NYC Psychotherapist Blog

power by WikipediaMindmap

Saturday, March 11, 2023

Understanding Your Sexual Arousal Type: Responsive Sexual Arousal

This is the second part of a series about sexual arousal types.  The prior article was Understanding Your Sexual Arousal Type: Spontaneous Arousal.   

According to Dr Emily Nagoski, sex educator and author of the bestselling book, Come As You Are, 75% of heterosexual men and 15% of heterosexual women experience spontaneous sexual arousal.  

Understanding Responsive Sexual Arousal

The current article will focus on responsive sexual arousal which, according to Dr. Nagoski, is experienced by 5% of heterosexual men and 30% of women.

As I mentioned in my prior article, both spontaneous and responsive sexual arousal are normal.  But since spontaneous sexual arousal is most often portrayed in movies and TV programs, many people believe that responsive arousal is abnormal.  This includes people (mostly women) who often come to sex therapy believing they have either low libido or there's something else wrong with them.

As a result, responsive sexual arousal is often misunderstood, so it's worth spending some time to describe and discuss it here.

One caveat: For a variety of reasons, sexual arousal type isn't always constant.  It can change over time in different contexts, with age, with different people and during different phases of a relationship.  However, most people are fairly consistent in their arousal type.

Characteristics of People with Responsive Sexual Arousal
If you're unsure as to whether you experience spontaneous or responsive sexual arousal, you can take a look at the characteristics of the spontaneous type in the prior article and compare it to the characteristics described below for the responsive type and see which one resonates with you.

The responsive type tends to experience sexual arousal:
  • As a reaction to a sexual stimulus
  • Within an erotic context
  • By experiencing a willingness to have sex with a partner  

A willingness to have sex means starting to have sex before experiencing sexual arousal and then experiencing sexual arousal as a result of getting sexually involved (see my article: 
For People With a Responsive Sexual Arousal Type, a Willingness to Have Sex is Often Enough to Get Sexually Aroused - Part 1 and Part 2).  

It's important to note that a willingness to have sex doesn't mean that someone is forcing themselves to have nonconsensual sex. 

Instead, a willingness to have sex means that people with responsive arousal know that they'll get sexually turned on eventually as a result of engaging in consensual sex, including kissing, cuddling or whatever gets them turned on. 

This is different from the spontaneous arousal type where arousal often begins with thinking about sex which leads to getting physically turned on.  

For the responsive arousal type, they need to experience it physically first before they get mentally turned on.  This is why starting sexual activities on a physical level eventually gets them turned on mentally.

It's not unusual for people with the responsive type to recognize during or even after sex that they got turned on.  So they might reflect to themselves after sex, "This was good. I enjoyed this.  We should do this more often."

Relationships Where People Have Different Sexual Arousal Types
It's very common for people in a relationship to have different sexual arousal types.  One person might have a spontaneous type and the other might have a responsive type (see the prior article for clinical vignettes illustrating these differences).

A discrepancy in arousal type is one of the most common reasons why people seek help in sex therapy (see my articles: What is Sex Therapy? and What Are the Most Common Issues Discussed in Sex Therapy?).

The person who unknowingly experiences responsive arousal often thinks that they have low libido or no libido, especially when they compare themselves to their partner with spontaneous arousal.  

But responsive arousal isn't low libido.  It's just a different way of getting sexually turned on.  So, when people with responsive arousal realize this, they're often relieved.  Then, they can focus on what to do sexually so they and their partners both get turned on.

Clinical Vignette: Understanding Responsive Sexual Arousal
The following clinical vignette, which is a composite of many cases to protect confidentiality, illustrates how sex therapy can help a couple where they believe one of them has low libido when, in fact, she really has responsive sexual arousal.

When Anna began sex therapy, she told her sex therapist she felt discouraged about her so-called "low libido" and she worried about the effect this was having on her two year relationship with Mick.  

She told her sex therapist that when she and Mick first got together, they had a passionate sex life.  She remembered that just the anticipation of seeing each other was enough to get them both sexually excited.

But after the first six months, although Mick continued to be enthusiastic about having sex, Anna's sexual interest waned for reasons she didn't understand.

