Desire Styles: What They Are And How To Determine Yours

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You've heard of the five love languages, but have you learned what your desire style is? As there's not just one way to have sex, there's not just one way to desire it either. The way we experience sexual desire is different for every person, regardless of gender or sexual orientation. For some people, it's the thought of sex that gets them in the mood, almost like flipping a switch. For others, they might not be turned on until they are touched a certain way, and it might be difficult for them to be aroused if they're in a negative headspace. 


These are examples of desire styles, which author and sex educator Emily Nagoski discusses in her popular sexual health book "Come As You Are". According to Nagoski, there are three desire styles: spontaneous, responsive, and contextual. Knowing which one resonates with you can help you understand yourself and your sexual partner(s) better, allowing for more fulfilling sexual experiences. 

Spontaneous desire

This type of desire is the one we most commonly see in movies and television shows. One moment two characters are at a bar, they look at each other, and all of a sudden, they're making out in a taxi cab. For people who experience spontaneous desire, thinking of sex makes them want it now.


"We may have those random sexy thoughts and just want it," says Jordan Dixon, a sex and relationship therapist. "It just appears out of the blue," she tells Men's Health.

So, how do you know if you experience spontaneous desire? The thought of sex turns you on and makes you crave it in that moment. You may get the tingles (down there) as soon as a sexual fantasy comes to mind or you see someone you find attractive. These feelings seem to come out of nowhere when you might not expect it.

When you're stressed out, sex may bring some relief. You may often be the initiator in your sexual encounters, but not always. In a relationship, this type of desire tends to fade over time, allowing you to tap into responsive desire.


Responsive desire

Unlike spontaneous desire where just the thought of intimacy is often enough to get you going, someone with a responsive desire style needs certain sexual stimuli to get in the mood. Their desire is a reaction to these stimuli.


Sex therapist Vanessa Marin explains there are two ways we get turned on: in our heads and in our bodies. "If you're a spontaneous type, you feel the mental desire first, then the physical arousal second. If you're a responsive type, you feel the physical arousal first, then the mental desire second," she tells Well + Good

You may have a responsive desire style if you need something external to get you in the mood, whether by yourself or with a partner. Maybe you're relaxing on the couch with your partner and they start to rub your thigh or kiss your neck. That closeness and physical touch help to spark the mental desire to take things further. This could also look like watching a spicy movie scene or seeing your partner undress — anything that tells your brain, "It's sexy time."


Sex might be a stress reliever for people with spontaneous desire, but responsive people will likely not become turned on when dealing with stress or anxiety. It may also be difficult to initiate sex, but this is not the case for all responsive people. 

Contextual desire

After reading about spontaneous and responsive desire, you may feel like you've experienced both at different points of your life. This is very common, and according to Nagoski, many people will fluctuate between the two. There's no need to feel confined to one or the other. If you feel like there are times when you're spontaneous and other times when you're responsive, you may have contextual desire. 


With this desire style, the circumstances and environment around you play a big role. Maybe there are certain situations where you find yourself being more spontaneous, while in other situations, you find yourself needing more stimulation to become aroused. When dealing with things like financial stress or big life changes, sex might not always be the first thing on your mind like it has been at other stages of your life.

Contextual desire is especially common in long-term relationships. Desire may be more spontaneous in the beginning when you feel as though you can't keep your hands off each other, and then it may become more responsive as time goes on. These changes are not necessarily a bad thing; just as we change over time, so can our desire styles.


Knowing your desire style

Dr. Patricia Love, professor and certified love educator, offers another helpful way of understanding the different desire styles (per Men's Health). She distinguishes between having a "sexy body" and a "sexy mind."


People who are "sexy-bodied" fall into the spontaneous desire category. Their bodies can become easily aroused, they think about sex frequently, and they use it to alleviate stress.

A "sexy-minded" person is someone with a responsive desire style. They need the context of a sexual experience to become fully aroused, and if they're in the right headspace, sparks will fly.

For many people, sex is one of the best pleasures of life. Understanding yourself in a sexual context can help you enjoy it even more. Once you know what turns you on and how you're aroused, you can help your partner understand you better, leading to more fulfilling and connected sexual experiences. That way, everyone will have a good time. 


How desire styles affect relationships

Having issues in the bedroom is one of the top reasons couples seek counseling (via Good Therapy). These problems may arise when couples have mismatched desire styles. One person may be spontaneous and always initiating, not understanding that their responsive partner doesn't operate in the same way.


A desire discrepancy can affect any relationship, and it's often found in heterosexual relationships. According to Nagoski, 75% of male-identifying people experience spontaneous desire, compared to 15% of female-identifying people.

The gender norms in our society certainly play a role in how we perceive desire. Men are typically seen as the "pursuers," while there is a stereotype that women are more "passive." In queer relationships, there's often less pressure to adhere to these norms, but having different desire styles can affect any couple.  

It's important to understand and accept each other's differences in the bedroom. If you're more spontaneous compared to your partner, it doesn't mean they don't want you. They just express their love in a different way. By no means should you pressure your partner to do anything they don't want to do. Ask your partner about what gets them in the mood and how you can emotionally connect with them.


If you're on the responsive side, talk to your partner about what turns you on and how they can help alleviate your stress. You may need to set aside time for intimacy, but scheduling sex doesn't make it less sexy.

Misconceptions about sexual desire

In understanding the desire styles, it's good to know the misconceptions around desire. In "Come As You Are," Nagoski addresses the number one thing people get wrong about desire — that it's a "drive."


We often hear the term "sex drive," as if sex is something we must to do to keep breathing. According to Nagoski, sex is not a drive like hunger and thirst. If we don't eat, we die. But if we don't have sex, the worst thing that happens is we feel frustrated.

Portraying sex in this way creates a sense of entitlement around it, which can be very dangerous. If sex is like food or water, then people begin to excuse inappropriate sexual behavior as a means for survival. In addition, the idea that sex is a "drive" can also make people feel like there's something wrong with them if they don't desire sex often. 

Though people with spontaneous desire tend to initiate sex more, it can be really hard for some people to do so. Women are often shamed or given derogatory labels when expressing interest in sex.


On the other side of the coin, many women believe something is "wrong" with them if their desire style isn't as spontaneous as their partner's. Having a spontaneous desire style doesn't mean you're sex-obsessed, and having a responsive desire style doesn't mean you aren't interested in sex at all. These are just different ways to understand you and your sexual partners better.