Women and desire

Or, if you’re not ready reading Emily Nagoski’s awesome blog The Dirty Normal, you should go fix that 🙂 In particular, she has a really interesting post about Flibanserin and the way the FDA was pressured to approve it even though “the drug increases “sexually satisfying events” by one per month over placebo, and roughly 13% of women who take it experience side effects like somnolence, dizziness, and nausea.” Ooooh, sexy sexy nausea.

But more seriously, it’s really sad that even the American Sexual Health Association and the American Reproductive Health Professionals, both of whom really ought to know what they’re talking about, thought that the best option to help women who were desperately unhappy about their “lack” (it’s not necessarily a lack, but I’ll get to that) of sexual desire was a drug that only works a little bit better than a placebo and has some shitty side effects.

The reason it’s so sad is that what we call a lack of sexual desire, particularly in women (I don’t know of any research specifically about trans women, but I bet this applies to you too), is often just responsive desire. To paraphrase it quickly (although the link is really interesting and goes into much more detail), there’s this assumption we have, at least in western culture, that the normal way to be is first you feel sexual desire, then you go have sex. But for roughly 30-60% of women and 5-20% of men, it’s the other way around – they don’t usually want sex just out of the blue, they start wanting it after foreplay has started. These folks don’t have “low” desire. They don’t suffer from any ailment, they don’t long to initiate but feel like they’re not allowed to. Their bodies just need some more compelling reason than “That’s an attractive person right there,” to want sex.

If all your life you’ve been told that spontaneous desire (sexual desire without an obvious trigger) is the way you’re supposed to feel desire, of course you’d feel broken and wrong and bad if you only experience responsive desire. And the more you feel broken and wrong and bad, the more even considering thinking about having sex becomes a minefield that you’d just as soon avoid entirely and things spiral downward from there.

In case things weren’t complicated enough already, AFAB (assigned female at birth) people don’t always orgasm reliably and aren’t always fulfilled by the sex acts that society says are the only “real” sex (ie penetration). To quote Emily again “only about a quarter to a third of women are [able to orgasm from vaginal penetration]. Another third of women are sometimes orgasmic from penetration, and the remaining third of women are never or almost never orgasmic from penile-vaginal penetration.” I know orgasm is far from the only reason people have sex, but personally if I’m going to go to the trouble of having sex I damn well want an orgasm. I’m also one of the lucky ones who does orgasm reliably, which does colour my views on that.

The one thing I really wanted to talk about is how responsive desire exists, is totally normal, and is only different from, not less than, spontaneous desire. You can stop reading now and that’s totally cool 🙂 But if you’re still here, let’s talk about how responsive desire might affect female doms.

There’s this stereotype that doms are always supposed to be the ones to initiate sex, but it seems unlikely that absolutely all female doms are part of the roughly 40-70% of women who experience spontaneous desire some or all of the time. It can also be complicated for submissive people, particularly submissive men, to initiate sex in a way that doesn’t feel pushy or demanding to the dominant woman.

Fortunately, I think kink itself might be a hack for that problem. Basically, getting aroused enough to want to initiate sex takes a combination of turning on the ons and turning off the offs. You can rev the engine as much as you want, but if you don’t release the brakes you’re not going anywhere. In a happy healthy d/s relationship, the trust that your partner will do what you tell them to do could help turn off the offs and the act of them submitting to you could help turn on the ons. Then again, any healthy relationship, kinky or not, where you feel safe and trusting is going to be good for your sex life in general, so does adding kink fundamentally change anything? I have no idea, but I think it’s an interesting question.

Another thing that might help is for the submissive man to learn to seduce his partner. There’s a fine line between seduction and manipulation, but if you know your partner well and know what turns her on, it’s possible to present yourself in a context that makes the answer to “would you like to come have your way with me?” “why yes, yes I would.” It’s about setting up a situation where she feels relaxed and sexy and playful, not about sugar-coating plain old pushiness.

Also, if we’re talking about kink and differing types of desire, we pretty much have to talk about chastity, if only to yell about how it’s not a silver fucking bullet! Just because you’re not having sex doesn’t mean you’re not still trying to make the world revolve around your dick. If you and your partner enjoy chastity play for its own sake and are really good at communicating your needs, then you absolutely might be able to use chastity as a way to do fun sexy things without pressuring the responsive partner to have sex they’re not necessarily into. But on the other hand if your partner just wants a goddamn break from the pressure to sexually service you, then a chastity device is going to backfire horribly. By the same token, if your dom thinks using a chastity device means they don’t have to give a shit about your sexual needs, they’re probably a bad partner for you and a jerk besides.

Responsive desire exists and is totally normal, but may be even more complicated for dominant women than it is for everyone else given the way our culture says spontaneous desire is the one true way (fuck the one true way).

5 thoughts on “Women and desire

  1. This is fascinating, thank you. I think I fall into different camps at different times. It’s frustrating when I’m in a responsive desire phase, I can know mentally I want to play but the physical desire isn’t there, which makes it feel forced or uncomfortable for me to initiate (and I do generally take on most of the initiation – as you said, that’s kind of how the standard plays out.) In those situations, having a drink has on more than one occasion bridged the discomfort for me (though I almost never drink otherwise), but that’s a shitty crutch I’d like to let go of. Thinking about it in this light though, I wonder if asking my partner to start by giving me a massage or rubbing my feet would make it easier for me to flip the switch into super active sex mode. Something low-pressure, not pushy, to get the physical contact ball rolling. I bet it would be really effective, and I’m going to try it. It might be something for subs who want to initiate, or suggest the possibility of initiation, to do while maintaining respect for the dynamic.

    That is deeply fucked up that a barely effective and possibly dangerous pharmaceutical is the best answer the medical system can come up with. Some serious study into female desire and decent adult sex education would go a lot further, it seems.

  2. You have a point, but please remember that loss of libido can be a big frustration for post-menopausal women. (I know it was for my mom–she went on hormones despite the health risks because she missed her sex drive so much.) That’s not about her being brainwashed by society to think she’s defective; that’s about the changes of age. Men have viagra for when age takes its toll; women want something comparable.

    Of course, it’s a bit different, because viagra treats arousal, not desire. So we’ll see. But women wanting a libido pill doesn’t mean they’re pawns of the patriarchy–on the contrary, they’re resisting society’s message that after a certain age they’re no longer sexual beings.

    • Good point! I just meant to rant about medicalizing totally normal responsive desire, not actual loss of desire. I think I’d try hormones too if I lost my sex drive, I would be really sad to lose that piece of myself.

      Of course, it’s a bit different, because viagra treats arousal, not desire.

      Oh I get so cranky about that 🙂 Not having to worry about getting and keeping an erection would certainly help my libido if I were a guy, but strictly speaking the female equivalent of viagra is plain old lube. Which probably has the exact same benefits, come to think of it. I’ve certainly heard plenty of horror stories from women who are utterly turned off by their partners repeatedly checking if they’re wet yet.

      I’ve heard from plenty of sources that low dose testosterone does increase sexual desire, so I think it’s worth asking why doctors are so reluctant to prescribe it. As long as the dose is low you’re not going to have irreversible physical changes, so maybe we as a society should calm the fuck down about giving women “male” hormones.

  3. I’m so interested in what you say about responsive desire. I know that I experience desire this way very often—I’m still learning what situations nurture my spontaneous desire and what percentage of the time. So it’s definitely a concept that is relevant to me. It also makes conversations with partners easier when you have language like this to talk about it. I can see it as especially relevant to dommes, as you say, but even outside of powerplay it’s an important idea.

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