One of the most common reasons that new clients reach out to me is because they want to “spice up” their sex life. They’ve been “together for a while” and the “magic is starting to fade.” They want to know if I can teach them any tricks for reigniting that spark. And, while I can definitely teach you plenty of tricks to start your sexual engine, let’s start by getting your car out of the driveway.
For many of us, when we meet someone new our body starts pumping out all these delicious hormones that fuel our desire. This heady, hormone cocktail, (aka: New Relationship Energy or NRE) makes us feel like we’re driving a lust fueled Ferrari, and can last anywhere from 3 months to 3 years. When we eventually get used to that feeling (it’s not “wearing off”, your body is habituating), it can seem impossible to get the engine to turn over at all. A big mistake folks often make during this time is to self-diagnose this perceived drop in desire as a signal that there’s something “wrong” with one of them or the relationship. Before you determine that your car is totaled and start shopping for a newer model, we can rule out some things that could get you back on the road and well on your way to Pleasure Town.
People commonly use the words “libido” and “arousal” interchangeably, and while they are related, they aren’t exactly the same thing. Libido – or, desire – is what we call the processes inside you that tell you you’re DTF (down to fuck). Your desire can have a target, like that hot barista in those cute chunky glasses who always gives you a free scone, or your desire can just be, well, your desire. Ever find yourself feeling like you just NEED to get laid? That sexual “craving” is your desire and it’s best explained by the Dual Control Model. According to the Dual Control Model, you have two systems at play in your body and brain at all times: The Sexual Excitation System (SES) and The Sexual Inhibition System (SIS). Dr. Emily Nagoski brilliantly describes this as the Gas (SES) and the Brakes (SIS), and it’s such a good analogy that I’m going do the same here. Every moment that you’re awake, your brain is processing information in your environment and making decisions about it. Some cues in your environment (e.g., hot barista) are like a foot on your Gas pedal. Some cues in your environment (e.g., she just told you about her new, monogamous, girlfriend) are like a foot on your Brake pedal. Any number of things can rev up your engine or pump your brakes, and learning which is which for you can be super helpful when it comes to getting out of the sexual driveway. When the foot on the Gas is heavier than the foot on the Brakes, your brain sends signals to your genitals that indicate it’s time to get this show on the road – this is called “arousal.”
Desire and arousal don’t have a formula or cheat sheet, because they don’t happen in neat, effortless steps. According to Rosemary Basson’s nonlinear model of sexual desire, this process is bit more complicated than all that. Some folks feel like they have a heavy foot on the Gas all the time and they are very easily aroused (Spontaneous Desire). Some folks feel like they have a heavy foot on the Brakes and it takes them a lot longer to become aroused, or they find they can only become aroused under special circumstances (Responsive Desire). Some folks find they’re a little of both; some days it’s very easy to become aroused and others they need to work at it a bit more (Context Dependent Desire). Knowing which one of those you are, and what kinds of things are “Gas” cues and what are “Brakes” cues can revolutionize your sex life.
When most people feel like they’re stuck, they start banging on that Gas pedal, looking for more things to get their motor running, but you can floor it and it won’t do a bit of good if you’ve got a brick on the Brakes. Research has shown that taking care of what’s slowing you down can do a lot more for your sex life than simply adding more to your sexual to-do list. Things that can activate our Brakes range from very severe – trauma in our past, chronic pain or illness – to moderate – stress, exhaustion, temporary pain or illness, emotional distress – to relatively minor – diet and exercise, distraction, a need for sleep. Ever started a day, fantasizing about some Netflix and Chill with your partner, but by the time night rolls around all you want to do is put on Netflix and genuinely just chill? This can be great sometimes, but when you find that you and your partner have run off the road and into the fifth season of Once Upon a Time, check to see what’s going on with your Brake pedal.
First things first. Are you taking care of yourself? If you’re not hydrating, eating well, or getting enough sleep, it can feel like driving a car through mud. Another kind of self-care is doing things that make you feel calm and attractive. Buy a new pair of undies that fit you just right and show off that bodacious booty. Take a warm shower and get yourself feeling fresh and clean. Put fresh sheets on the bed.
Secondly, eliminate some distractions. It can feel impossible to get in the mood if all you’re doing is running through a mental to-do list. Find one chore that drives you crazy and take care of it, so that you feel like you’ve accomplished something. This can work wonders to soothe some of that low-level anxiety. Be honest, sometimes there’s nothing sexier than folded laundry or a clean kitchen. Or, better yet, take five minutes to put your to-do list in writing. This gets it out of your head, where it will wait for you to come back to it later. Clear the space around your bed. Put your clothes away, tidy up that pile of nonsense from your emptied pockets, put your shoes in the closet. Turn off your phone. Turn on some music you love or even a porn you like. If all else fails, I tell clients and students that I think the best sex toy in the world is a blindfold. It forces you to close your eyes and heightens other senses like smell, taste, and touch. It brings you present to what’s happening right in this moment and helps you pay attention to the Gas pedal cues instead of the Brakes cues.
Third, don’t try so hard to get to orgasm. Performance anxiety can bring your car to a screeching, grinding halt. If all you’re doing is focusing on climax as your destination, you’ll miss all the fun there is to be had along the way. Let your sexual journey, both in the bedroom and out of it, take some natural twists and turns. Redefine “sex” as something more than banging away toward that big “O”. In fact, take orgasm off the table for a while. Tease each other. Bring the sexting back. Rediscover your good ol’ days of making out, dry humping on the couch, flirting and fingering and going almost all the way.
Finally, cut yourself some slack. Relationships go through natural peaks and valleys. It’s totally normal to have periods of time where you can’t keep your hands off each other and periods of time where passionate love gives way to companionate love. That doesn’t mean you’ll never feel passionate, lusty feelings about each other again. It means that the lust will come from different things and in diverse ways as you grow and change.
If it still feels like one or both of you have a lead foot on the brakes, reach out to a sex educator or sex coach (like me *shameless plug*) who can help you discover what unique challenges you’re facing and come up with a game plan to start cruising along again. If your problems are more chronic or severe, an educator or coach can help you find a sex-positive, queer inclusive, kink and poly informed therapist. If you simply want to find out more about desire, arousal, and how these processes work for you, I recommend Emily Nagoski’s book Come as You Are.