Which Comes First? Arousal vs Desire
Remember the days when you could be working diligently on a term paper, discussing the ways Freud differed from Jung when, out of the blue you were gripped with the overwhelming urge to fuck someone? Anyone? Anything?
Yeah, I can hardly remember them either. But they did happen. That was the spontaneous feeling of desire, absent of any particular sexual stimuli (well, maybe it was Freud), which was quickly followed by the aching pulse of arousal. Either you employed the iron will to squash these sensations and soldier on through the thickets of psychology or you quickly departed from the library to go proposition your dorm mate.
The things that propel us to seek out sex, desire and arousal, are funny partners. As we age, they don’t seem to visit so often, and not always in the same order. Our bodies change and we may not feel as comfortable with having our middle-aged muffin tops caressed. Our hormones are no longer set on high alert, we-must-procreate mode. But sex after 60 can still be the best it’s ever been (at least according to the Business Insider reporting on a recent poll). That’s often because older people having good sex have figured out how their bodies work differently now. Rather like Christmas, we need to tap into new ways of experiencing the joy, unlike the effortless experience we had as children.
Sex educator Emily Nagoski, author of the forehead-slapping bestseller Come As You Are: The Surprising New Science That Will Transform Your Sex Life, points out that, whereas we used to believe that desire preceded arousal, desire in women is often a response to arousal, and that arousal needs to come from a place of feeling relaxed and open to the experience.
‘What these women need is not medical treatment, but a thoughtful exploration of what creates desire between them and their partners. This is likely to include confidence in their bodies, feeling accepted, and (not least) explicitly erotic stimulation.’
If you’re feeling as though your desire for sex is waning, don’t give up! Consider that the way you need to become aroused has changed over time and you just need to tap into what it is now. This is especially pertinent to women, though plenty of men also become less interested in sex. Simply the act of wanting sex seems insurmountable. But what research is showing us, is that women need to be aroused first before desire can set in, whereas men often desire their partner and then become aroused (which is also the sequence required if an erectile enhancer is employed).
In her New York Times Op-Ed piece, Nagoski says:
‘Researchers have begun to understand that sexual response is not the linear mechanism they once thought it was. Many people often experience desire as responsive, emerging in response to, rather than in anticipation of, erotic stimulation. Arousal first, then desire.’
I used to go weak within seconds of a good kisser rolling his tongue around the inside of my mouth. I still love that, but I don’t get the ‘fuck me now’ declarative thundering through my loins. Now, I really like to be told by my lover all the naughty things he’s going to do to me whispered into my ear – while he helps with the dishes. Once, a long-term partner texted me from the bedroom that he was thinking of me and getting hard. ‘Oh yeah? Tell me more.’ I texted back. It wasn’t long before I was peeling off my clothes on the way up the stairs. However, had I been stewing about resentments built up over the week because I was feeling overburdened with the domestic duties, I might not have willingly gone to him.
So, don’t just turn to your partner and say, ‘Hey, wanna do it?’ Because that is not the way most of us work any longer, especially at midlife and beyond. As Esther Perel has said, ‘Foreplay begins the moment the last orgasm has subsided.’ What that means to me is we need to put in the effort to appreciate our partners during the mundane moments and create an atmosphere of loving connection, in little ways, in order to retain the desire to have sex and the ability to become aroused.
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