Sexual Desire vs Sexual Interest

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Like every sex therapist, I spend hours every week talking to men, women, and couples about desire.

People want more of it, or they want their partners to have more of it, or they want more desire for the person with whom they’re involved.

“Don’t get me wrong,” Jon tells me, “I love my wife. I just don’t feel that same passion like I once did.” “Don’t get me wrong,” says Maria, “my boyfriend’s great, my friends love him. But these days I’d rather watch a good movie with him than have sex with him.”

I’ve been hearing this every week for over 30 years.

The truth is, most people in long-term, monogamous relationships notice a decline in sexual desire in themselves, their partner, or both. In some couples it happens soon after they move in together; in others, soon after their first child is born. Sometimes it happens only six or twelve months after two people become a couple. That’s hardly “long-term,” but it isn’t rare.

For most people, a decline in sexual desire is almost always followed by a decline in sexual frequency. While that might seem totally obvious, it doesn’t have to be. Desire and willingness can be separate moods, although most people think they’re pretty much the same.

“Like without that horny feeling,” says Yuki, “who’s gonna have sex?”

I am NOT saying people should have sex when they actively don’t want to. I do NOT believe in “duty sex” or “fake it till you make it” or any other excuse for people to suffer through sex they don’t want.

There are lots of good reasons that a healthy person might actively not want sex. They might be angry, hurt, or scared. They might be so troubled about some non-sexual thing that they can’t relax and mentally put it aside. They might be battling a cold or backache. They might anticipate conflict during the sex, or feeling used afterwards.

But actively not wanting sex is different from being neutral, or not-turned-on, or sort-of-willing-if-the-other-person-does-most-of-the-work.

However, if adults in committed relationships are waiting for that omigod-I-gotta-have-it-right-now feeling before considering sex, they may be waiting for the rest of their lives. Because that feeling is unusual after the initial rush of the relationship passes. Besides, there’s the reality of aging: as we get older, a combination of biology and psychology means most people feel sexual desire less and less urgently.

My patients (and the therapists I train) hate when I say this. Almost everyone has had that thrilling sense of yearning for someone, and giving it up is painful. For some people it feels like the end of their youth. For others it feels like the end of the world. “How can sex be any good without that feeling?” asks Deepu mournfully.

That’s the challenge of adult sexuality: participating and enjoying it when we’re not on fire. It can definitely be done–especially if you don’t expect to feel on fire as part of sex.

Increasing desire itself is great if someone can do it. It’s one reason people drink alcohol when they think they might have sex. Different people try lingerie, new bedroom tricks, going to strip clubs together, role-playing, and flirting with others in front of their partner. Hey, whatever works. But the impact of these is usually temporary, the effects generally fading within a few hours or few days.

So for most people, igniting passion may not be the best route to more or better sex over time. Instead of increasing passion, we should consider reimagining sex and sexual interest, and rethink how we make sexual decisions. We can decide that sex is a reasonable thing to do with this person at this time. Or at an upcoming time that seems practical. We can conceive of our partner as someone familiar whom we like, with whom we can communicate and laugh, and with whom we can have a bit of sex.

Not “romantic”? Correct. Real life actually isn’t.

In our youth, erotic activities like kissing, caressing, exploring, and teasing (what people diminish by calling it “foreplay”) are about getting the bodies ready for sex.

As we get older, and as sex and relationships offer less novelty, these erotic activities are more about preparing our minds for sex—re-creating mutuality, and agreeing to set aside the day’s mundane resentments, concerns, and unresolved life questions. Each person decides to create and enter a special sexual space with the other—entering not urgently, but consciously.

Each one brings their body along to share.

The result can be relaxed, enjoyable sex with a good friend, someone we perhaps live with and even share our destinies. Not intense sex we hunger for, but pleasant sex we accept.

This model is in direct contrast with pornography, which is a constant display of intense desire, a nonstop literature of desire’s supposed ease and availability. Actual adult life simply can’t match that. Of course, adults are similarly challenged by the constant pageant of attractive, ripe young men and women in public everywhere. “Easy to desire that,” my patient Sophie laments.

And the siren song of infidelity, with its easy passion, is a nonstop trope of film, TV, and internet. Aside from being nineteen years old, infidelity is probably the easiest life situation in which to feel irrational, imperative craving.

Which is exactly what so many people want: desire, passion, and hunger, as long as we have confidence that sooner or later, it will be redeemed and we will be fulfilled.

But as with many other things in adulthood, to move ahead and grow into new possibilities we have to accept the loss of something we’ve valued. When we accept that “sexual interest” today won’t feel so much like “sexual desire” yesterday—or the “desire” we fantasize having for people and situations that are off-limits—we can actually have sex today.

With that best friend of ours we’ve been living with, or co-parenting with, or creating a future with. Probably not sex that drives us crazy—but sex that can help keep us sane.

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