Welcome to Episode 5 of F*ck Like a Woman. Have you ever wanted an explanation as to why you aren’t as horny as other girls, or maybe in your case, why you’re so much more horny than they are? Or have you ever been so incredibly turned on and really enjoying sex, but you just can’t quite orgasm? Or did you used to have such great sex with your man before your kids came along, but you almost never do now and yet you still really love him?
Well, I came across a very interesting and well researched theory to explain these disturbing phenomena when I was reading Emily Nagoski’s New York Times best seller book, Come As You Are, which I’m adding to my recommended reading list for you all (buy the book here). In the book, Nagoski explains what is called the Dual Control Model for sexual arousal, which was theorized in the 90s by Erick Janssen and John Bancroft at the Kinsey Institute. Okay, let’s skip to the part we actually care about.
The Dual Control Model is one of those concepts that is a game-changer if you want to understand why you do the things that you do, especially if you’re proactive like me and want to live life to the fullest. What you might not have known is that your central nervous system is made up of 2 regulating systems called your sexual accelerator and your sexual brakes, which control how and when you respond to sexual stimuli, so basically they control your sexual response. Not just that, but we’ll discuss how there are individual differences from person to person, which impact how we respond to the sexual world. These 2 systems relate to your mood and your environment a great deal, which complicate things even more. But don’t worry, because, spoiler alert, you just have to figure out how to turn on your accelerator and turn off your brakes, which we’ll talk about today.
As Nagoski explains in her book, Come As You Are, the central nervous system which is made up of your brain and spinal cord possesses a pairing of systems working together that she refers to as the accelerator and brakes. These 2 parts are your sexual excitation system, shortened to SES or ses, and the sexual inhibition system, shortened to SIS or sis.
As you probably imagine, the excitation system or SES, is what accelerates your sexual response and constantly scans your environment all day every day for anything sexually relevant like yummy cologne smells, the sexy way he looks when he’s lifting weights at the gym, the tingly touch of his hand as he plays with your hair, and of course anything else our senses pick up, including our imagination. The inhibition system, or SIS is what what tells you oh, no, don’t even go there! And it’s also scanning for the same environmental information to tell you what’s a threat and unwanted stimuli. Your SIS is like the gremlin on your shoulder giving you reasons not to be aroused. But it serves a purpose because it also prevents you from being turned on during less appropriate scenarios like say, when you’re making that sales pitch to a client. And it also brings everything to a screeching halt if something unwanted happens, like your kids walk in on you fooling around. In the inhibition system there are actually 2 brakes, one has higher intensity and fears higher level concerns like getting pregnant or STDs, whereas the other is less intense and worries more about low level concerns like body image and not being able to orgasm. Emily explains that most people struggling with arousal or desire think that it’s an issue of needing more accelerator, but in fact, it’s that they have too much brake.
Let’s talk arousability. This is simply switching on your accelerator and switching off your brakes. Your arousability depends on how sensitive they are to sexual stimulation, so how much intensity to your accelerator and how little intensity to your brakes. Your SES and SIS are traits that are pretty constant over your lifetime, but don’t worry because the good news is you can change your learned response to sexual stimulation to have more triggers that appeal to your accelerator, and you can also decrease the amount of things that put on your brakes. You can even change how you feel about the things that are currently putting on your brakes. As I mentioned before, every person has different sensitivities like, someone could have high excitation and high inhibition where all they need to do is remove what’s pushing the brakes to have a super great sex life. Or someone could have low excitation and high brakes, which would mean that if you took away all the potential brakes it would still probably take them a while to rev their engine up and get in the mood; 1-4% of women fall here with low desire and interest in sex, making it hard for them to get aroused and especially orgasm. For someone who has high excitation and low brakes, they might have a hard time preventing arousal, which could lead to compulsive sexual behavior; 2-6% of women fall here as highly motivated by sex. But most people, men and women, fall somewhere in the middle of the bell curve. Nagoski reaffirms that all combinations of SIS and SES are completely normal, even the ones on the higher and lower range. Even more interesting is that no matter your accelerator, sensitive brakes are the most accurate predictor of sexual problems of any kind.
If you want to know where you fall on the spectrum, Emily Nagoski has posted the Sexual Temperament Questionnaire on her website that anyone can download. I’ll make sure to put links to her website on the show’s synopsis. Nagoski advises that this is not actual science, but rather an approximation.
