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Turning On: Taking an Interest in Desire*

Posted Aug 23 2008 10:33pm
"Those who restrain desire, do so because theirs is weak enough to be restrained."

William Blake



As Seen on TV



Just about every time I turn on my TV, I hear someone use the term “sex drive,” and every time they do, it means something completely different. Of course, as a professional sexologist it’s up to me to clear up all this confusion. Why? Because everyone thinks that everyone else knows exactly what they’re talking about, when in reality everyone else has their own individual idea of what they think you mean. Kind of like when I say the word “sex,” you get a mental image of what that word means to you—and yet when I say it, it may mean something quite different to me. In fact, I guarantee it does. (Remember our motto here at Dr. J’s House of Fun: When it comes to sex, there’s no standard operating system.)



Is This Thing On?



The term “sex drive” was coined in the early 20th century. Sometimes it’s also referred to as “sexual instinct.” There’s this notion that instincts—or drives—were supposed to be what “drives” animals to behave in certain predictable ways. Specifically, that certain drives are what prompts an animal to avoid certain types of discomfort, like hunger or thirst. One favorite notion seems to be that animals release their pent up physical tension through sexual activity.



This Just In



Some psychology textbooks still use the term “drive” to mean a basic urgent need that impels us to take action (like hunger and thirst). However, when it comes to sex, this concept actually makes very little sense. First of all, sexual activity is necessary for procreation–but it’s not necessary for survival. A lack of food or something to drink will lead to death, but a lack of sex has never been known to kill anyone (it just feels that way!). Second, the strength of an individual’s sexual desire does not depend on the degree of sexual deprivation they’ve endured. If that were true, the streets would be overrun with people trapped in sexless marriages who’ve been driven mad from their lack of access to sex! Similarly sexual abstinence doesn’t always increase sexual desire, and neither does frequent sexual activity always diminish it. On the contrary, some people who have been abstinent for a long time eventually lose all interest in sex (certain religions actually rely on this eventuality), while others who are extremely active manage to continue to be easily aroused (you can see proof of this at your friendly neighborhood swing club). While feelings of hunger and thirst can be unpleasant, sexual arousal actually feels good, and that tingling sensation can even be considered its own reward, even if the arousal remains “unfulfilled.”



Act Now, Operators are Standing By



In light of these facts, modern sex researchers have practically abandoned the general concept of a sex drive. Instead, we tend to look at the components that make up our sexual behavior, including these three basic factors:



1. Sexual interest or motivation (what you want to do): Your desire to engage in sex may be influenced by the level of certain hormones in your body, but it’s mostly dependent on psychological and/or emotional factors as well as social conditioning and the special circumstances inherent in any particular situation. Therefore, we all vary greatly in terms of our individual levels of interest or desire.



2. Sexual capacity (what you are actually capable of doing): This varies depending on physical conditions such as age, health, appetite, stamina, etc.



3. Sexual performance (what you actually do ): We use the term “performance” to mean what you actually do, but not in the negative sense of, “ have -to-get-it-up.” What you do depends not only on physiological and psychological factors, but also on opportunity. And as we all know, in its extreme, performance is limited by capacity.



But Wait, There’s More. . .



So, now we all understand that there’s no such thing as a human “sex drive” and that we are actually quite a bit more complex than the term implies. Keep in mind that sex researchers are only now beginning to explore sexual motivation ; that is, arousal to certain stimuli versus arousability, or the physiological ability to become aroused.




Once we dip our toes into the complexity of human sexual behavior, we truly see that when it comes to sex, there are no “one-size-fits-all” concepts – or answers.




With Pleasure,



Dr. J



* Inspired by the work of my honored professor and colleague, Erwin Haeberle, Ph.D.


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