Understanding Spontaneous vs. Responsive Desire

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 is the difference between spontaneous vs. responsive desire? Why are some people spontaneous and others responsive?

Spontaneous desire is the immediate desire evoked by a sexual stimulus. Responsive desire is the desire evoked by physical stimulation like kissing or touching. According to sex researcher Emily Nagoski, spontaneous desire doesn’t equate to more interest in sex, nor does responsive desire equate to less interest in sex. These terms simply describe how different people come to experience desire, and this can change from context to context, or even over time.

Sex researcher Emily Nagoski explains why some people turned on more easily than others.

Spontaneous vs. Responsive Desire

Nagoski defines spontaneous desire as when a person wants sex immediately after recognizing a sex-related stimulus, such as getting turned on by the scent of a partner’s perfume. (Another way of thinking about this type of desire is that it’s desire in anticipation of sexual pleasure.) Someone with a low pleasure threshold would experience this type of desire more easily because it generally takes very little stimulation to make them want more. In the aforementioned instance, for example, just the smell of someone creates enough excitement to incite desire.

(Shortform note: Why might someone have a low pleasure threshold—or, as some might put it, a high libido—and experience high levels of spontaneous desire? According to research, factors like hitting either puberty or middle age, increasing your daily physical activity, and lowering your stress levels can increase your levels of desire. Coming off some desire-inhibiting medications, such as antidepressants and anti-hypertensive drugs, can have the same effect.)

In contrast, Nagoski defines responsive desire as when a person experiences desire in response to sexual pleasure, such as physical stimulation like kissing or touching. This type of desire is especially common for those who have a higher threshold because they generally require higher amounts of pleasure to become turned on.

(Shortform note: One point that Nagoski’s discussion doesn’t touch on is why people with responsive desire still choose to initiate or engage in sex before actually wanting it. A potential answer could be that, although pleasure is often the primary motivation, there are other reasons that people may want to have sex. For instance, because sex involves a high level of intimacy, someone might want to engage in it because they crave emotional bonding with their partner. Another factor could be that sex makes a person feel more attractive. Additionally, having sex could satisfy feelings of nostalgia for a previously enjoyable sexual experience.)

The difference between spontaneous vs. responsive desire doesn’t necessarily translate into more or less interest in sex, says Nagoski. These descriptions are simply used to describe how different people come to experience desire, and this can change from person to person, context to context, or even over time.

(Shortform note: While Nagoski acknowledges that our experience of desire can change according to many different factors, she doesn’t provide specific examples. In the case of women, for instance, biological factors like ovulation, pregnancy, and being postpartum could impact their ability to experience more spontaneous desire due to the hormonal changes that accompany them.)

While needing more pleasurable sensation to cross the threshold doesn’t inherently mean that a person has a low level of desire (they might just have more responsive desire), Nagoski acknowledges that some people do seem to have less interest in sex than others.

Understanding Spontaneous vs. Responsive Desire

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Here's what you'll find in our full Come As You Are summary:

  • Why women should change the way they talk, think, and feel about their sexuality
  • A look at the misinformation and harmful cultural messaging surrounding sex
  • 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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