Spontaneous vs Responsive Desire: What's The Difference?

Close your eyes for a moment, and think about what desire looks like. For many of us, our sexual vocabulary may owe a lot to movies, music, art, and cultural messaging – steamy images of being overcome with lust out of nowhere, frantic to get down to it, right now.

And sometimes it happens that way, certainly. It’s great when it does. But many of us need a little more to get in the mood, especially when we’re in a long-term partnership and the first heat has worn off. 

Desire is as individual as our fingerprints, and learning our own sexual patterns can be a lifelong process of discovery. However, it’s possible to simplify matters a bit – and unlock the secrets of our own turn-ons. 

Desire generally comes in two forms: spontaneous desire, like the cinematic image of a lustful couple tearing each other’s clothes off, and responsive desire, which doesn’t have such an aggressive PR department – but for many of us, it’s essential to our pleasure, fulfillment, and sexual self-expression.

Spontaneous vs responsive desire: what’s the difference?

For pretty much everyone who experiences sexual cravings, there are two components to our interest: the mental and the physical.

When we’re aroused mentally, we want it! We plan, we fantasize, we imagine what we want to do to our partner, and what we want them to do to us. Mental desire comprises our inner porno theater, our vocabulary of lust, the whats, whens, whys, hows, and with whoms. It’s a story we tell ourselves on the way to bed.

On the other hand, physical arousal happens in the body. Our erectile tissue becomes engorged with blood, our nipples get hard, our heart rate increases. Our pupils may dilate, and we might feel flushed.

Though our physical and mental selves aren’t really separate – in a very real sense, we are our bodies – it is possible to define spontaneous and responsive desire by which of those two processes happens first.

If we experience mental arousal first, then physical – that’s spontaneous desire. We start thinking about sex, then we want sex, then our body follows that mental cue.

If we need to experience physical arousal first, before our mental engine starts revving – that’s responsive desire. When we’re stimulated via our senses, our minds follow suit.

Pretty simple, right? So why is spontaneous desire the focus of most of the sexy stories we see and hear? And if responsive desire is our jam, why can it sometimes feel like our libidos are broken?

The myth of gender and libido

Before we continue, it’s important to share a word on gender. Gender identity is a widely-varied spectrum, and gender and physical sex don’t always align. Widespread acceptance of trans and nonbinary identities is a recent development in scientific research, most of which has been performed on cis people. 

Our usage of “men” and “women” below is in no way intended to invalidate or diminish gender-nonconforming identities. Fundamentally, we’re all individuals, steeped in a wild brew of biology and socialization – which does seem to account for some of the differing ways we may experience our sexual urges. 

That being said, as a rule, spontaneous desire is associated with male sexuality. 75 percent of men and 15 percent of women report that they primarily feel spontaneous desire. 

On the other hand, 30 percent of women and just 5 percent of men report that they primarily feel responsive desire. 

Historically speaking, male-coded behaviors and preferences have been viewed as the “default”, or the “correct” way to do things, which may explain why men are seen as having higher libidos when it’s not true at all. Women are capable of being just as lusty. We just need different things to get there.

Have you ever had sex even when you weren’t “in the mood”, and afterwards thought “Wow, that was great”? Chances are you’re a responsive-desire type – and that’s a wonderful kind of person to be.

Responsive desire and the five senses

So we may believe that male-identified people have higher sex drives than female-identified folks – but when we factor in responsive desire, everything changes.

And if you’re someone who requires physical stimulation to get in the mental mood, there’s a whole sexy world to explore – with a partner or flying solo. Just plan on giving yourself what your body needs first, to bring your mind on board.

Not sure where to start?


If you’re a responsive type, you may have spicier reactions to audible stimuli than visual. Moaning, the sounds bodies make together, and dirty talk (if you like it) can bring you right into your body and the moment. If your partner is quiet, suggest they speak up and see what happens.

And similar to written erotica, there’s plenty of sexy material available on audio. Apps like Dipsea, which has a wealth of diverse, sex-positive erotica for every taste, can provide some great ways to stoke your fire. 

And even your public library may have a surprising vault of hot stuff, borrowable via Overdrive or Libby.

Scent and taste.

Scent and pheromones may play a much larger role in sexual attraction than we may realize. Ever wanted to burrow your face into a partner’s armpit? Ever met someone who ticks all the boxes but doesn’t smell right? Our olfactory systems work behind the scenes to give us valuable – and sexy – information.

Try associating scents with great sex – burn incense or use a special diffuser perhaps, or borrow your lover’s shirts after they’ve been worn. Many in our community report that just a whiff of Awaken gets them in the mood. And food has been used as a tool of seduction for millennia; if caviar and oysters don’t do it for you, consider hunting for nibbles that do.


This is the biggie for most people who experience responsive desire. Physical contact may be all we need to make our bodies – and minds – come alive, and you may not even need explicitly sexual touch. Massages, having your hair brushed, a warm bath, even a really good full-body hug can all get the juices flowing.

Longterm relationships often grow starved for regular touch. If you’re only touching each other when you’re in bed together, you’re missing out! And if you’re single, make sure to love on yourself. A regular masturbation practice is a no-brainer, but try surrounding yourself with textures you love, and make time to handle your whole body with care. It’ll reward you deeply. 

And always remember to use lube! It’s a great way to experience your body a little differently.


Though men are considered the more “visual sex”, this isn’t really true either. Women and others who experience responsive desire can crave sensual visuals too. If mainstream porn doesn’t do it for you, seek out erotic art or other sexy images, or individual scenes from media that got you hot under the collar. 

And reading counts as seeing! There’s a whole world of written erotica geared for the responsive libido. Train yourself to make a note of images and stories that make you go “hmmmmm”, and you’ll be feeling flushed over Georgia O’Keefe in no time.


Your body houses all of your emotions, desires, past experiences, longings, and tensions. The more you move it, the less stuck these things become, and the more you will be able to feel your own self. Movement is also a great way to help get you out of your head and into the moment, finding pleasure along the way.

Try dimming the lights, getting into your favorite undies, and putting on your favorite sexy playlist to move to. Focus on deep belly breath to nourish your nervous system while focusing on sensation, and go slow – pay attention to what feels good, and stay present for what comes up for you. Sometimes just being alone with yourself in this way is enough to really stir things up. 


Stay safe to keep it sexy.

The flipside of a responsive libido is that we may lose all interest in sex, alone or with a partner, when we feel unsafe. Anxiety is a survival mechanism; when we feel anxious, our bodies tend to assume we’re in physical danger – and they’ll tell us it’s not a great time to get down. 

Stress from work, family life, and the state of the world can put our libidos right to sleep. Practice self-care and good mental and emotional hygiene, and your sex drive will thank you. Your partner may need to know that if you’re stressed, you won’t be into sex – which could motivate them to help make your life easier!

And lastly, always remember that desire is unique and personal. It constantly fluctuates based on our hormones, societal input, traumas, and beliefs around sexuality, and all of this will impact our sexual response. 

Using responsive desire as your guide, you might just discover that your body loves things you didn’t know it would – and this can give you deep insight into what really turns you on. Be curious, be playful, and explore – there are gifts in your body, just waiting to be found.


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