Is Female Desire for Sex Inherently Contextual?

Merely responsive vs. sexual hunger or drive?

Issue #23

By Vivienne Arkell

“Although many women may experience spontaneous desire and interest while in the throes of a new sexual relationship… most women in long-term relationships do not frequently think of sex or experience spontaneous hunger for sexual activity,” posits Rosemary Basson, MB, FRCP, of the University of British Columbia and summarized in an article posted by the Association of Heath Reproductive Health Professionals.

Basson’s studies, searching beyond the primarily physiological sexual response models proposed by prior researchers, documented the emotional aspects of sex such as pleasure and satisfaction. In the original linear cycle of human sexual response, published in 1966 by Masters and Johnson and further explored by Kaplan, the four basic phases were listed as excitement/desire, plateau/arousal, orgasm and resolution. The work was groundbreaking in that it addressed the clitoris and its importance in achieving orgasms. However, Masters and Johnson’s focus was on subjects who always experienced orgasm. It also assumed human sexual response followed the same path for both men and women.

Basson differed from many of her predecessors in that she primarily studied women with low sexual desire. Most of these women also reported low levels of arousal and sexual excitement, infrequent orgasms and therefore general dissatisfaction with the experience. It’s no wonder that Basson chose to focus more on the contextual and non-sexual details of the encounters, and to also leave the necessity of orgasm out of her equation.

In 2001, Basson published the non-linear cycle of female sexual response incorporating the importance of emotional intimacy, sexual stimuli, and relationship satisfaction. Contrary to what the linear model shows (desire, arousal, orgasm), Basson’s model suggests that often the starting point is stimuli, after which comes arousal then desire. When sexual desire does kick in, she noted, women were quite happy to move towards satisfaction and intimacy.

Dan Pollets PhD and sex therapist, in an article for Psychology Today, concurs with many of Basson’s findings regarding the point at which desire presents itself: “Sexual desire is an infrequent reason for engaging in sex in women in established relationships. Women give many reasons for engaging in sex; for instance, the desire for emotional closeness, to please one’s partner, to communicate intimately – all independent of a purely biologic drive.”

Basically, Basson’s studies imply that much of female sexual desire is actually responsive rather than spontaneous and biologic. The women in her studies were much more likely to develop desire if and when there was verbal foreplay, sexual scripts, flirting or an emotion connection. For desire to be triggered, the women had to be seduced or ‘tempted.’ Most often, outside motivational forces were needed for the woman to develop arousal and responsive desire.

Pollets again agrees.“Research demonstrates that women do not experience strong sexual desire independent of environmental and relational cues. They will not initiate based on inner biological drive but will respond to a set of circumstances that are associated with romance, pleasure and intimacy.”

Basson theorizes that most women start as sexually neutral and are receptive, but it takes interest on the part of her partner to get her started, rather than a spontaneous stirring of her own libido. Do you agree with Basson and her constituents? Is it any surprise that for low-libido women, desire waits to kick in until after getting aroused or courted; and one may only decide they want to engage in sex halfway into the experience? After all, many women have been trained to resist advances and make full-on seduction a requirement as part of submitting and giving in.

It’s possible that women have been conditioned over the years and that the context of the sexual encounter and state of mind are hugely important for women to really want sex. Sensations of desire are often blocked until the mind and emotions join the game. With practice, woman can continue to bring erotic urges to mind without waiting for a partner to initiate the flow. After all, today’s sensual women practices awakening and excitement. She knows great sex needs both the mind and body.

Image: detail of photo by Jon Levi


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