Relationships Sex Ed Social Theory

Beyond “Yes Means Yes:” Navigating Differences in Desire

Have you ever not known whether you’d like to have sex?

Try this scenario on for size: You’re at a party. You’re sober enough to give consent. You’ve been talking to (and dancing with!) someone who you’re very attracted to. They turn to you and ask, very respectfully, “Want to go back to my place?”

Or this one: You’ve just gotten home from work. You and your long-term partner are preparing dinner together. The two of you are laughing and having a great time. Your partner looks particularly good this evening, and apparently they think the same of you, because suddenly they turn and ask mischievously, “Can we go to the bedroom?”

Or even this one: You wake up in bed with your partner. You’re both obviously aroused. “Sex?” says your partner.

For many folks, those are pretty straightforward questions. If you’re anything like me, however, here are some things that might pop into your head when your partner pops the question:

  1. Yes! But no! But yes. But… no? But… !
  2. Sex sounds nice, but so does a long, intense conversation.
  3. That sounds like a whole lot of effort.
  4. I don’t know!!

Why would you ask me something like that?!

What’s confounding about these situations is that in every case, your prospective partner has done the right thing: they’ve asked for consent. They’ve put the ball in your court and will (ostensibly) exude chill and support if you turn them down. They haven’t pressured you, guilt-tripped you, or crossed any boundaries. So why can’t you answer a basic yes-or-no question?

The answer, as it turns out, is pretty simple: people experience sexual desire in two completely different ways.

According to the researcher Emily Nagoski (who has written about this more often and more eloquently than I ever will), about 80% of cisgender men experience what’s called “spontaneous” desire. This means that the urge for sex seemingly comes out of nowhere or with very little prompting. It’s an on/off sort of deal, which means that it works very well in the “enthusiastic yes” model of consent: If you want sex, you say yes! If you don’t want sex, you say no. Simple, right?

Yes, assuming that everyone else also experiences spontaneous desire. But they don’t.

About 80% of cisgender women and 20% of cisgender men experience what’s called “responsive” desire. This means that the urge to have sex only ramps up after some sort of sexual activity has begun. Without what’s commonly known as “foreplay” (cuddling, kissing, tickling, touching, licking, whatever), some people just don’t know if they’d like to go further. Hearing, “Can we have sex?” outside of a sexual context can feel kind of like hearing, “Will you marry me?” on a first date. Maybe, one day, but I can’t really think about that right now.

This throws a hefty wrench into the “enthusiastic yes” model of consent and can wreak havoc in relationships for a few reasons:

Firstly, people who experience responsive desire are, for obvious reasons, less likely to initiate sex. Have you ever been in a partnership where it seemed like one person was always asking for sex and the other was constantly playing the role of “gatekeeper?” To the person who experiences spontaneous desire, their partner’s infrequent displays of unprompted sexuality might come off as lack of attraction, dissatisfaction, sexual dysfunction, or even some form of depression. To the person who experiences responsive desire, however, their partner’s seemingly random desire for sex might prompt feelings of inadequacy, guilt, or shame.

Since most people don’t know about the difference between spontaneous and responsive sexual desire, they’re liable to distort the significance of these differences in ways that dredge up unnecessary insecurity and resentment.

Also, people who experience responsive desire might end up having less – or more – sex than they actually want. If you’re trained to think that you should only touch somebody else when your body is screaming for it, and your body doesn’t usually scream for it unless you’ve already touched somebody else… well, you see where I’m going. Telling people who experience responsive desire that “maybe” is as good as “no” can have the unintended consequence of denying them their own sexuality. On the other hand, telling people who experience spontaneous desire that “maybe” is as good as “yes” is both dangerous and irresponsible.

So, how to we bridge the gap between the two forms of desire?

In my opinion, the key lies in recognizing that sex is not a single act, but rather an infinitely customizable process. In order to better navigate your partner’s (and your own) style of desire, try these things:

1. Be Specific

Much of the tension, guilt, and miscommunication associate with consent and sexual initiation has to do with the fact that we don’t always know what we’re signing up for when we say, “Yes.” In order to avoid this, ask questions without euphemism such as:

  • Can I _____ you?
  • Does it feel good when I _____?
  • What do you want to do now?

