When my partner and I first got together, my desire for him was strong. Everything about him - his blue jean eyes, the sound of his voice, his aptitude for math and puzzles - all of it turned me on.
When I was around people like my partner or my cute friends or hot strangers, I’d feel the fiery yearning of desire. I didn’t know a lot about sex at the time, but I knew this was the first step on the road to Sexytown.
But as I got older, things began to change. My relationship with my partner became deeper and more complex. The easy high of early romance ran gave way to the everyday intimacy of sharing homes, building a marriage, co-parenting, and living life together. My body grew older. Slowly, incrementally, the way I looked and the way I felt changed. Sex changed too. I loved my partner so much. I still felt warm and happy when I looked into the blue jean eyes, heard his voice or watched him math the crap out of some equations. But that feeling of desire that had once been so ready and reliable, became rare and unpredictable. It was embarrassing, even scary. I wondered what was wrong with me.
In the 1960s and 70s, sex researchers like Masters and Johnson and Helen Singer Kaplan established what’s known as a linear model of human sexual response. That’s the process that turns us from cool, collected citizens into hot, horny hump monkeys. These early models suggested that for most people sexual response happens in stages, starting with desire - that feeling of longing for someone; and then moving into sexual arousal - loins afire and other physical sensations that happen when we’re turned on.
The early research into sexual response was groundbreaking. Which is perhaps why those early models have endured. Most of us learn that if we’re in healthy sexual relationships with a partner, we’ll feel sexual desire for them, that desire will arouse us and happy, naked times will ensue. That’s how it worked for me. Until it didn’t. And for a long time I thought that I was broken. The thinking part of my brain kept telling me, "You like this person. You like sex.” And I did. If I could get my body going, sex felt great. Many a time, when I was in the middle of it, I’d think ‘I have got to do this more often! I have got to do this WAY more often!’ But then the next day, all those feelings would be out of my body and I didn’t know how to make them come back.
Rosemary Basson is another sex researcher who, in more recent years, decided to take another look at human sexual response. She was especially concerned about the high percentage of women (studies indicated between 30%-35%) being labeled as sexually dysfunctional because they allegedly had low sexual desire. She suspected that rather than there being a problem with these women, that there might something missing from our understanding of how and why some people get turned on. She discovered a lot of people’s sexual response doesn’t follow the stages of the traditional Masters and Johnson/Kaplan models, that many actually need to feel physically aroused before they feel sexual desire for a partner, and that this is especially common in women.
(Side note: If you’re a sex geek like me, you can read an overview of human sexual response models here and a summary of Basson’s research here.)
(Another side note: Based on Basson’s writing, she seems to be using “woman” to mean people who are assigned female at birth. Presumably this research could apply to a person of any gender with ovaries, estrogen, and progesterone).
The Basson model explained why I’d always want to jump my partner’s bones after a few minutes of watching porn or reading smutty books. Why he seemed especially cute when I masturbated. Why he always walks into the middle of my celebrity sex dreams and takes over. And why if I start fooling around with him, it takes a while for me to “warm up” but I ultimately wind up thinking “I have got to do this more often.”
There’s nothing wrong with me and I’m not broken. I wish I’d learned about the Basson model much sooner, but better late than never. Now that I understand my body a little bit better, my partner and I have been trying something that makes it easier to get to my sexy place when my brain tells me partnered sex could be fun, but my body’s not on board yet.
I call it five-minute desire.
The idea is that my partner and I both agree that I’m making a small commitment to indulge in sexual stimulation for five minutes. If my arousal leads to desire and we have sex, that’s great. If it doesn’t, that’s fine too. There’s no pressure and there are no expectations.
First, I tell my partner that I’m thinking about having sex and ask if he’s game. I’m sure it could work spontaneously, but the reality of our lives is that between work and parenting, sex is more likely to happen if when we do a little advanced planning.
When the time comes, five-minute desire is all about me getting aroused. Sometimes I work alone - reading or watching something I know will get me going or masturbating a little. Sometimes my partner and I fool around a little. But the focus is solely on me and what feels good for my body. After five minutes of stimulation, it’s usually enough that I either start feeling sexual desire, or I’m turned-on enough to keep playing at it. But there are times when I realize, ‘this isn’t going to happen’. And that’s okay. I gave it a shot. I can move on and settle for an evening of Netflix.
Using this five-minute desire has made it so much easier to get my body and mind in to alignment when it comes to my sex life. Here are a few things to keep in mind, if it’s something you think might work for you:
You can pick any amount of time you want. I chose five minutes because it’s short enough that I can usually fit it into my evening and long enough for my body to warm up, but yours might be two-minute or twelve-minute or 1-hour desire.
I’m not super-rigid about sticking to five minutes exactly. I always get a cold jolt of mood-killing anxiety when I hear an alarm, so it’s better for me to glance at a clock; however some folks might do better with the set-it-and-forget-it convenience of an alarm
I don’t worry about how I’m getting turned on. I used to feel badly because porn arouses me much more than a romantic candle-lit bedroom. But it seems like a waste of my time and sexy energy to worry about whether my sexual buttons are the “right” ones. So I do what works for me, my body and my mind.
There is no normal when it comes to our sexuality and sexual response is just another example. If you enjoy sex, but it’s not happening the way you think it should be, why not take some time and discover how sex can work for you?