We live in a paradoxical era in which, despite the sexual revolution, people are having less sex. Misconceptions about desire lie at the heart of this paradox. Desire is often thought of as a “sparky” force that strikes people spontaneously, such as when they catch a glimpse of someone attractive.
But that’s only one kind of desire, as sex educator Emily Nagoski tells Big Think. Another type is responsive desire, which is what you feel as a reaction to sexual stimuli, like touch, physical closeness, or sexual contact.
Building a strong relationship requires fostering desire in some form and being willing to communicate with your partner about how to best make that happen. Those conversations might be awkward at first, but, as these Big Think experts explain, they can be immensely rewarding.
SHMULEY BOTEACH: How is it that three, four decades after the sexual revolution we're having less sex than ever?
EMILY NAGOSKI: The reason people struggle so much with desire is because we have been lied to, fundamentally, about what desire is, and how it works.
ESTHER PEREL: It's not about statistics and performance. How often, how hard, how long, how many- that's a very different question looking at the meaning of sex rather than doing sex. My interest has been to probe the nature of erotic desire in long-term relationships, but also in general, and in particular because of the profound change that sexuality has experienced in the context of committed relationships, which for most of history, was about procreation and about a woman's marital duty, but not anchored, rooted, in this concept called 'desire,' which is to own the wanting, which is so much a part of an individualistic culture in which there is an "I" who deserves to want, and who is entitled to have their wants be met. And I was interested in why people come to me so often saying "We love each other very much; we have no sex." And that closeness wasn't always what they were missing. They were often very connected, intimate couples whose sex life was either devoid of eroticism or of sex altogether. Why was it that good intimacy doesn't beget sexuality always?
BOTEACH: Any marriage that doesn't have intense strong desire, any marriage that doesn't have lust, is becoming something of a prison. It's where you're kind of there for reasons other than wanting each other. Maybe because it's comfortable, maybe 'cause you appreciate and cherish each other, maybe because of the kids and maybe because you have nowhere else to go and maybe because you even feel that you belong there- that's okay. But it's still a form of external incarceration. You're not there out of a deep desire to be there. Lust is where you want that person, and that's why you're there. And that has to be the primary reason that we go into marriage, and that we stay in marriage. And I maintain, passionately, that the passion need not be lost. That this idea that there's a transition in marriage from lust to love, that when you're single you can't keep your hands off of each other, but it slowly migrates into this partnership- such a cold commercial expression. It's a defeatist approach to marriage. It's one that I cannot embrace, and it's one that I have to argue against. And it's time that we began to fathom the erotic mind in order not just to bolster the institution of marriage, but actually bring back a certain electricity to the rest of life as well.
NAGOSKI: The solution has nothing to do with the sex, and everything to do with learning how to navigate through your emotions. Couples who sustain a strong sexual connection over the long term are not couples who constantly can't wait to like put their tongues in each other's mouths. They're the couples who know how to co-create a context that allows both of their brains to have access to pleasure. Jaak Panksepp, the father of affective neuroscience, developed what he calls the 'primary process emotions.' Lust is one of them. Seeking, curiosity, exploration. Ooh, what's that? That's a second one. And often, the seeking space, the curious, exploring part of our minds will have a doorway directly into the lust space in our minds.
PEREL: Creativity is about going outside of the boundaries. It's about being non-linear. It's about expansiveness. It's about connecting dots that are not necessarily so obvious to connect, and then to create a whole new reality with it. And our erotic imagination actually plays along very similar lines. Animals have sex, and it is the nature. It is the primary urge. It is the instinct, it is procreative. We have a erotic life. We transform sexuality, we socialize sexuality through our imagination. And the central agent of the erotic act is our creativity, our imagination, our ability to renew, our ability to anticipate, to imagine ourselves in an act in which we may have a blissful time with multiple orgasms without touching anybody just because we can imagine ourselves in it. We can envision the act without having to actually enact it. And it is the cultivation of pleasure for its own sake, but I think modernity really narrowed the erotic into its bare sexual meaning. Whereas historically, the mystics looked at eroticism as that capacity of maintaining aliveness, vibrancy, vitality, life source, life energy.
