The Science of Desire

by Anna

on Mar 29, 2021

National Horny Day is coming in hot and this year, the sexiest part of your body is taking centre stage — your brain.

post-coital couple

16 April (or 17 depending on who you ask) is National Horny Day. While calling it “horny” may remind you a little bit too much of Austin Powers, it’s a day to celebrate sexual excitement in all its glory (yeah, baby!). Dedicate your day to blissing out on the feeling of being turned on and surrender to sexual freedom.

Not a bad idea to us.

There’s only so much you can say about an internet ‘holiday’ which is why we have decided to talk about one of our favourite topics…

More specifically the science of desire. We’re getting deep on the psychology of arousal, what gets our engines going, what goes through our brains while we’re turned on and our best hacks for horniness. It’s time to get down ‘n’ nerdy.

Myth-Busting Myths About Libido

Great sex = spontaneous sex. We all know the movie scene where one hot person meets another hot person, they’re chatting and then BAM, they start lustfully kissing and rip off each other’s clothes in a fit of passion. How realistic are those scenarios though? Like most things in Hollywood, not very.

While some people think they have experienced these moments at different points in their lives (and perhaps they have), immediately being ‘on’ is not that easy — but more on that later. For others, there’s a belief that if one doesn’t feel like they ‘want’ sex straight away, there must be something wrong with them or that they are broken. The idea of ‘scheduling in’ sex with their partner doesn’t feel like the romantic burning desire we are all told we should feel and frustrations arise, which ultimately makes it harder when they do try get fired up.

The reality is, you’ve probably been scheduling in sex your whole adult life. Even in the honeymoon stage, when often the most unplanned, need-you-now sex happens.

Guess what, folks? Planned.

Knowing the levels of attraction and excitement you have towards your new partner, sex is likely to be on the cards. You groom your nether regions, spritz your sexiest scent and wear your nice undies (without the holes in them), all in preparation for some play time. As subconscious as it may be, that anticipation builds and creates a sense of desire.

Just because you’re not feeling that feeling, doesn’t mean you won’t. It’s very normal to need to put in a bit more work for your turn on — especially if you’re in a long-term relationship. We’re to talk about the stages of sexual excitement and why spontaneously feeling horny is a trick of the mind.

The Stages of Desire

Clinical sex therapist, Dr Rosemary Basson published her model of how sexual excitement and desire works in 2001. The model states that it performs as a cycle and is based around “responsive desire”. The linear process does not begin with wanting sex — the feeling of being horny is in response to something else. Whether it’s something sexy you hear or see, a touch from someone you are attracted to or a thought you might have, your brain is constantly recognising different scenarios as sex-related or not. A positive or negative reaction is then decided on depending on where and how we are.

cycle of sexual response

If the context we are in shows that it is safe to respond positively to the sexy cue, it’s on. Your brain gives your body the green light and onwards and upwards it goes. Once you’re done, lingering sexy memories can trigger another cycle of desire and around it goes…

It’s why, as we mentioned earlier, spontaneous desire is a fun idea in our heads that is far less likely IRL. The process that often happens so quickly for some people that it’s hard to tell it’s even happening regardless of if you know the science behind it.

Why We Get Turned On… and Off

So, what helps your brain decide on that yes or no response towards something sex-related? Researchers call it the dual control model. It states that there are two systems in our brain which manage our sexual responses — one acts as a ‘gas pedal’ and the other, a ‘brake pedal’.

In your day-to-day life, the gas pedal is always looking for sexy things to get your engine running. Your brake pedal, on the other hand, is looking for all the reasons not to be turned on and it’s a good thing too. Can you imagine what public places would be like if we didn’t have the inhibitions to stop us porking whenever we felt like it?

Add feeling anxious, stressed or depressed to the mix and your brake puts that pedal to the metal, making arousal quite difficult. It’s why body image issues, worrying about our performance or whether our partner respects us also make it harder to enjoy the moment and reach orgasm during sex.

So, How Can We Help Our Libido?

First things first, find out what is hitting your brakes. If you are having issues with your libido, take a moment to think about all the reasons you are saying no to sex. Some might be obvious but others might be harder to figure out. Get deep and write it all down.

Go through your list and decide on the reasons you know you could make moves to change. Too busy for banging? Look at prioritising your pleasure by freeing up some time when you can (even if it’s just once a week). Feeling anxious or depressed? Discuss your options for therapy with your doctor. Talking to a professional is not only great for your mental health but it can help with your sexual happiness as well. Come up with an action plan and see if it helps you ease off the brakes.

It could also be that your accelerator might need a little bit of a push. Practice makes perfect and getting horny is no different. Try setting aside some time each day to get back to your body and mind - this could be through taking a few minutes to think sexy thoughts, tuning into how you’re feeling and how your skin feels when stimulated by different textures and touches. Get touching and get fantasising!

While we never encourage faking it in the bedroom, faking it til you make it when it comes to sexual confidence is a great idea. Imagine, if you will, that you are a very sexual person. The kind of person that says take me now when the opportunity arises, is playful, confident and curious about pleasure. How would you feel, behave and respond when it comes to doing the deed?

Taking a walk in someone else’s shoes and looking at the way you approach sex when being yourself is an excellent exercise in sexual mindfulness and can help you identify the things that flip on your brakes. Try role playing being the confident, sensual person and see how you go — who knows, maybe you are that person.

Now, back to (you guessed it) scheduling in sex.

As our model told us earlier, to have (good) sex, you’ve got to desire it and you can’t have sexual desire without something sexy kicking things off. If you wait around for that feeling to come to you, it could take a while - especially if you don’t have the highest libido or you’re a slow sexual burner.

Think of scheduling in sex the way you do for exercise. Starting a workout and sticking to your workout plan is often the hardest part but once you’re up, moving and the endorphins are flowing, you feel awesome. Sex feels even better in our humble opinion, so why not make sure you’re getting your fix?

On that, let’s talk about consent, consent, consent! You must ALWAYS have your partner’s consent before commencing any sexual act on them or with them. No matter the circumstances, if someone does not want to have sex with you, you can not have sex with them. You should also never force yourself to have sex when you don’t want to.

So, what do we do to make sure everyone is into it and the experience stays consensual and fun?

We’ve said it before and we’ll say it again: communication is key. Your partner isn’t a mindreader, talk to them if you’re finding it difficult to get hot and heavy under the collar. Explain how responsive desire works and let them know that you are open to feeling the urge but need them to help you get there in a safe space where you can stop if it’s not working out. Make sure they understand it’s time to stop when that happens as well.

Once you’re on the same wavelength with your partner mentally, it’s time to get physical (and emotional). Set aside some time for intimacy, not sex, and go back to basics - gently and affectionately touching, kissing, playing and hugging without expectation or judgement. Let what feels good to you in the moment lead, connecting you to your partner and most importantly, to your body. Perhaps, free of the demand to ‘perform’, you’ll feel more relaxed, you’ll 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 29, 2021. Updated on Mar 30, 2021