Do you remember what it was like to be a kid when playgrounds were still a thing?
Before iPhones and tablets? Remember the simple exhilaration of the monkey bars on your friend's neighborhood playground that you only played on every once in a while? Or better yet, the feeling of seeing a huge slide you'd never ridden?
As children, we relished in these moments of discovery. We didn't censor our excitement or enthusiasm. We felt the drive to explore, to bathe in the excitement of what was new and unknown.
As adults, we haven't lost this interest. It's just, perhaps more...subdued. We don't get excited as much at the simple things in life for fear of social judgment or maybe because we've been through some shit in our lives that has suffocated our enthusiasm.
The one exception is sex.
Sexual desire is the adult's playground.
It's the one place where we still want to enthusiastically explore and be explored. We want to visit unknown places and have unfamiliar experiences. We want to experience ourselves in different ways, to know that we are still a novel experience.
Sexual desire is life energy. It's one of the only naturally occurring human emotions that works to reaffirm the feeling of being alive.
So maybe this is why it sucks so much when it starts to drift away. We will do almost anything to keep it alive. We'll watch adult erotica. We'll pray. We'll go to therapy or talk to our barbers. Anything to come up with solutions to the slow death of a life without desire.
What causes sexual desire?
I remember a number of years ago I was watching Oprah interview Toby Macguire for a film in which he had to lose a bunch of weight. At the time, Oprah was running a special about weight loss and her recent health goals. She asked Toby how he lost the weight for the film and he slyly told her he had discovered the secret of weight loss. Oprah, in her perfect timing and anticipation, looked through Toby with eagerness to learn both for herself and her viewers what this secret was. After a brief pause, Toby exclaimed, "diet and exercise," and the audience let out a predictable groan.
I don't know why I remember this conversation, but I think it has something to do with how critical I am of what seem to me to be snake oil marketing strategies to sell weight loss that all come down to the same thing: we need to move our bodies more and eat only what the earth produces in moderation.
Sexual desire works this way too. Desire is the result of an emotional response to erotic cues. And erotic cues are about as plentiful as the cells that make up the human brain. Eroticism is sexual energy, and it's also sexual meaning making.
What one person finds erotic, another person finds disgusting. And each person's interest is uniquely hers or his, deserving of respect and curiosity. For this reason, the answer to the question, "What causes sexual desire?" is kind of like Toby Macguire's answer to Oprah's question of "what's the secret to losing weight?"
It's unbelievably complex and also the simplest thing.
Sexual desire is caused by a non-judgmental acceptance of erotic interest. It's the motivation to be sexual with one's own self or with others. It's the creative longing that occurs when a person feels turned on by sounds, images, sensations, touches, kisses, breaths, movements or feelings. In the sex therapy field, we've moved away from focusing on sexual function - like arousal (the body's physical response to desire) to focusing on desire itself.
We've done this because we know that desire is the engine of sexual function.
For so long, we've thought that if a man has a problem with an erection or a woman has a problem with lubrication or orgasm, then this must be the result of a psychological or physical dysfunction. But we know through research and sex therapy that this isn't always the case. In fact, most sex therapy problems are related to desire, not function.
Researchers have different things to say about where desire comes from. Relationship experts like Sue Johnson and John Gottman say that desire is the result of a securely attached relationship where intimacy flourishes. Sexual health experts like Esther Perel say that desire and intimacy are different. Perel actually argues that desire and intimacy can sometimes work against each other. Skeptical about this?
Have you ever shared a bathroom with a lover?
True intimacy is cleaning up after each other and holding each other's heads over the toilets because no one else will. Because of this, intimacy and desire sometimes compete.
Remember that feeling of exploring an unknown playground? It was exciting partly because it was new. Something different. And this is at the heart of Perel's argument. Desire is sustained not by what we know, but by what we don't know. So because of this, she asks the fundamental question at the heart of long-term committed relationships:
How do we desire what we already have?
If you've ever felt your sexual desire for your partner start to fade, you may have asked yourself this question.
Conventional thinking says that the answer is to draw closer. And sometimes that's true. Some people can't turn themselves on until they feel close to their partner. This is a healthy part of being in a committed relationship, but that's not how everyone works. For some people, too much closeness can kill desire. In these cases, desire has to be rekindled by individuality, by otherness.
Remember when your partner was like that unexplored playground? Remember the first time you saw her lead the company-wide meeting and were so impressed by her command of her colleagues? Remember how much you wanted to be able to work a room like she did?
Now, perhaps, you've spent so many years with her you've forgotten just how different she is. Just how other. You've focused so closely on all her faults that you know them just as well as your own neighborhood playground. You've forgotten to explore the hidden areas of her that ring of novelty and excitement.
She's still that woman who can impress you. She's still that person who can captivate a room full of ambitious suits and can inspire creativity and growth.
This is the secret to keeping desire alive.
We don't get bored with our partners. We get bored with ourselves. When we fail to see our partners as people who are capable of constant growth and change, it's probably because we're relying on them too much to create a sense of novelty for us.
When we were kids, we didn't stop playing on the playground because it bored us. We just found new ways to play. We had to. It wasn't the playground that changed; it was us. We imagined ourselves as something different when we slid down the same slide. We put on a capes and costumes and flew across the same bridge that was there before and would remain there, but it was different this time, because we were different.
That's how we sustain desire. Not by accusing our partners of not caring or demanding that they change.
We sustain desire by committing to our own constant growth. I know it's not that simple for everyone, but it's a good starting point for most. Fading desire is usually not only caused by what we think. Sometimes we have our own role to play in why our partners seem unresponsive, cold or boring.
Sexual desire starts with you. Your own self-confidence. Your own interests. In some ways, sexual desire is at its peak when you invite your partner into the world that you've created for yourself and watch their awe. Then you realize the most powerful thing: