I spend a lot of time battling sex myths – common misconceptions that people have about sex and their bodies that, if left unchallenged, can
produce results that range from hilarious to harmful. Two of the most pervasive myths that I spend my time deconstructing are (1) that humans have a specific part of their brains devoted to sex and (2) that humans have an innate “drive” to be sexual. Neither of these things are true, and it’s important that people understand that. When folks believe these misconceptions, it can make it feel like there’s something wrong with them or their relationship when they experience extreme highs or lows in sexual desire (libido) or when their bodies don’t sexually perform (arousal) the way they expect them to.
Libido & Arousal (Warning: Science ahead).
Libido happens in your mind; arousal happens in your body. Libido is just another way to talk about sexual desire, and it’s much more accurate than describing desire as a “drive.” Libido is emotional and psychological. Arousal, on the other hand is your body’s physiological response to sexual stimuli – also known as your Sexual Response Cycle. They inform each other, but they aren’t the same thing. Sexual mechanisms in your mind and body are managed by processes that scientists call The Dual Control Model of Sexuality (Bancroft & Janssen, 2000) and the Sexual Tipping Point Model (Perelman, 2006, 2009, 2018).
These models posit that you have two systems controlling your libido and arousal at any given time: The Sexual Inhibition System (SIS) and the Sexual Excitation System (SES). To grossly oversimplify this concept, your brain is constantly scanning your environment for sexually relevant cues. Environmental cues that are sexual suppressors activate your SIS. These are what Perelman (2018) called the NOT cues. Environmental cues that are deemed “sexually relevant” – also called sexual inciters – activate your SES. Perelman called these the Hot cues.
Imagine a giant scale with sexual suppressors (“NOT” cues) on one side and sexual inciters (“Hot” cues) on the other. Some environmental cues are neither Hot or NOT. They’re neutral or unknown/irrelevant, and they wouldn’t end up on the scale, or they would stack neatly in the middle so as not to impact the balance.
When the NOT cues outweigh the Hot, the Sexual Tipping Point dips to the negative (inhibition/SIS), which means a dip in libido that also inhibits the activation of your sexual response cycle. When the Hot cues outweigh the NOT, the Sexual Tipping Point dips toward the positive (excitation/SES), which means a peak in libido that excites/arouses the activation of your sexual response cycle.
Hot or NOT.
So, what sorts of things are Hot cues and what sorts of things are NOT? Well, that depends. Mental, emotional, physical, and behavioral cues can all be either Hot or NOT. Whether or not we find something to be a turn on (Hot) or a turn off (NOT) is completely individual and often impacted by our upbringing, culture, relationships, sexual orientation, fantasy life, medical history, and more. Libido and arousal can also shift and change over time, even in small spaces of time like over the course of a few hours. Something that seems like a very Hot cue before you masturbate can suddenly become very NOT after you climax.
If you’re experiencing a dip in your libido, or an unexpected delay/lack of reaction in your sexual response cycle, according to this model you either have too many sexual suppressors in your environment, or not enough sexual inciters. Put more simply, you have too many NOT cues and/or not enough Hot cues. Taking care of NOT cues can sometimes be as simple as cleaning up your room, getting a bite to eat, taking a nap, or getting in the shower. Other NOT cues, however, are not so easily Marie Kondo-ed away. Stress, for example, is a very important, all-too-common, and hard-to-overcome sexual suppressor, and frequently the types of things that cause chronic stress are not easily fixed or tidied up. Trauma, pain, and chronic illness are also sexual suppressors that require more of a long-game approach to managing. Because of this, it is often easiest to add Hot cues to your environment while you work on identifying and managing your NOT cues.
Engaging your senses.
What we know about sexual variety and human fantasy indicates that nearly any environmental cue could potentially be sexually relevant,
depending on the people involved and the context of their situation. The most effective and robust sexual experience, by this logic, is going to be an immersive one that engages all your senses – most importantly your sense of creativity. And, while some sexual cues surprise us (ever smell a cologne or hear a song that turns you on when you didn’t expect it to?), thanks to Classical Conditioning (remember Pavlov and his dogs?), we know that humans do have some control over which cues in our environment we determine to be relevant to our sexual interests. For example, if you lit a sandalwood candle every single time you wanted to knock boots with your lover, eventually the smell of sandalwood would turn your undies into a slip-n-slide. We see this at work most frequently when we fall in love with someone who has a habit that we find annoying at first and endearing as time goes on, or when we start to be aroused by the perfume our lover wears when we never would’ve noticed it before. I’ve heard folks say that watching their partner take off their glasses is a huge turn on, and then realize it’s because they always take off their glasses right before sex.
Tipping the scales.
Moving forward, start paying attention to your NOT cues. Look for small NOT cues you can get out of the way, like making sure you always have clean sheets on your bed or keeping your email notifications down to a manageable level. Come up with a game plan for managing the NOT cues you have resources to manage and ask for help with resources you need assistance to access. This is not an easy process for everyone, so cut yourself some slack and celebrate big and small wins in this department.
Also, start looking out for Hot cues. More specifically, consider setting up small rituals around your Hot cues to get the most out of them. Light a favorite candle, turn on a favorite song or playlist, dab on a special cologne, grab a pair of undies that make you feel good. Be consistent about what these things are and over time you’ll realize that you begin to associate them with sexy time quickly and easily.
Teamwork makes the dream work. Talk to your partner(s) about their Hot and NOT cues. See where your cues overlap, where they work together, and where they clash. For example, if vanilla is a Hot cue for you and NOT cue for them, you may want to pick a different candle.
Finally, don’t forget to be creative and engage all of your senses in this process, even emotional and mental processes. Maybe you need to meditate or journal before getting busy, to help take your mind off your to-do list. Perhaps talking through conflicts or discussing important plans can get business out of the way so you feel free to party.
You know yourself best. It can take time to figure out what your Hot and NOT cues are and remember that these things can be fluid. Enjoy the process.
*This article first appeared in the Kink Crate handbook. For more info on Kink Crate, go here.