People can sometimes be quick to slap on the label "libido issues" when they have a complicated relationship to sex. Women, in particular, can feel as if they have trouble with sexual desire, when in reality, the issue may be much more contextual.
There are two types of sexual desire: spontaneous desire and responsive desire. Spontaneous desire means you can get turned on and feel like having sex almost randomly out of the blue, whereas responsive desire means you find yourself turned on when you're already in a sexual situation. Sometimes people with responsive desire think they have a low libido, especially if their partner has spontaneous desire. But in reality, these responsive folks generally may have plenty of desire for sex—they just need a specific context to access it. It's not gonna just happen out of the blue.
In her groundbreaking book Come As You Are, sex researcher Emily Nagoski, Ph.D, describes sexual context as one of the most important elements of female sexual desire. She writes, "Context is made of two things: the circumstances of the present moment—whom you're with, where you are, whether the situation is novel or familiar, risky or safe, etc.—and your brain state in the present moment—whether you're relaxed or stressed, trusting or not, loving or not, right now, in the moment."
Back in 2010, research by clinical psychologists Katie McCall, Ph.D., and Cindy Meston, Ph.D., identified four categories of sexual cues that are key to women's sexual desire:
- Love/emotional bonding cues
For some people, feeling close and emotionally connected to your partner in a given moment is part of what makes you feel like having sex. Nagoski offered this example in her book: "A woman told me the extraordinarily romantic story of a boyfriend who flew halfway around the globe to surprise her for their second anniversary of dating. Talk about closeness, commitment, and special attention. Yeah, that man got laid."
Some examples of this type of cue from McCall and Meston's research:
- Feeling a sense of love with a partner
- Feeling a sense of security in your relationship
- Your partner is supportive of you
- Your partner does "special" or "loving" things for you
- Feeling a sense of commitment from a partner
- Your partner expresses interest in hearing about you
- Talking about the future with your partner
- Feeling protected by a partner or protective of a partner
- Explicit/erotic cues
These have to do with more obviously sexual cues, like watching, reading, or hearing something sexy happening. You might not be in the mood for sex at all, but then you find yourself in the middle of an intensely hot Outlander scene, and suddenly you're feeling it.
Some examples from McCall and Meston:
- Watching a sexy movie
- Watching or listening to other people having sex
- Talking about sex or "talking dirty"
- Sensing your own or your partner's wetness or erection
- Asking for or anticipating sexual activity
- Hearing your partner tell you that they fantasized about you
- Having a sexual fantasy (e.g., having a sexual dream, daydreaming)
- Visual/proximity cues
Sometimes there are certain types of behaviors, body types, or body parts that just get you going when you see them. It might be catching a glimpse of a girl's bare hip bones or seeing a dude take off his shirt to reveal tattoos all over his toned arms.
Some other examples from McCall and Meston:
- Seeing someone who is well-dressed or "has class"
- Seeing/talking with someone powerful or famous
- Being in proximity to attractive people
- Watching someone engage in physical activities (e.g., sports)
- Seeing someone act confidently
- Seeing/talking with someone intelligent
- Flirting with someone or having someone flirt with you
- Romantic/implicit cues
These are intimate situations that just have that romantic vibe to them. Nagoski gave this example: "A woman in her 30s told me that she and her husband were saving up to remodel their bathroom, after they realized that a reason she was so keen for sex when they went on vacation was that they took long, hot (in every sense) baths together in the giant tubs at the B-and-Bs where they stayed. More baths, more sex."
Some examples of the type of cue from McCall and Meston:
- Having your partner whisper into your ear or whispering into theirs
- Dancing closely
- Watching a sunset
- Having a romantic dinner
- Watching a romantic movie
- Being in a hot tub
- Touching your partner's hair or face
- Giving or receiving a massage
- Laughing with your partner
- Smelling pleasant scents (e.g., perfume/cologne, shampoo, aftershave)
Figuring out your ideal sexual context.
How much each of these types of cues matter will depend on the individual. Some might be more important for you, while others might be less so. Couples' therapist has a guided exercise for figuring out your ideal sexual context.
"Since most of us won't stumble on a magic relationship lantern or sex genie in this lifetime," she writes, "consciously understanding the different contextual factors—internal and external—that support and contribute to our personal experience of enjoyable sex is one of the most accessible and realistic paths to sexually empowering ourselves."
If you're someone who feels like they struggle with sexual desire, spend some time sitting and thinking through what contextual cues tend to make you feel turned on. Once you know what they are, you can focus on bringing more of those elements into your life so that you can access your desire whenever you want.