What Is Responsive Sexual Desire?

When people think about sexual desire, they often think about spontaneous desire, which is internal arousal or desire to connect with a partner. However, the motivation for sexual activity is not always spontaneous. In fact, it often occurs in response to starting sexual activity or sexual stimulation. This is known as responsive desire.

Responsive sexual desire is an important concept when it comes to intimacy between sexual partners, especially for those who are in long-term relationships. Sometimes, an individual may choose not to engage in sexual activity with their partner because they are not “in the mood” or they do not feel turned on. While this feeling is completely normal, and no one should ever feel pressured to have sex if they do not want to, there may be circumstances in which starting sexual activity will actually spark sexual desire.

Several qualitative studies on the female sexual response cycle have commented on the role of responsive desire in sexual interactions, noting that women often experience sexual arousal before sexual desire. This suggests that people, (perhaps women in particular,) may not need to feel sexual desire at the start of sexual activity, but may gain the feeling as the activity progresses.

That said, it is important to note that desire is a very complex, highly personal experience that can change over time. Different life circumstances and/or phases are likely to impact a person’s level of sexual desire, and this is generally no cause for concern. For example, new parents who are contending with a host of responsibilities and (often) significant sleep deprivation may feel less inclined to engage in sexual activity for a period of time. Similarly, if one member of a couple is diagnosed with a serious medical condition, this person may want or require a hiatus from sexual activity in order to allow their body time to heal.

Additionally, sexual desire can be impacted by certain medications, changes in hormones, and other medical conditions. Given all of the factors that can impact desire, it would be unrealistic to believe that responsive sexual desire will take effect any time a couple initiates sexual activity. Nevertheless, it may be useful for partners to try engaging in sexual activity on occasion even when they are not in the mood for it because responsive sexual desire may kick in, and the experience may even enhance desire for future interactions.


  • Carvalheira, A. A., Brotto, L. A., & Leal, I. (2010). Women's motivations for sex: Exploring the diagnostic and statistical manual, text revision criteria for hypoactive sexual desire and female sexual arousal disorders. The journal of sexual medicine7(4), 1454-1463. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1743-6109.2009.01693.x

  • Sand, M., & Fisher, W. A. (2007). Women's endorsement of models of female sexual response: The nurses' sexuality study. The journal of sexual medicine4(3), 708-719. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1743-6109.2009.01425.x

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