At some point in your life on the Internet you must have come across an image that claims to depict the fundamental difference between men and women. There are several iterations of it, but the themes are the same. The upper part of the image shows a single switch or button. It is labeled as “Men.” Below it, there is a whole panel of numerous dials and switches and buttons—some versions feature something that resembles a NASA control center. It's labeled, “Women.” Get it? Men are easy to turn on, but women require so much work! Har-dee har har.
Now, women and their sexuality may be joyfully mocked as being blisteringly complicated, but according to sex educator Emily Nagoski, things only get complicated when all human sexuality (including female sexual desire) is adapted to the model of male sexuality. In fact, Nagoski believes that sexuality comes down to one simple fact: There is no such thing as a "sex drive."
In a recent Q&A with New Scientist, Nagoski, author of Come as You Are: The Surprising New Science that Will Transform Your Sex Life and director of Wellness Education at Smith College, declared that the term “sex drive” is misleading because there is no physical mechanism behind it. “A drive is a motivational system to deal with life-or-death issues, like hunger or being too cold. You're not going to die if you don't have sex,” says Nagoski.
She goes on to explain that sexual desire has two main forms: spontaneous desire and responsive desire. Spontaneous desire comes out of a random sexy thought or maybe seeing a sexy person—from her review of existing studies, this type of desire occurs in most men but a smaller fraction of women, she says, and it forms our general understanding of what it takes to get turned on.
“But not experiencing spontaneous hunger for sex doesn't have dire consequences; it is not a medical disorder. I think the reason we expect everyone to have spontaneous desire is because that's how most men experience it,” says Nagoski.
On the other hand, responsive desire occurs, well, as a response to arousal. As Nagoski puts it, “So, your partner comes over and starts kissing your neck and you're like, "oh, right, sex, that's a good idea.” Lo and behold, not being turned on until you or your partner actively turns you on is utterly and astoundingly…normal.
Now there certainly are cases of sexual dysfunction in women characterized by a lack of a “sex drive” or perhaps a lack of arousal of sexual desire as a spontaneous sentiment or in response to stimuli, but in a New York Times op-ed, Nagoski argues that simply considering sexual desire a medical issue and treating it as such isn’t the best way to deal. Feeling bad about oneself, being told that they are “broken” (as Nagoski puts it), isn’t always the best remedy for a low sexual appetite.
So next time you see one of those memes about how “When it comes to sex, men be like ___, but women be like ___, ___, ___, ___, ___,” remember, you're not a weirdo for having nuanced desires. No matter how many or few buttons or dials or faders or joy sticks there are on your metaphorical sexual panel, the only thing that’s important is you know how to work ‘em.