How to Understand, Identify and Make Choices About Desire
Sex can be a great, fun and healthy part of our lives. But in order for sex to lead to big feelings of pleasure and satisfaction, physically and emotionally, it almost always needs to start with another feeling: that of desire. Just like food only will tend to taste really good, and eating will feel really great, when we're hungry, the same is true about sex.
Sexual activity, of any kind, feels best when it's something we really want, feel excited about and get to follow those feelings of want with. (Yippee!) This means that it's important for us to learn how we can recognize feelings of desire and how we can respond to them in the way that feels best to us. It also means learning to recognize and respect when we're not feeling desire, and, of course, respecting other people's feelings and boundaries. We can't dictate whether, when and how we feel interested in a given sexual activity, but we can become experts at knowing ourselves and our own feelings.
What's desire? When we say sexual desire we mean an interest in, and an excitement about, engaging in sexual activities of some kind, either by ourselves or with another person (or persons).
There are many types of desire. Here at Scarleteen, we generally deal with desires of an erotic or sexual nature, which is what we're talking about here. But there are also many different ways that erotic desire can manifest itself and people can and do experience feelings of desire. In other words, feelings of sexual desire don't feel exactly the same for everyone, or even for any one person throughout their lifetime.
The type of sexual desire that is most often talked about (sometimes to the point that it can look like it's the only kind, even though it's not) is desire directed at, or about, someone else; feeling attracted to someone and wanting to be sexual with them. This is the feeling that's important when it comes to partnered sex: ideally, mutual interest in being sexual is something that happens first, before anyone is sexual together.
However, that's only one possible way that desire can work. Plenty of people will feel attraction and a desire to be close to someone sometimes, but have no interest or little interest in acting on that. Maybe they know that person is not a good fit for them, or maybe they know that they are just not in the right mind-space for sex at that time. Desire is an important ingredient when ti comes to sexual choices and actions, but it's only one ingredient in the (hopefully) yummy stew of good sex. If we know there are or may be other barriers to enjoying sex (like feeling really stressed, being sick that day, not having privacy or not having access to what we want and need to reduce the risks of STIs or pregnancy, for instance), we may chose not to act on our feelings of desire, even if they feel really intense. Or, we may feel interested in the idea of having sex, but just not be interested in actually having sex.
There is also a kind of desire that we can feel that is not for a specific person but the idea of someone, a fantasy that cannot or does not need to be acted out. A fantasy sex-partner, a fantasy sex-act - there can be all sorts of things that we like to fantasize about without it having any basis in our reality, or wanting to have it be something we act upon.
Another type of sexual desire is the kind that does not focus on another person. It's more self-directed; the desire to be sexual and intimate with oneself, to discover, explore and enjoy one's own body and sexuality, all alone. That feeling often gets a really bad rep, like it's something that we only can (or should) experience in the absence of a romantic relationship or sex partner. People tend to feel that sexual desire should be directed at other people, and that sex with someone else is the only type that counts.
But that is not really fair, and it certainly isn't relfective of all we know about human sexuality, and sexual lives people tend to enjoy. There is really no kind of sex that is "better" or more "valid" or "acceptable." Masturbation is not just something that people do who have no partner or no other sexual outlet: it is something that people do when they feel the desire to experience their own body in a sexual way. People who are in a partnership with someone may still, and often do, have the desire to masturbate, and experience feelings of desire that aren't about that partner, or other-directed, but are just about themselves. Similarly, if you are with a partner and they masturbate, that does not mean that you did anything wrong or that you need to be more available - it just means that your partner felt the desire to masturbate, and that they have their own sexuality with or without you, as all people do. Partnered sexuality and solo sexuality are two equally valid parts of any given person's sexual life: they're not something we need to put in some kind of cage-match. If we want them both, and feel them both, we get to have them both.
Who Feels Desire?
A lot of people have very specific and limited ideas about who can and does feel desire, who cannot or does not, how much desire people feel and what it's like for everyone, in some universal way. Especially pervasive is the idea that only young adults and adults feel desire, and that desire is especially strong in men generally, and male teens specifically. But that is actually a pretty limited view, and one that doesn't square with reality. As with almost anything that involves human emotions and the wide range of human experience, things are a lot more complex and varied than that.
