Are you ever confused by your own sexual arousal? By what turns you on and when? Or… maybe you’re confused by your spouse. Why doesn’t she ever initiate sex? Why is he always so turned on? The “he” and “she” there are stereotypical — sometimes it goes the other way — but scientists have identified two different pathways to arousal that map onto these common perceptions. The two polarities are called “spontaneous desire” and “responsive desire”, and they lead to very different behavior that can confuse you and your spouse if you don’t recognize what’s happening.

Men typically (but not always) exhibit spontaneous desire. This polarity manifests as sexual desire that isn’t triggered by any obvious external factors. “Hey, I want to have sex!” Spontaneous desire motivates the initiation of sexual behavior. Spontaneous desire leads you to ask for a date, lean in for a kiss, test boundaries for touching, escalate a physical encounter, try new things, and risk rejection. These behaviors can be confusing for the recipient, because it may seem like the sexual behavior is coming out of nowhere — which it is. It’s spontaneous. The recipient of these behaviors may ask themselves things like:

  • “Why is he touching me now?”
  • Why does he want to do that?
  • “Why is he so persistent?”
  • “Again?”
  • “Does he think about anything besides sex?”

Women typically (but not always) exhibit responsive desire. This polarity manifests as sexual desire that grows after sexual behavior has started. “Oh, that feels good… I guess I am in the mood!” A person with responsive desire may seem to have a low libido because she doesn’t often initiate sex, and it can take some effort on her part to “get into the mood”. What’s especially interesting is that women often don’t even know when they’re aroused at first.

Men’s subjective ratings of arousal were in agreement with their body’s level of sexual arousal about 66 percent of the time, while women’s were in line only about 26 percent of the time.

“The general pattern that I have seen in my laboratory is that women experience a genital response but do not report feeling sexually aroused,” Chivers told LiveScience.

Women’s bodies often get aroused before their minds do. Crazy, huh? With responsive desire, sexual arousal will follow physical or mental sexual stimulation, and that stimulation usually comes from a husband who is trying to initiate sex. Without understanding this process, a husband may think things like:

  • “Why doesn’t she ever initiate sex?”
  • “I’ll wait for her to initiate this time.”
  • “Why do I have to try so hard to turn her on?”
  • “Isn’t she attracted to me? Doesn’t she want me?”
  • “Why doesn’t she suggest something new?”

Of course, there are no absolutes in life. Some men are more responsive, and some women are more spontaneous. What’s more, a person’s desire polarity may vary over time — especially for women, as their hormones change throughout their menstrual cycles.

Now that you know about spontaneous and responsive desire, what action can you take?

If you and your spouse are both spontaneous… well, you’re probably having sex all the time. Congrats!

If you are spontaneous and your spouse is responsive:

  • Don’t judge your responsive spouse for not being spontaneous.
  • Learn how to elicit sexual response from your spouse and recognize when she is getting turned on.
  • Be enthusiastic and persistent with initiation; don’t get frustrated that you initiate most of the time.

If you are responsive and your spouse is spontaneous:

  • Don’t judge your spontaneous spouse for not being responsive.
  • When your spontaneous spouse initiates sex, don’t immediately see it as an annoyance or distraction! Give your mind a body a chance to respond.
  • Learn to recognize your own arousal when your mind and body respond to your spouse’s initiation. It may not be obvious.

If you and your spouse are both responsive, you’re going to need to be extra intentional. Try one of our sex games or the random foreplay generator to initiate sex when you’ve got time, even if neither of you is particularly in the mood. Once you get started, you can both respond to the heat generated by the game!

Do you have any experiences to share? Any advice? Leave a comment!

We get many emails with variations on the question: how can I my spouse and I be more sexually spontaneous? Ironically, a little preparation can help! Put some lube and wet wipes in your purse, and you’ll be ready for spontaneity any time.

But how do you actually be spontaneous? If spontaneity doesn’t come naturally to your sex life, you can introduce a bit of randomness to help things along. We often use dice to make random choices and inspire our imaginations. Nothing is worse than two people both saying, “I don’t know, what do you want to do?” You don’t have to obey the dice, but you can use the random rolls to get your creativity flowing. Here are a few examples:

Those tables give you ideas for what and how to have sex, but the key to spontaneity is when. So here’s an idea for randomizing the time you have sex: use a deck of playing cards. Here are two possible methods.

Method 1: Draw a random card when you wake up in the morning. If the card is a number, an ace, or a jack (11), that’s the hour of the day you’re going to have sex. If it’s a king or queen, then the husband or wife has to secretly pick a time to ambush the other spouse and initiate. Advanced mode: a heart means to get naked, a diamond means to start with oral, a club means you have to use at least three positions, and a spade means it’s a quickie and draw again afterwards.

Method 2: Bring the deck of cards with you and set an alarm to go off every hour. When the alarm goes off, draw a card. If it’s a number between 2 and 9, do nothing and draw again the next hour. Otherwise:

  • Ten or Jack: Within the next hour you must have some serious physical foreplay for at least five minutes, but not to orgasm. Making out, fingering, oral sex, breast play. Get hot and heavy, but don’t finish.
  • Queen: The wife picks an appropriate location and initiates sex within the next hour.
  • King: The husband picks an appropriate location and initiates sex within the next hour.
  • Ace: Drop whatever you’re doing and immediately find a place to have sex.
  • Advanced mode: a heart means to get naked, a diamond means to start with oral, a club means you have to use at least three positions, and a spade means the initiator needs to add an extra kink (examples: spanking, tickling, teasing).

What do you and your spouse do to enhance spontaneity? Share some tips in the comments!

Everyone loves to be spontaneous when it comes to sex, and many couples feel that a lot of planning or scheduling can ruin the mood. However, a little advance preparation can grease the wheels (insert lubrication joke here) for future spontaneity. One of the biggest deterrents to spontaneous away-from-the-bedroom sex can be worrying about the aftermath: sex is messy! So here’s a simple tip: take an old wash cloth with you wherever you go. It’s easy to stash a washcloth in the glove box of your car, in your backpack, in your purse, or in your briefcase. You’ll be ready for spontaneous sex whenever you’ve got 10 minutes to kill alone with your spouse and you won’t have to worry about cleaning up.

Even for the bedroom Sexy Corte and I keep a drawer full of old wash cloths right next to the bed. We call them our “sex rags” — not a very sexy name, but very handy for after sex that isn’t near shower time.