Of course, this means you have to ask/be asked multiple questions during sex. If you ask, “Can I kiss you?” and the person says, “Yes,” that means you can kiss them. Maybe then you ask, “Can I give you a blowjob?” If they say, “Yes,” you can give them a blow job. And so on, and so forth, until it’s abundantly clear that everyone is enthusiastic about everything that’s going on.

I sometimes get pushback when I suggest this level of communication. “But that’s not sexy,” people tell me. Honestly, though: if you can’t make communication sexy, UP YOUR GAME.

2. Take Off Pressure, Then Take Off Clothing

Make sure your partner knows that you’re okay with only cuddling, or kissing, or whatever-it-is-that-feels-good-ing (even if you’ll be a little disappointed). People who experience responsive sexuality are unlikely to feel good about getting naked if it means committing to something they aren’t sure about. With the pressure removed, they’re much more likely to be comfortable feeling their way towards more involved sexual activities.

3. Figure Yourself Out (and Talk About It!)

Perhaps, reading this post, you immediately identified with one form of desire. Congratulations! Now you can take that information into the world and work with it. If you aren’t sure which form of desire you experience, now’s a good time to examine yourself.

Take some time to think about your previous sexual encounters and times when you’ve been asked for sex. What was your reaction? Some people experience spontaneous desire and responsive desire in equal parts, and some only experience one or the other. Sometimes your style of desire will alter over the course of your lifetime in response to life events and biological changes. Mine certainly has.

Once you’ve figured out whether or not you experience responsive desire or spontaneous desire, communicate that to your partner. I have a friend who invites Tinder dates over to cuddle, explicitly telling them that she won’t know if she wants to have sex until they’re in bed together. I’ve become fond of saying, “I don’t know,” when people ask me if I want to have sex. They’re thrown off at first, but it forces them to slow down and work at a pace that is much better for me.

4. Go Beyond “Yes” and “No”

“Maybe” is a perfectly legitimate answer to, “Do you want to have sex?” It means, “Let’s talk more about this,” or, “Let’s get the ball rolling and see how it feels.”

“Maybe” should never be used as a coy way of saying, “Yes,” and it should never be used as a soft way of saying, “No.”

Yes means yes. No means no. Maybe means, “Let’s find out.”

5 comments

  1. Matthew

    One of the blinders our culture has – partly because of the media and the legal system – is the false belief that actions and words are all that matters. So much of communication is not in the words. I’m a CIS guy definitely in the “responsive” category and what I notice are the many levels of non-verbal communication that essentially build trust. I pay attention to tension in the body, hesitation in the voice, any kind of zoning out going on, and the positive attributes of relaxation and comfort, sinking into eye contact, a playful tone that creates an atmosphere that anything can be expressed, especially “enough for now”. One of my rules is that I don’t want to be physically naked with someone I don’t think I could ever be emotionally naked with. Too much attention on what words should be said can distract from the huge importance of all the communication and respect that is not in the words.

    1. Noah Post author

      This is a really important point, especially because there are some people who can’t communicate verbally because of disabilities or language barriers. I do think it’s important to place a certain level of emphasis on words, however, because body language is variable from person to person. What looks like desire in one person might turn out to be fear in another. Body language is definitely important, but one has to be extremely confident in their ability to read people before practicing any sort of body language-based consent (and even then, how can we know that our self-confidence is justified?).

      1. Matthew

        It’s not about supplanting words, but using all of communication. If someone says “Yes”, but with their whole body tensing, I stop and ask what’s going on. If someone says “no” with their body seeming to say yes, I back off but take the other communication as a compliment, perhaps saying that it seemed they were enjoying it. “Yes means yes” should mean a yes at *all levels* of communication. When I get mixed signals, I open a dialogue.

        1. Noah Post author

          I completely agree with you on that; both (or rather, all) elements are necessary. I think that people’s body language and verbal cues diverge because they’re afraid to say “maybe.” Your “enough is enough” rule is so important in these cases.

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