To start with, the question as to who can feel desire is easily answered with this: everyone.
It may look or feel different based on the person, the circumstances, their attitudes and the situation, and it often does. But everyone has the capacity to feel desire, and there is no group of people that, as a rule, misses out on this. Something like age or sex has very little to do with whether or not someone feels desire. People of every age can and do experience feelings of desire, sexual and otherwise.
However, just because we all have the capacity to have that feeling does not mean that absolutely everyone actually does feel desire, that those who feel it feel it all of the time, or that anyone should feel it all of the time, or ever. There are no shoulds about this: it is okay to feel it and okay not to feel it, and it is okay to act on it and okay not to act on it. It's all up to you, and it's also typical for our feelings of sexual desire to wax and wane from day to day, year to year, and life phase to life phase. Those feelings will also often be situational: most people, most of the time, won't feel sexual desire in just any situation, for everyone, or at every time of day.
If desire is not linked to age or sex, what does influence desire? To some extent, this is just individual disposition. Some of us are inclined to feel more desire on the whole, or to feel it more intensely, others less. But this, too, is not fixed: for a lot of us, how interested we feel in sexual activity of any kind is going to fluctuate: we'll have times where we feel it more intensely, times when we're not interested at all, and everything in between.
In terms of desire that involves other people, how often we feel deisre can also be limited by how often we see or run into the kinds of people we are attracted to. Someone who is attracted to very few people in the world, or to people not in their community is going to have a different experience than someone with a wide range of attractions.
Dips in feelings of sexual desire and libido can be due to changes in life circumstances and stress, to changes in exercise or diet, general health, to medication for some illness (such as anti-depressants), and also, if you are feeling a lack of desire within a romantic and/or sexual relationship, it may be, and often is, connected to the dynamics in that relationship. But sometimes, our feelings of desire change without any clear cause or root, just like our general moods can change sometimes even without big circumstances that influence them.
What's hopefully clear from all of that is that there are no strict standards for whether and to what extent someone experiences feelings of sexual desire, and there is no libido police out to enforce those standards. Everyone gets to want as much, or as little, sex as they do; everyone gets to be diverse when it comes to feelings of desire, because everyone is diverse in this regard.
However, that does not stop some people from acting like they are the libido police, and making unfounded assumptions about other people's sexual lives.
For example, there are a lot of ideas floating around about how young guys are veritable desire machines and have little on their minds besides sex. That's not fair or sound: while being a teenager (of any gender) often does mean discovering one's sexuality and exploring relationships, and often does involve strong sexual curiosity and feelings of desire, it is also an intense time in a lot of other ways and not everything revolves around sex. These expectations can also be really hurtful: for example, someone who does not identify a heterosexual may feel some distress at being confronted so often with the expectation that they should be exhibiting heterosexual interests. Another way in which these expectations are harmful is the "boys will be boys" message often broadcast by the media, which excuses male, sexually predatory behavior as completely normal, giving the impression that young men can't help their impulses and that that's par for the course (neither of which are true or okay).
On the other side of the coin, there are groups of people who are not often culturally expected to have, or prestended as having, strong desires, such as women, on the whole. Women are often seen as sexually passive and only yielding to male desire when in a relationship, or with the expectation that a relationship will develop from it. This is, as you probably know by now, also wildly inaccurate. Women, like men, like people in general, are very diverse, and the level of desire that any member of that group may experience is highly individual.
Connected to the idea that women are less interested in sex and sexuality is the idea that it is women's responsibility to police male sexual desire. That idea goes something like this: A man's sexual default setting is, apprently, "Yes, Please," 24/7, and he is interested in getting physical with any woman that he finds attractive. It is then the job of the woman to keep a cool head (which is, again, according to this framework, easy for her, because her brain isn't being flooded by those sexy, sexy thoughts) and decide whether or not the sex should happen. This is, as you may have already noticed, also a great foundation for one of our culture's favorite rape myth: that it is a woman's job to not tempt a man, since he can't stop once he's started.
