Why We Have Different Levels of Sexual Sensitivity

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Come As You Are" by Emily Nagoski. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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What determines a person’s sexual responsiveness? Why are some people more sensitive to sexual stimuli than others?

We all have different levels of sexual sensitivity: some people are more responsive to sexual stimuli than others. How sensitive a person is to stimuli in the environment determines their sexual needs. According to sex researcher Emily Nagoski, this boils down to the sensitivity of the Sexual Excitation System (SES) vs. the Sexual Inhibition System (SIS).

Keep reading to learn about the two systems’ role in sexual sensitivity.

The 2-System Mechanism of Sexual Response

According to sex educator Emily Nagoski, the Sexual Excitation System (SES) is responsible for the process of arousal. It constantly scans our environment for potential sexual stimuli. (Common examples could be the scent of cologne or seeing our partner in a bathing suit.) When the SES identifies sex-related stimuli, it sends a signal from our brain to our genitals so that our body can prepare for sex.

In contrast to the SES, Nagoski says that the Sexual Inhibition System (SIS) controls the process of impeding arousal. The SIS scans our environment for reasons not to have sex (for example, the risk of unwanted pregnancy) and sends a signal to our brain when something relevant is identified. 

Nagoski tells us that each individual’s SES and SIS have different levels of sensitivity to stimuli in the environment that determine a person’s particular sexual needs. For example, someone with a sensitive SES wouldn’t need nearly as many (or as specific) stimuli to become aroused as someone with an insensitive SES. 

Sensitivity’s Role in the 2 Systems

Nagoski tells us that each individual’s SES and SIS have different levels of sensitivity. How sensitive each of a person’s systems is to stimuli in the environment determines their particular sexual needs. For example, someone with a sensitive SES wouldn’t need nearly as many (or as specific) stimuli to become aroused as someone with an insensitive SES. 

(Shortform note: Nagoski tells us that each individual’s level of sensitivity varies, but she doesn’t discuss which factors contribute to those differences. According to the Kinsey Institute for Research in Sex, Gender, and Reproduction, which developed the two-system model, each person’s sensitivity levels depend on both genetic and environmental factors, including their unique sexual physiology, history, and personality.)

Reflecting on Your SES and SIS

Here are some questions to help you think about your sexual sensitivity:

  • Do you become sexually aroused by your partner showing off their strengths?
  • What about when you fantasize about sex?
  • Does boredom often lead to thoughts about sex?
  • Are you aroused by particular scents or tastes?
  • Does the thought of someone or something interrupting sex have little effect on your ability to stay aroused?

If you answered yes to these questions, you most likely have a sensitive SES. In particular, Nagoski says this means you’re very sensitive to sexual stimuli, even things like smell and taste. If you answered no, you most likely have an insensitive SES. Specifically, Nagoski says this means you don’t easily respond to sexual stimuli and need to devote specific attention to become aroused. If you couldn’t provide a definitive yes or no answer, then you probably fall somewhere in between.

Now, here are some questions to help you think about your SIS:

  • Does stress prevent you from getting aroused?
  • Does everything have to feel “right” for sex to be enjoyable?
  • Does worrying about your partner’s attraction to you affect your ability to become aroused?
  • Does fear about your performance in bed inhibit your arousal?

If you answered yes to these questions, you most likely have a sensitive SIS. In particular, Nagoski says this means you must feel relaxed and trust your partner to become aroused. If you answered no, you most likely have an insensitive SIS. Specifically, Nagoski says this means you’re not worried about your performance, body image, or potential consequences of sex. If you couldn’t provide a definitive yes or no answer, then Nagoski says you’re most likely somewhere in the middle.

Variations on the SIS/SES Questionnaire

Nagoski’s questionnaire is partially based on the original SIS/SES questionnaire (which you can view as part of an online questionnaire on Qualtrics). The Kinsey Institute created this original questionnaire while developing its two-system theoretical model. Overall, Nagoski’s version follows the format of the original relatively closely, though it departs in two specific ways: First, whereas the original asks participants to choose from four options—“strongly agree,” “agree,” “disagree,” and “strongly disagree”—Nagoski’s version utilizes a sliding scale, where 0 indicates “not at all like me” and 4 indicates “exactly like me.” This creates the possibility for a central or neutral option that the original lacks. Second, while the original combines questions targeting both the SIS and SES, Nagoski’s version separates questions into two sections.

For the questions themselves, Nagoski condensed the questionnaire from 7 questions targeting each system down to only 5. Furthermore, her questions vary significantly from the original’s. While hers focus more on psychological/emotional factors (for example, “sometimes I feel so ‘shy’ or self-conscious that I cannot become fully aroused”), the original’s focus more on situational factors (for example, “If I am having sex in a secluded, outdoor place and I think that someone is nearby, I am not likely to get very aroused”). 

The differences between Nagoski’s questionnaire and the original reflect further research on the applicability of the two-system model that revealed women might need a separate questionnaire from men. This is due to men’s and women’s differing experiences of sexual excitation and inhibition. Because researchers developed the original questionnaire following a study that initially only focused on men, they didn’t take gender differences into account.

Ultimately, other researchers developed a questionnaire that is not only made exclusively for women but also expands on the factors considered by the original, including sexual power dynamics and partner characteristics.
We can see the influence from the new, woman-centered questionnaire in Nagoski’s version, although hers is significantly condensed. Despite the difference in length, both questionnaires focus much more heavily on psychological and emotional factors like self-esteem and relationship dynamics, which research has shown are important aspects of women’s experience of sexual excitation and inhibition. 
Why We Have Different Levels of Sexual Sensitivity

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  • Why women should change the way they talk, think, and feel about their sexuality
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  • A discussion around the individual experiences of arousal, desire, and orgasm

Darya Sinusoid

Darya’s love for reading started with fantasy novels (The LOTR trilogy is still her all-time-favorite). Growing up, however, she found herself transitioning to non-fiction, psychological, and self-help books. She has a degree in Psychology and a deep passion for the subject. She likes reading research-informed books that distill the workings of the human brain/mind/consciousness and thinking of ways to apply the insights to her own life. Some of her favorites include Thinking, Fast and Slow, How We Decide, and The Wisdom of the Enneagram.

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