The questionnaire helps you find where you fall in terms of both your brakes and your accelerator, so you’ll have 2 scores for each. Let’s go through some examples of the different combinations of people and where you might find yourself.
In terms of how intense your brakes are, you might be either low, medium, or high.
If you have low intensity brakes, then you’re the kind of person who doesn’t really have a lot holding you back from having sex. You probably aren’t concerned with body image or being in your head too much; you don’t find many reasons why you shouldn’t have sex, and when you’re in the heat of the moment, you’re ALL IN. Sometimes you might find it hard to think of a reason not to have sex so it might be a challenge to keep it in your pants. Nagoski says about 15% of the women she’s asked, fall here.
If you have medium intensity brakes, then you share this trait with about 50% of women. You’re the kind of person who can get horny if the context is right. You’re more likely to be able to let go if you’re in a familiar context where you know your partner and can predict how it’s gonna go down. If you have a new partner or new risky situation, you’re probably going to put on the brakes. And if your mood or stress levels go up, like if you’re anxious or depressed, your interest in sex goes down and so does your ability to focus on it while you’re having it. You basically close your doors for business.
If you have high intensity brakes, then you’re with about 25% of women, Nagoski says. You are closed for business almost all year round. You need lots of trust and familiarity to be turned on. And you really don’t want to feel pressured or rushed, that just makes it worse. You probably have a hard time staying focused on sex. If this is you, Nagoski has a sexy context worksheet that I’ll link to in the show notes.
Let’s move on to the intensity of your accelerator, which will be either low, medium, or high.
If you have a low sensitive accelerator, then you probably don’t get sexually aroused out of the blue. More than likely, you have to be very intentional with how you choose to focus your energy on things that get your wheels turning, in fact, you might identify a little with asexuality. Much like having a highly sensitive brake, you need lots of familiarity in your sexual scenarios, and actually you need higher intensity stimulus to ignite your dulled accelerator. You need to turbo charge your sexual stimuli. Nagoski says these women could benefit from using a vibrator and daily attention put toward your sensual side, kind of like exercising a muscle. If this is you, you’re part of 8% of women.
If you have a medium sensitive accelerator, you fall in with roughly 70% of women. Just like with a medium brake, you’re most likely going to be sexually interested if you have the right context, which is a pretty reasonable fix. But with a medium accelerator, you’d be ready to ride if the romance and eroticism was on point. If not, then sex probably isn’t on your radar at all. These women just need a little fuel and it can pretty easily turn into a bonfire. You just need to increase how many sexy contextS you put yourself in and then you’re livin the good life!
If you have a highly sensitive accelerator, look out! You might put your silky bathrobe on after a shower and be ready to get frisky! You probably have a highly erotic appreciation for all things naughty, like things that most people would never even associate with sex. And this does NOT make you a slut. You also likely get a lot of satisfaction out of making your partner orgasm because you’re so sensitive to arousal. Let’s hope your partner can appreciate this quality in you. 🙂 You probably have a wide range of scenarios that are sexually interesting to you, and might even use it as a way to de-stress. The only thing is that sometimes this comes along with sexual compulsivity so if it’s become unbalanced and you’re starting to notice you’re regretting some of those decisions you made while in the heat of the moment, then consider other physical alternatives to getting the stress out like working out. Nagoski says about 16% of women fall here with a super sensitive radar for any and all things sexual.
So what does all this mean? If you scored somewhere in the middle, you’re in the same boat as about half the population. If you were in the high or low range, you’re in a much smaller pool so you might be one of those women who has had a harder time relating to others. This is perfectly normal. Now you get to figure out how and what to put more attention on depending on where you are if you find it to be problematic.
So here’s the part where you might be like, ya I could have guessed that. Across the whole population, men have more sensitive accelerators and women have more sensitive brakes, but the interesting thing is that within the male population and within the female population there is much more variation within each group than a difference from men to women. Basically women vary more from each other than they vary from men as a whole, and have a much wider range of responses to questions like, how often would you like to have sex? And the same goes for men. So turns out, we’re more similar with men than we might have thought.
Interestingly enough, 10-20% of men and women experience more sexual interest when they’re depressed or anxious. In this scenario, the man has a less sensitive brake and the woman has a more sensitive accelerator. Which, the fact that someone is more interested in sex during stressful times, implies that these 2 systems are very much impacted by other motivations systems in the brain, like stress response. So your mood and anxiety levels have a lot more to do with your arousability than whether you’re a man or woman.