But all of this, too -- all of this -- is simply not true.
Neither men nor women are "naturally" predisposed to anything when it comes to this. How interested we are, or are not, in sex is about who we are as individuals, where we are at in our lives, and the pretty specific dynamic between us and the person(s) we are into, if and when there is a person we're into in this way. And just like it's never okay to demand sex from someone who has expressed that they are not interested, it is also never okay to expect that another person take responsibility for our desire. It is always up to us to not only respect another person's boundaries, but to make healthy and smart decisions about whether it is a good idea for us to be sexual in a given situation.
Since everyone gets to have their very own level of desire and interest in sex, all of which are completely okay and valid, no one gets a pass on pressuring others into sexual activity they do not want or do not feel ready for.
In a relationship, that sometimes means negotiation or compromise: for long-term relationships, that "sometimes" will commonly switch to "often." It's very common for any two people (or more) to find that when they feel sexual desire, and how strongly they feel it, won't match up sometimes, or happen at the same time. That means that if and when we want sex with others to be something based in mutual desire and pleasure, there are going to be times when one person feels a want for sex the other doesn't, and that that gets to be okay. The person who isn't feeling that thing doesn't have to do anything they don't want to, and that person who was feeling desire learns to be okay with just not getting what they want sometimes (something emotionally healthy people -- even people who are only a few years old -- figure out how to deal with just fine, in every area of life, including this one).
No one in a relationship is responsible for taking care of all of a partner's feelings of desire: remember, you or a partner each have a sexuality that exists all by itself with or without the other, and existed before you ever came along. Similarly, no one person in a relationship is single-handedly responsible for directing how much sexual activity happens in a relationship. That is always something that should be negotiated jointly and that partners should always be communicating about.
What Does Desire Feel Like?
We've been talking about this feeling a whole lot, but we haven't yet sussed out what, exactly, it can actually FEEL like. What can it feel like to experience desire?
- A really good way of thinking about desire is to liken it to hunger. Hunger is a feeling we are all familiar with: the feeling we get when we feel physical and emotional cravings for food and eating. Desire, then, to stay with that metaphor, is the feeling we get when we crave things like sexual stimulation, physical contact and/or sexual pleasure. "Skin hunger" is actually a term used to describe a feeling of desire to be touched.
- Desire can feel a lot like anticipation: looking forward to something that you are really excited about and that you expect to be a good, pleasurable experience for you. You might have anticipated a trip, for instance, or seeing a cherished friend and relative you don't see as often as you'd like, or may have been on the edge of your seat wating for the next Harry Potter book. Sexual desire can feel like that, just about sex of some kind, or otherwise feeling an urge or excitement about something pertaining to your sexuality.
- When we desire something or someone, it tends to become something we think about a lot, sometimes even when we're trying really hard to focus on something else. A thought or feeling that sneaks up on us unexpectedly, that takes up a lot of real estate in our head.
- Desire can, and often does, alo manifest in physical sensations. We might have a tingly sensation on our skin, fluttery feelings in our stomach, a faster heartbeat, or a general sensation of excitement and giddiness.
In short, desire is generally a positive feeling of anticipation of and strong interest in some form of sexual interaction or exploration. If you're still having trouble getting any sense of what sexual desire might feel like, think about the last time you didn't get something you wanted badly and felt really disappointed about. usually, if we don't have a real, strong want for something it'll be no big deal when we don't get it, or it doesn't happen. On the other hand, when we're strongly feeling desire for something, and it doesn't happen or we can't have it, we're going to tend to feel strongly bummed, even though we'll still live without it. Whatever example you can conjure up? Figure that feeling sexual desire is feeling like you did when you wanted that, just about sex or sexuality.
Of course, desire isn't always completely overwhelming. It doesn't always -- or even often -- leave someone feeling it breathless and weak in the knees.
Sometimes, especially with someone or something new, at the start of a sexual relationship or when our sexuality, or some part of it, is just emerging, desire absolutely can be an overwhelming and very heady feeling. But it can also be more muted and quiet. Like the weather, it changes over time and rarely stays ithe same, even in a given season.
