Psychologists have long touted techniques for boosting our sex drive, be it through books, foods, or drugs. The libido has been the focal point of achieving sexual pleasure, but one Massachusetts psychologist believes a sex drive isn’t necessarily the only normal way to experience carnal desire. According to Emily Nagoski, the director of Wellness Education at Smith College in Northampton, Mass., our ideas of sex drive are antiquated and rather, should be discussed in terms of “spontaneous desire” and “responsive desire.”

The notion of a libido, also known as sex drive, was coined by psychologist Sigmund Freud to encompass the seeking of pleasure. He believed this drive was genetically part of the species’ need to survive. However, unlike drives such as hunger, the libido can be postponed or transferred without endangering our survival.

Sex drive has been thought of as a way to increase our sexual gratification, but it can still be achieved even without a spontaneous desire. Nagoski believes if sex is a drive, then the desire should be spontaneous like hunger. "When you see a sexy person or have a stray sexy thought, it activates an internal craving or urge for sex. That's called 'spontaneous desire.' It feels like it comes out of the blue," she told New Scientist.

Spontaneous desire is equated to what we have long believed to be "sex drive," but Nagoski suggests there’s also a healthy and normal way to experience desire — responsive desire. This is when our interest only surfaces in response to arousal. For example, she said: "So, your partner comes over and starts kissing your neck and you're like, 'Oh, right, sex. That's a good idea.'"

Typically, 70 percent of men experience spontaneous desire, while only 10 to 20 percent of women experience it as their primary desire style. Men tend to experience desire first and then arousal, while most women respond to arousal first, which then develops into desire. The responsive desire many experience, especially women, is not associated with any pain or any disorder of arousal or orgasm, according to Nagoski. Yet, pharmaceutical companies insist women with low sex drives should be medicated.

Recently, Sprout Pharmaceuticals has resubmitted the drug flibanserin to the Food and Drug Administration for approval for a third time. Flibanserin aims to treat hypoactive sexual desire disorder (HSDD) in women, defined as the persistent or recurrent deficiency or absence of sexual fantasies and a desire for sexual activity that causes distress or interpersonal difficulty, according to the press release. HSDD was removed from the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders in 2013 and was replaced with female sexual interest/arousal disorder.

This diagnosis is intended for women who lack both spontaneous and responsive desire, and feel distressed by this. However, some women wrongly believe their responsive desire — arousal first and then desire — is associated with low desire. They believe "that their ability to enjoy sex with their partner is meaningless if they don’t also feel a persistent urge for it; in short, that they are broken, because their desire isn’t what it’s 'supposed' to be," Nagoski wrote in an op-ed for The New York Times.

Previous studies do suggest men and women have different experiences of sexuality. A study published in The Journal of Sex Research found lustful tendencies, including spontaneous sexual thoughts and physical arousal are a lot more common in men than in women. Men are more likely to score higher in libido while women’s sex drive is more fluid. This is because sexual desire tends to be more connected to environment and context for women.

Nagoski proposes while spontaneous desire is fun, you’re not broken if you don’t experience it. "Spontaneous desire isn't necessary for sexual pleasure. Is it more important that people crave sex than it is that they enjoy the sex they're having?" she told New Scientist.

Women and men should discard any preconceived notions that their sexual desire is dysfunctional. After all, if we experience sexual pleasure in the end, the concept of sex drive becomes irrelevant.

Source: Eysenck HJ. Masculinity-Femininity, Personality and Sexual Attitudes. The Journal of Sex Research. 1971.