YOUR SEX DRIVE, EXPLAINED

By: MIGHTY PURSUIT TEAM

Seeing our sex drive as an appetite has long been the predominant view of modern culture. Men hold the reputation for being red-blooded creatures, full of sexual energy and ready to pounce at any time. Women, on the other hand, have often been typecast as the more emotional gender with less of an appetite.  This idea of a sexual appetite has only grown louder in recent years, and now this talk includes both genders.  Look no further than Cardi B’s hit song W.A.P., a number one hit in 2020. To some, this song represented a coming out party for women. As the Guardian put it, “ [W.A.P.] isn’t shy or coy, it’s about the loud articulation of female desire for sex, as they want it, and it centers them as active participants with agency.” In our new “sex-positive” world, putting our sex drive into action is an “essential” component to our human happiness. Sexual desire and fantasy is to be embraced, freely and frequently. What do you do when you are hungry? Eat. The problem? “For centuries, scientists thought sex was a “hunger”. It’s probably how you think about it, too. It’s how I thought about it for a long time. But turns out, no,” writes prominent sex educator Dr. Emily Nagoski, who has taught at Harvard on sexuality. As Nagoski alludes to, we don’t truly understand how our sex drive works. While there are slivers of truth in the information above, much of it is a front that we’re forced into due to social expectations. And as a result, terrible advice about sex is being circulated and it is leading to the erosion of healthy relationships. In fact, some of the most popular ideas about sex have been scientifically proven to be cancerous for our romantic relationships.  As global relationship expert Dr. Sue Johnson puts it in Love Sense, “we are creating masses of avoidant men and anxious women.” More on that later. Science has much to say about our sex drive, including why we fantasize about certain things, why we get turned on and how often we get turned on, in addition to revealing clear differences in the way each gender is wired sexually.  What science has discovered about three components of our sex drive provides essential information for a healthy sex life. So let’s begin.

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SEXUAL FANTASIES

Have you ever wondered why you have certain sexual fantasies and not others?  In the 2010s, Dr. Justin Lehmiller conducted a study with over 4,000 Americans about the nature of their sexual fantasies. Aged 18 to 87, people went into remarkable detail, with the findings published in his 2018 book Tell Me What You Want. Because of the nature of the survey, it likely attracted a particular type of crowd that leans more liberal in their sexual ideology. This limited the diversity of the study in terms of worldview. Lehmiller admits, “the sample is not necessarily representative of the US population”. Nonetheless, his findings were eye-opening.  Some of the most common sexual fantasies were polyamory, BDSM, threesomes, gangbangs, partner sharing, taboo sex, forbidden sex and sexual flexibility (a rendezvous with someone of a different sexual orientation). Where is all of this coming from? Nagoski reveals the science in Come As You Are. “The process of learning what is sexually relevant and what is a threat works sort of like learning a language. We’re all born with the innate capacity to learn any human language, but we don’t learn a random language, right?,” Nagoski says. She equates this to learning English, “If you grow up surrounded by people who speak only English, there is no way you’ll get to kindergarten speaking French. You learn the language you are surrounded by.” If we constantly hear with our ears and see with our eyes that having sex with a friend’s mom is the ultimate fantasy, that starts affecting our arousal structure.  In other words, we don’t come out of the womb with predetermined sexual fantasies. Our cultural environment taught us to fantasize about gangbangs, about the “MILF” or to sensationalize sex with the bad boy. “You learn the sexual language you’re surrounded by. Just as there are no innate words, there appear to be almost no innate sexual stimuli. What turns us on (or off) is learned from culture,” Nagoski concludes. Porn has one of the largest influences over what we fantasize about. Lehmiller confirms this in Tell Me What You Want, “Our porn-viewing habits influence who and what we fantasize about.. For instance, the more porn that heterosexual men watch, the bigger women’s breasts are in their fantasies. Likewise, the more porn that heterosexual women watch, the bigger men’s penises are in their fantasies.” All it takes is to do a quick search of the most heavily-trafficked categories on porn websites to see how this rings true across the world. In 2019, “lesbian” ranked as the top category in the US, “hentai” was no. 1 in Russia and “anal” was at the top of the list in Morocco.  How could these be so different? Different people learned different sexual “languages” around the world, due to what they were exposed to.

But not all sexual fantasies are good, or even morally neutral.

For example, VICE featured an article in early 2023 on women who fantasize about having sex against their will. In his book, Lehmiller highlights a straight woman in her 20s with a similar fantasy. She wrote: “I want to be naked, tied up, and humiliated. I want to be shown zero mercy. I want to be beat, slapped, and spanked like I deserve. I want my partner to force me to do anything he wants no matter what. I want him and 10 of his buddies to hate f**k me while I cry because I secretly enjoy it. I want to be bent over and taken in public.. I want to feel like I am being raped and have absolutely no control and no say.”  Historically, one of the most common search terms on porn websites is “teen”. Sex workers and the websites themselves claim none of the people featured in these videos are underage. Not only is this a lie, but the very term itself is encouraging pedophilia fantasies. Remember, we learn the sexual “language” of our culture. In his book The Science of Trust, global relationship expert Dr. John Gottman details how women have told him some of the best sex they experienced was directly after physical abuse. If you’ve ever seen the Emmy-Award winning show Big Little Lies, this exact scenario plays out with Nicole Kidman’s character. Most people would agree that none of these sexual desires and fantasies are good, and would also agree that they shouldn’t be acted upon. The problem with our culture is the gray area, or things that people view as neutral sexual fantasies. They are seen as neither good nor bad, they just are. Things like threesomes, gangbangs, sharing of partners, casual sex, swinging, sex outside committed relationships and one-night-stands fall into this category. And in these instances, liberal sexual ideologies encourage people to act on these fantasies. Whatever feels good, go for it, as long as it’s legal and there is consent.  “The truth of the matter is that just because you fantasize about something doesn’t necessarily mean it would be a good idea to act on it,” Lehmiller writes. Much of the “gray area” fantasies have consistently been linked to avoidant attachment behaviors. Objectively, they aren’t good for us. To learn how to skillfully deal with our sexual desires and fantasies, we must understand the full scope of what science has revealed. We go into this extensively in our blogs on monogamy and attachment theory, but in short, attachment theory has confirmed that our ideal sexual environment is one that is a safe space with a committed, loving partner who we can openly communicate and express our feelings with and which we feel secure with. Nagoski says as much on Lehmiller’s podcast (min 37:23 - 38:03). Some have claimed that secure attachment is possible within non monogamy, citing the research of psychotherapist Jessica Fern. However, this research has been thoroughly debunked in our blog here. