Which Comes First? Desire? Or Sex?

Efforts to pique desire may put the erotic cart before the horse.

Posted Apr 16, 2012

For most men, libido is a “drive” that propels them toward sex. They want it and they go after it. But recent studies show that when many women, perhaps most, begin sexual encounters, they feel erotically neutral. Then, according to Rosemary Basson, M.D., a clinical professor of psychiatry at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, if they enjoy the sex, they eventually experience desire. In other words, for many women, possibly a majority, desire is not the cause of sex, but its result.

The idea that desire follows good sex turns conventional notions of libido upside down. But Basson’s insight also provides perspectives that can help men and women better understand each other and enjoy greater sexual satisfaction.

Women Really NEED Extended Warm-Up Time

Many supplements claim to boost women’s libido, and since Viagra, drug companies have been hot to develop drugs that pique desire in women. But if Basson is correct—and all the sexologists I’ve interviewed think she is—then drugs and supplements may be putting the erotic cart before the horse.

The question is not: What provokes women’s desire? The real question is: What kind of lovemaking allows women to feel relaxed, protected, and cherished enough to enjoy sex and eventually experience desire?

That’s easy. In dozens of sex surveys over the past 40 years, women say they prefer leisurely, playful, sensual lovemaking based on whole-body mutual massage that eventually (after 30 to 45 minutes) leads to genital caresses. Women’s top erotic complaint is that men are too rushed and too focused on female breasts and genitals, that men are all finished before women have even become interested. Viewed through the lens of Basson’s work, this makes perfect sense. The classic, porn-inspired male “wham, bam” style of sex doesn’t allow women the warm-up time they really need to feel sufficiently relaxed and valued so they can experience desire.

So, ladies, if you feel sexually neutral as an erotic interlude begins, you’re normal. If you’re “slow” to become aroused, you’re normal. If you like lots of kissing and cuddling and massage before things progress to genital sex, you’re normal.

And gentlemen, if you want her to feel turned on, if you want her to want you, then slow down, then slow down more. Kiss her, hold her close, and gently caress every square inch of her body from her scalp to her feet for at least 30 minutes before you touch her breasts or genitals.

“I’m Not In the Mood”

Basson’s discovery also sheds light on desire differences. After relationships’ initial hot-and-heavy period (six months to a year), desire cools, and one person—usually, but not always, the man—wants sex more than the other—typically the woman. Desire differences are virtually inevitable in long-term relationships, and often become festering sores. This joke always gets a grim rise out of men: What’s foreplay to a man married 10 years? An hour of pleading. Today, desire differences are a leading reason why couples consult sex therapists.

Therapy is a good choice. Sex therapists have developed a deceptively simple yet remarkably effective program for resolving desire differences: Negotiate how often you’d like to make love, then pull out your calendars and schedule it in advance.

Of course, this opens a can of worms. Many people have strong feelings about sexual frequency, and many lower-desire folks cringe at scheduling, saying, “What if I’m not in the mood?”

There’s no “normal” sexual frequency, but for the record, the University of Chicago’s landmark “Sex in America” survey showed that from age 20 to 60, most couples make love from twice a week to twice a month, with lovers under 40 typically reporting four to six times a month and those over 40 doing it on average three times a month.

As for reluctance to schedule sex, women who feel that way are probably in the large group Basson has identified, those who don’t experience desire until they’re well into good sex. Sex therapists urge lower-desire lovers to temporarily shelve their doubts and try scheduling for a few months. If they don’t like it, they’re free to stop. But typically, initial reluctance yields to a pleasantly surprised admission that scheduling works quite well. It also improves things out of bed. It reduces resentments and contributes to a happier relationship.

Basson’s research focuses only on women. But therapists say that in serious desire differences, about one-third of the time, the lower-desire partner is the man. It’s possible that these men are like so many women, not very interested in sex until things heat up.

If you want to resolve a long-term desire difference, start by reading my article, “’You’re Insatiable!’ ‘You Never Want To!’ The Sex Therapy Program That Treats Desire Differences.”

If the article does not provide sufficient resolution, I’d urge a few months of sex therapy. To find a sex therapist near you, visit the American Association of Sex Educators, Counselors, and Therapists, the Society for Sex Therapy and Research, or the American Board of Sexology.


Basson, R. “The Female Sexual Response: A Different Model,” Journal of Sex and Marital Therapy (2000) 26:51.

Michael. R.T. et al. Sex in America: A Definitive Survey. Little Brown, Boston, 1994.