When the Urge Is Uneven: Understanding the Universe of Sexual Desire

Couple in bed holding hands under blue duvet coverIn my experience, mismatched levels of sexual desire, or libido, tops the reasons couples enter sex therapy. It’s the reason Marcie and Joe (not their real names) come to therapy weekly. Married over 20 years, Marcie states, “I don’t think about sex ever.

Yet, when they engage sexually, Marcie says, “I enjoy it. I even orgasm every time. I just never think of it. I’ve never felt sexual desire.” As a result, Marcie feels flawed, as if something is wrong with her. Joe feels unwanted because he initiates sex most of the time.

So, which partner bears “the problem”? The answer is neither.

The “universe of desire,” as it turns out, is vast. According to author and researcher Emily Nagoski, desire shows up differently for men and women and can vary within gender. In her book Come As You Are: The Surprising New Science That Will Transform Your Sex Life, Dr. Nagoski notes three types of desire.

1. Spontaneous Sexual Desire

Spontaneous sexual desire is exactly what it sounds like. It shows up instantly, with or without stimulation. Nagoski notes 75% of men experience spontaneous desire, as well as 15% of women. When it comes to Marcie and Joe, Joe falls into the “75% of men” category.

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This means 25% of men and the vast majority of women, 85%, do not experience spontaneous desire.

Spontaneous sexual desire as a prerequisite for sex supports a linear view of sexuality dating back to the late 1970s. In fact, researchers did not include desire on the spectrum of human sexuality until Helen Kaplan Singer created the Triphasic Model of the human sexual response cycle. Singer included three distinct phases: desire, excitement, and orgasm, with desire as the entry point.

So how do 85% of women experience sexual pleasure or “excitement” if they do not experience spontaneous desire? Nagoski noted two other types of desire that women more often fall into: responsive and contextual.

2. Responsive Sexual Desire

Responsive sexual desire is when desire shows up in response to stimulation, meaning something sexy happens and the body responds. Marcie falls more into this category. When Joe initiates, her mind and body enjoy the stimulation, and desire—or “wanting more of that feeling”—activates.

Nagoski found 5% of men and 30% of women experience responsive desire, meaning these folks, like Marcie, need more than a sexy thought to “want” sex.

Yet there remains a large percentage of women and a smaller percentage of men who do not fall into the responsive desire category, either.

3. Contextual Sexual Desire

Contextual sexual desire is when the circumstances and environment impact the ability to feel sexual desire. Think about what it’s like to drum up desire when your kids are in the next room, you feel stressed out by financial burdens, or you just ate a huge steak dinner. Sex may not be the first thing on your mind.

Contextual sexual desire is when the circumstances and environment impact the ability to feel sexual desire. Think about what it’s like to drum up desire when your kids are in the next room, you feel stressed out by financial burdens, or you just ate a huge steak dinner. Sex may not be the first thing on your mind.

Nagoski notes most people, regardless of gender, fall within a blend of responsive and contextual desire, but for some, desire can feel spontaneous. They simply may not be aware of the other factors at play. For many individuals, context matters.

Marcie felt confused when she learned about the “universe of desire” because she always considered herself a non-sexual person. In therapy, our work focused on normalizing how she experienced desire—not as a flaw, an inadequacy, or something wrong with her, but as perfectly normal.

This work helped her shift her sexual self-concept so she could see herself as a woman capable of desire, lust, and erotic energy. It also helped her recognize she did indeed experience desire, just not in the same way Joe did.

Our work also helped Joe better understand how Marcie’s desire worked. He learned to view both responses as healthy and normal. This helped Joe depersonalize Marcie’s lack of sexual advancements and see himself as desirable.

Together, they embraced their differences and worked on improving how to meet each other’s natural sexual responses.

If mismatched desire is an issue in your relationship, contact a licensed therapist who works with couples.


Nagoski, E. (2015). Come as you are: The surprising new science that will transform your sex life. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster.

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  • Leave a Comment
  • MYTherapist

    February 23rd, 2018 at 12:40 PM

    As a sex therapist in New York and New Orleans it’s so important to have discussions like these about mismatched levels of desire and arousal. This is such a common complaint in sex therapy sessions, and can sometimes be a precursor to sexual infidelity.

  • Ray

    November 6th, 2020 at 1:16 AM

    Lets say I am watching a movie and saw a sexual scene that turns me on. Is that considered Spontaneous or Responsive? Can you provide real life examples for these two desires?
    Bottom line: 1. Spontaneous Desire is when you get turned on without being touched.
    2. Responsive Desire is when you get turned on by the sexual touch by other person.
    Am I correct?

  • Adelina

    January 13th, 2022 at 12:25 PM

    I’ve also read the book and from what I gather from my experience as well as from those who I’ve worked with, Responsive desire isn’t necessarily just about touch versus no touch. Spontaneous Desire ALSO relies on stimulation of some sort, mental or physical/internal or external. There has to be something that entices the brain into the “wanting” phase. I think that the difference is in the threshold. Spontaneous is a quick and instantaneous reaction to that stimuli (mental or physical), whereas Responsive is more paced. It either takes more time or more stimuli to get it to reach the same peak that Spontaneous Desire reaches instantly.

    Both involve a level of mental or physical stimulation. It’s just a matter of which gets to the “Turned On” phase quicker.

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