you a pretty good idea of exactly how they work, but to be clear, “spontaneous desire” is the near-instantaneous kind of desire, while “reactive desire” is hinged upon more external stimuli: Seduction, emotional intimacy, foreplay, etc.
Different people may lean towards one type of desire over the other, and research shows that women are far more likely to primarily feel reactive desire, while men lean towards spontaneous desire, according to sex researcher Emily Nagoski, author of the book Come as You Are. But because sex research—and pop culture writ large—failed to seriously consider reactive desire until this century, many people (women, especially) have taken their reactive-learning desire to mean that they have low sex drives. And that, Nagoski says, really isn’t true.
Spontaneous and reactive desires aren’t strictly assigned by gender (though, as previously stated, they do skew towards certain genders), and what’s more, they can change for a relationship and throughout our lives, especially as our bodies change. It’s normal for the “honeymoon phase” of intimacy in new relationships to fade over time, too.
What’s important to realize is that research about spontaneous and reactive desire shows that it’s very normal if you don’t want to have sex just because—and vice versa. But everyone feels desire in different ways, and so, it’s important to communicate with your partner to get a better understanding of how you both experience desire, and how you can ensure that you both feel satisfied—whether that’s investing more time in foreplay, carving out time to take things slow, or finding new ways to light that spark. “Outdated science isn’t going to improve our sex lives,” Nagoski wrote in the New York Times. “But embracing our differences—working with our sexuality, rather than against it—will.