The Science of Desire

by Anna

on Mar 28, 2021

For National Horny Day 2021, we’re getting deep about the sexiest part of your body - your brain

post-coital couple

National Horny Day falls on the 16th of April. Or the 17th of April, dependent on who you ask. Although calling it “horny” day doesn’t sound too steamy*, it is a celebration of all things sexual excitement, a chance to revel in being turned on, and surrendering to sexual freedom.

That sounds a little better, doesn’t it?

Rather than getting in too deep about an internet ‘holiday’, we thought we’d take this opportunity to talk about one of our favourite things…

More specifically, psychology. Today we’re getting into the science behind desire - what turns us on, what our brains are up to while we’re getting busy, and how to hack into your horny. It’s time to get down ‘n’ nerdy.

*Let’s be honest, “horny” is arguably one of the least sexy sex words ever, along with “snogging” and “minge”.

Common Myths About Libido

First up, let’s do some myth busting.

A lot of people think that great sex is supposed to be ‘spontaneous’. It’s the dream fed to us by Hollywood - in films hot person A meets hot person B, they’re having a conversation, then suddenly they grab each other filled with lust, sweep the papers off the desk and start tearing each other's clothes off.

Some people do experience this at some points in their lives (or think they do - more on that later), and believe that if they don’t feel like they ‘want’ sex anymore, that they’re broken or that there’s something wrong with them. The idea of ‘scheduling in’ sex with their partner feels unromantic, they get frustrated at themselves for not feeling that burning desire for nookie, and that frustration in turn makes it harder to get fired up.

Here’s the thing - scheduling in sex is actually something you’ve likely been doing your whole adult life. Think about when you meet a new partner you’re really into. The honeymoon stage, the point where that spontaneous, need-you-now sex happens the most.

Guess what, buddy? Scheduled in. You see them knowing that sex is on the cards. You have a shower with the nice smelling body wash, you groom your nether regions, you wear your nice undies - not the ones with the hole in the bum cheek. That (often subconscious) knowledge and preparation builds your anticipation, and creates that feeling of burning desire.

Not feeling that - especially when you’re in a long term relationship - does NOT mean you’re broken. You’re totally normal! Let’s talk about the stages of desire, and find out exactly why spontaneously feeling horny is a trick of the mind.

The Stages of Sexual Excitement

In 2001, clinical sex therapist Dr Rosemary Basson published her model of how sexual excitement and desire works, based around “responsive desire”. This model states that desire works as a cycle. Wanting sex is not the first stage of a linear process - instead, we feel horny in response to something else. This could be a sensual touch from your partner, it could be seeing or hearing something sexy, it could even be a thought you had. Our brain recognises that something is sex-related, then decides if we should respond positively or negatively based on where we are/what we’re doing/how we’re feeling in general.

cycle of sexual response

If our current situation (often referred to by professionals as ‘context’) means we’re safe to respond to the sexy prompt, it’s on. We start feeling fruity, our body responds, we find ourselves wanting more. After you’re finished, even the memory of your sexy time can trigger another round of desire - hence why it’s a cycle!

This model is why, earlier on, we mentioned that a lot of people think they’ve experienced spontaneous desire, rather than actually experienced it. Sometimes this process happens so quickly that you don’t recognise it’s happening - even when you know the science.

Why We Get Turned On… and Off

About that decision your brain makes on whether or not to respond to a sex-related thing… here’s another scientific model for you. The dual control model states that a little mechanism in our brains controls our responses to sexual things, using what’s best described as a ‘gas pedal’ and a ‘brake pedal’.

Your sexy gas pedal is constantly taking in everything around you, hunting for things that could get you hot under the collar. Your sexy brake pedal is doing the opposite - looking for all the reasons not to be turned out right now. This brake stops us being rampant horndogs who can’t go out for dinner without embarrassing everyone around them, so it’s very important!

It’s also why it’s so difficult to feel aroused when you’re stressed. Feeling anxious about work, irritable after a bad day, or depressed because the world feels like it’s on fire, puts that pedal to the metal. When we’re worried about our body, or if our partner respects us, or whether we’re ‘good in bed’, it can make it hard for us to orgasm or truly enjoy sex.

What Can We Do To Help Our Libido?

One of the first things to try if you’re having issues with your libido is finding out what’s hitting your brakes. Imagine your partner is whispering sweet nothings in your ear right now. What would make you want to turn them down? Make a list of everything you can think of. Get deep!

Once you have your list, go through each one and pick a couple that you think you could work on changing. Are you feeling anxious or depressed? Maybe you could speak to your doctor about therapy. Are you too busy? Think about how you could free-up some time, even one evening a week. Put together a little action plan, and see if you can start easing off on that pedal.

You could also try fine-tuning that accelerator. Like many things that benefit us - mindfulness, healthy eating, sleep routines - this can take a little practice! One thing you could try is setting aside a little time each day to be sensual. Take a few minutes to breathe slowly, and try to tune in to your sexuality. Think sexy thoughts, fantasise, play with how different textures and touches feel against your skin, and how your body responds to that stimulation.

Another fun way to play with your sexual accelerator is through role play. We don’t mean cops and robbers (although that could come later)! Take a moment to imagine that you are a really sexual person. Erotic, curious about pleasure, playful. What would that be like? How would you act towards your partner? How would you feel about your body? How would you initiate sex, and how would you respond when your partner gives you that look?

Trying on the coat of a sensual, confident person full of desire is a really insightful way to see things that you can change about your approach to doing the nasty. Especially when you compare it to the things that stop you, or flip on your brakes.

Finally, let’s bring this full circle. Scheduling in sex.

As we mentioned earlier, feeling desire isn’t the first stage in the process of wanting to have sex. If you wait until you actively want it - especially if you have a low libido or take a while to get fired-up, you might be waiting for a while. Often, wanting to do something doesn’t come about as ‘wanting to start something’, but rather as ‘wanting more of something’. A good comparison is exercise - have you ever felt like working out was the absolute last thing you wanted to do, then once you’d started and your endorphins kicked in, you felt great? It’s the same with sex!

This raises an INCREDIBLY important point around consent. It is wrong - on every level - to have sex with someone who does not want to have sex with you. You should never force yourself to have sex when you do not want to.

How do we get around this catch-22 of wanting to want to have sex, whilst also not feeling into it until you’re already… into it?

The first step is a biggie: communication. Talk to your partner about this! Tell them how you are feeling, show them this blog post, explain how responsive desire works. Tell them that you are open to pleasure, and that they can trust you to tell them if you really don’t want something to happen. Make sure you can trust them to stop in return.

The second step is to schedule time, not for sex, but for intimacy. Time to gently explore pleasure with each other. Try to come to this time focusing on curiosity. Kiss, touch, be affectionate, play. See what happens when you give yourself time - without expectation - for your desire to grow. Let that feeling of pleasure lead you. Perhaps, free of the demand to ‘perform’, you’ll feel connected with your partner, cuddle up skin-to-skin, and fall asleep. Or maybe, just maybe…


Written by Anna. Lovehoney Editorial Team
Anna has been writing for Lovehoney since 2020, and is a co-host of the Sexual Happiness Podcast.
She believes that everyone deserves to feel confident in their body, sexuality, and relationships, and loves to help them do so

Originally published on Mar 28, 2021. Updated on Mar 29, 2021