NAGOSKI: So if you can get there, that's when you feel really good. But then there are the more aversive spaces, there's the fear space. If you are anxious, stressed out, overwhelmed, and you're in the fear space, that is as far away from your lust space as you can get in your brain, just about. How am I supposed to want sex when I am so frustrated with my partner because they're not listening to me about all these other things in our relationship. How am I supposed to want sex with that person? You are not supposed to want sex in that situation. That's not a situation where it is easy to get from the mental space you are in, in terms of the primary process emotions, all the way to anything in the vicinity of the sexy space in your brain. So the key is to get out of these aversive spaces, and closer to the spaces that are adjacent to lust.
PEREL: When I listen to couples complain about the listlessness of their sex lives, they sometime may want more sex, but they always want better. And the better is to reconnect with that quality of renewal, of playfulness, of aliveness, of curiosity, of mystery, of transcendence- that is part of the erotic. It is that erotic intelligence that I have actually focused on in helping people and couples develop.
NAGOSKI: The number one reason couples seek sex therapy is for desire differential: One person wants to have sex more than the other person does. In heterosexual couples, despite stereotypes, it's actually just as likely to be the man as the woman who has low desire, just to do away with that stereotype right now. So how most of us think about sexual desire is as a spontaneous desire where you're just like walking down the street, you have a stray sexy thought, you see a stray sexy person, and you have spontaneous desire. "Kaboom!" You just want the sex. And so you take your "kaboom" home to your partner and you're like, "Hello partner, I have the 'kaboom.' Would you like the sex?" And that absolutely is one of the normal, healthy ways to experience sexual desire, spontaneous desire. But there's also responsive desire where instead of it just appearing like a lightning bolt, maybe you have a date night, you have like a sexy times night, and instead of being "kaboom," you're throwing the last of the toys in the toy box, you're doing the last of the dishes, you trudge up the stairs, you take off your clothes, you put your body in the bed, you let your skin touch your partner's skin, and your body goes, "Oh right, I really like this. I really like this person." That is responsive desire. It emerges in response to pleasure; whereas spontaneous desire emerges in anticipation of pleasure. Just that information alone can resolve people's sexual desire problems because they realize they don't have a desire problem- they just have responsive desire. And if they set up the right context where they can put their body in their bed with their partner and their partner touches their skin and it feels good, you are already doing it right.
PEREL: It's not about statistics and performance. How often, how hard, how long, how many- the erotic is profoundly unproductive. It is a radiant state. It is a moment of interlude. You know, in between all our productive life when you are actually just feeling good for its own sake. And that is a very different conception of sexuality. No longer just as something that you do, but as a space you enter, a place you go, inside yourself with another. Where are you traveling? Where does it take you? What do you express there? What parts of life, of mystery, of the spiritual do you connect with? That's a very different question looking at the meaning of sex rather than doing sex.
NAGOSKI: Unfortunately, if you want to explore these ideas with a partner, you are going to have to talk to your partner about sex. And there are a lot of people who feel like having sex with their partner is a whole lot easier than talking about sex with that same partner.
BOTEACH: And those conversations begin kind of awkward, and they're not easy, but they're immensely rewarding. They're also a little bit painful- I'm not gonna say they're not.
NAGOSKI: Why? Because we are so worried about hurting our partner's feelings. Really what it comes down to is tips for how to talk to your partner about sex, and Rule Number One is praise and positive things: What are all the good things that are happening? And yeah, you're gonna have to set aside whatever frustrations you might be having for now, but you have to create a context for talking about sex that feels safe. If I say something that is not about me being 100% perfectly satisfied that's not a criticism. There is nothing wrong. I'm just talking about my experience, and how we're going to make this work for us. One of the positive frames that you can use is that you and I belong together in a sexual way, and I am interested in exploring the ways that we can deepen our erotic connection. I want to know what works for you. I want to be able to tell you what works for me in a way that's going to feel good to you, and not critical. Does that make sense?
NARRATOR: Get smarter, faster with videos from the world's biggest thinkers. To learn even more from the world's biggest thinkers, get Big Think+ for your business.
NAGOSKI: Boom mics are really funny when you're talking about sex. Just the boom mic was moving and I'm talking, about sex, and I'm in that mindset, and it's funny to me.