How strong our desire is, or what flavor it has, does not necessarily say anything about how awesome or pleasurable the sexual activity will be, but if the desire isn't strong at all or you're not sure you're feeling it in the first place, it is a good idea to proceed with caution, to go slowly and check in with yourself to see if you really are into it. More times than not, desire that's barely there equals sex that's pretty blah, too, just like eating when you don't feel hungry can feel unsatisfying and uncomfortable.
Should I Act on my Desire?
Now that you know how to recognize desire, let's talk about when and how to act on it.
Whether you act on the sexual feelings that you experience at any time is completely up to you. Though you can't really control when those feelings come up and who you feel them for -- nor what opportunities you will or won't have to act on them, especially if and when they invoplve other people -- you are in complete control over whether or not you want to act on them.
Feeling really into someone but they have proven to be someone it's not safe for you to be with? You get to decide not to be with them.
Feeling really curious about someone but you have made a monogamy agreement with someone else? You get to acknowledge those feelings, but make a choice that acting on them would cause more hurt than awesome.
On a great date with a person you are really into, and they have also expressed desire to be with you? You absolutely get to act on those feelings.
Have a great fantasy that's got you really excited and wanting to take some time for yourself to masturbate and enjoy it? You get to out that desire into action.
Or, you may make totally different choices in any of those situations, depending on who you are and what you want and feel best about. If you're looking for a little help when it comes to decision-making in high-stakes situations -- which sexual situations often are -- you might take a look at: Risky Business: Learning to Consider Risk and Make Sound Sexual Choices.
Your desires and feelings are not in control of you. I know that there are a lot of messages out there, some of which I brought up earlier, that can say that they are, but they're really not. They're just feelings, sometimes very strong ones, but you're still in control of them, and what you do or don't do with them is still always up to you. You're the driver: they're the car, not the other way round.
That's great, because that means you get to call the shots. But it is also a great responsibility, because it means that sometimes you may have to say "no" to something you really want, but know is not in your or the other person's best interest. Even those moments can feel good and empowering in their own way: knowing that you are respecting your own boundaries, or a partner's boundaries, can be a pretty great feeling.
An important thing to know and realize is that, even when you have desires you know it is better not to act on, those desires are not things you need to think of as "bad" or "wrong." They are your feelings, you can't really control them, and you get to feel however you do. The important part is being able to recognize, and respect, when a fantasy or feeling is not safe or okay -- for yourself, others or both -- to be put into action.
And of course, sometimes, even when we have feelings that we COULD act on - feelings for someone who is available and who also reciprocates those feelings - we might feel better not acting on those desires, or not acting on them right away. Just because everything looks great on paper does not mean that you have to seize the opportunity. You are never obligated to do anything, and if you'd rather wait on something, or not engage in it, that is fine, too. The good stuff usually keeps until we feel like the time for it is really right.
Whether you're feeling desire for someone else or are craving some quality time with yourself, whether feelings for someone else are reciprocated or not, whether you can or want to act on them or not, desire is usually a pretty intense and exciting feeling. Just like anticipation of something you are really excited about can sometimes be as good as the thing itself, so desire can often be a great feeling all in itself. And since no one can read your mind, your thoughts are yours to entertain and enjoy, regardless of what you chose to do about them.
How you feel about desire, though, can and may vary just like how people feel desire can. When feelings of sexual desire are new, even though they're exciting, they can also feel nervewracking or even a little scary. There are also lots of messages out and about that make desire seem like some kind of big monster that takes people over or is coming to get you, and those ideas and messages can make something that otherwise feels thrilling feel pretty iffy. If you're hearing a lot about how this kind of desire is good, but that kind is bad, or that this level of desire is sexy, but this other level, or way of experiencing it, isn't, that's more that can feed anxiety about desire, or big worries about it.
Just know that feelings of desire -- whatever it feels like for you, however much it happens or doesn't, however strong or mild it may feel -- are really value-neutral: they're not good or bad, right or wrong, they're just feelings, feelings we will generally have in some respect just by virtue of being alive and engaged in living. Feelings of desire also usually, like sex, will tend to be fun when we can let them be, whether they're feelings we act on or not.
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