Okay so now we get to my favorite part, what turns you on? I’m about to blow your mind with the most interesting part about this whole topic: almost nothing is innately sexually arousing. Yup, isn’t that crazy?
People aren’t born knowing what’s sexy. Your brain has to figure out what are sexually relevant stimuli versus what are threats. It’s actually a process of learning that information, just like other culturally-specific information, like learning a language or developing an accent. Depending on what environment you’re in as you’re learning, you’re going to learn different things with different tastes, different taboos, and different threats. We learn what’s sexually relevant through experience and association. You teach your excitation and inhibition systems what you like and don’t like. This explains why the things that we were gross and disgusting as little girls and boys are now the things we fantasize about as adults. Or why if you take your sexual tastes at 20 years old and fast forward to age 45, they will be different, probably a little kinkier. Your appetite and tastes evolve as you engage in different sexual activities and through association, or as I call it, cultural osmosis. There are more pieces to this puzzle that explain how our preferences evolve and strengthen, such as what’s going on with our brain chemistry and hormonal cocktails as we click on increasingly taboo porn videos, but it’s a good start.
There are lots of different theories out there that attempt to explain the differences between the sexual programming between boys and girls. Nagoski’s book explains the one that makes the most sense to her as a sex educator and researcher. In this theory, when a little boy has an erection as a very small child, because there is a physically visible change to his body that he can actually see happening, he attributes the erection to both something in his external environment and the pleasurable feelings that come with it. But because girls don’t have a visible physiological change to look at and make associations to learn what caused it, they look to the social context of their environment to link what caused their arousal. Little girls don’t even know there’s a whole physiological change happening in their genitalia, so when they feel pleasure and arousal they look to the person in their environment to figure out what’s sexually relevant.
Also, as girls start their menstrual cycle, depending on where they are in that cycle, their brain will either be more or be less primed to link the external prompts of potential sexual stimuli to her internal arousal. Because girls have more variation in their hormones than boys whose hormones don’t fluctuate, it usually takes girls longer to learn what’s sexually relevant and when they do, it’s more connected to the social context and they’re more prone to experience a mismatch between what their genitals are doing and their arousal level.
This is all so fascinating to me. Now, you might be wondering, how much can I alter my excitation and inhibition systems? It’s a good question. Evidence suggests there’s very little we can do to change the propensity of your excitation and inhibition systems, but you can change what these systems respond to to a certain degree. This is great news. You can change what your brakes think is threatening and you can also change the amount of threats in your environment. For example, if your sexual brakes think that a well lit room is a threat, you have a couple choices here: you can either retrain your mind to be okay having sex in broad daylight (which might be a little harder to do), or you can minimize the threat itself by just turning off all the lights or having sex by candlelight. Other common threats to your brakes would be things like having your kids sleeping in bed with you, having doors that don’t lock, having thin walls, worrying about STDs or pregnancy, worrying about your sexual reputation if you sleep with this person, struggling with self-esteem and body image, or being really stressed out.
And even better news is that you can apply the same logic to your sexual accelerator! Just increase the sexually relevant stimuli by changing the context to something more conducive to getting you in the mood. To do this thoroughly, you’ll need to sit down with a pen and paper and actually go through both some of your not so good and really good sexual experiences from your past and clearly articulate what was it, specifically, that made it either not good or good. You’re trying to extract the elements from each context that vibed or didn’t vibe with you. I’ll put a link to Nagoski’s worksheets in this episode’s synopsis. And my recommendation for expanding your scope of sexual stimuli is by doing some fun exploration with your partner. Kind of like what you did when you were in high school and fooling around with your boyfriend. You didn’t know where it was going to lead, there was no script to follow, you just tried things and had fun exploring and playing. It was much less outcome driven then and more about playful pleasure.
Well, I hope you all learned some good info about your sexual accelerator and sexual brakes that will hopefully help you tweak your sex life and your romantic life in the direction that you want it to be. Remember that almost nothing we find sexually appealing was innate in us at birth, we had to learn those things. So the good news is that even though we don’t know enough yet on how to change our excitation and inhibition systems themselves, we do know that we can affect how much sexual stimuli we bring forth into our lives and that with deliberate and focused attention, we even have the potential to change how we respond to our environment to neutralize threats and transform non-sexual stimuli into sexual stimuli with mental programming. Pretty amazing, right?
Well, this wraps up today’s show. Stay tuned for the next episode of F*ck Like a Woman, featuring our sexy story of the week about an unexpected attraction between a conservative accountant and a tattooed bartender.
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