She told her therapist that she often rejected Mick's sexual advances because she "just wasn't in the mood."  She didn't understand what happened and told her therapist, "I feel broken."

As part of the sex therapy assessment, her sex therapist explored Anna's family, relationship and sexual histories in detail over the next few sessions.  

The sex therapist explained sexual arousal types, including spontaneous and responsive types, and she emphasized that both types are normal.  

She told Anna that she wasn't broken--she just experienced arousal in a different way after the initial excitement related to the early stage of the relationship.  

She explained to Anna that the early stage of a relationship usually includes new relationship energy (NRE) where people feel a rush of dopamine and oxytocin, but NRE wears off anywhere from a few months to a few years.  

After NRE subsides, she explained, the initial excitement subsides and it becomes evident that one person might have a responsive type of sexual arousal, which seemed to be the case with Anna.

Based on Anna's sexual history, the sex therapist evaluated that Anna did not have low libido.  She told Anna that responsive sexual arousal often gets mistaken for low libido.  Then, she suggested, since Anna didn't have a sexual problem, that Anna invite Mick to join her in sex therapy sessions so they could work on their different experiences of arousal together as a couple.

Working together in sex therapy, Anna and Mick learned how they each experienced sexual arousal as individuals and what they needed to do to have good sex together (see my article: What is Good Sex?).

As part of their sex therapy, they explored their sexual memories of being together when they first started seeing each other.  One thing they both agreed upon was that during the early days the anticipation of knowing they would be sexual was a powerful aphrodisiac for both of them (see my article: A Cornerstone of Eroticism: Longing and Anticipation).

They also learned about their particular sex script as a couple and what changes they could make so sex would be more pleasurable for both of them (see my article: Relationships: Understanding Your Sex Script).

Their sex therapist provided them with psychoeducation about emotional aphrodisiacs and helped them to increase the erotic energy between them by building longing and anticipation into their sexual activities.  

One way they accomplished this was they planned to have sex at least a few days in advance.

At first, Anna and Mick thought that planning to have sex would be unsexy.  This was because they were both stuck on the idea that hot sex should happen spontaneously and effortlessly like the way they saw it portrayed on TV and in movies.  But they soon learned that planning to have sex could be very sexy.  

During the days before they planned to have sex, each of them allowed themselves to have sexual fantasies about what they wanted to do sexually.  

They also learned how to be sexually playful with each other leading up to the day they planned to have sex by sending sexy texts messages to each other and playfully teasing each other in other ways.  This helped to build sexual tension, longing and anticipation for each of them.

Understanding Responsive Sexual Arousal

Anna and Mick became aware that if they both slowed down and spent more time engaging in foreplay, sex was more pleasurable for both of them (see my article: Rethinking Foreplay as More Than Just a Prelude to Intercourse).

By the end of sex therapy, Anna no longer felt broken. Both she and Mick developed a better understanding of spontaneous and responsive sexual arousal and what they each needed to get turned on, so sex became exciting again for both of them.

Everyone is different when it comes to how they experience sexual arousal.

It's not unusual for each person in a relationship to experience discrepancies in sexual arousal, but if each person understands what the other needs to feel sexually aroused, these discrepancies can be worked out in sex therapy.

Getting Help in Sex Therapy
Sex therapy is for individual adults and people in relationships.

Sex therapy is a form of talk therapy. It doesn't involve any nudity, physical exams or sex during sessions (see my article: What Are the Most Common Misconceptions About Sex Therapy?).

Many people feel uncomfortable talking about sex even with their partners, and sex therapy can people to get comfortable so they can communicate about sex more effectively (see my article: How to Talk to Your Partner About Sex - Part 1 and Part 2).

A skilled sex therapist can also help you to discover your sexual arousal type as well as your sex script so you can make changes to have a more satisfying sex life.

Rather than struggling on your own, seek from a skilled sex therapist.

About Me
I am a licensed New York City psychotherapist, hypnotherapist, EMDR, AEDP, EFT, Somatic Experiencing and Sex Therapist.

I work with individual adults and couples.

To find out more about me, visit my website: Josephine Ferraro, LCSW - NYC Psychotherapist.

To set up a consultation, call me at (917) 742-2624 during regular business hours or email me.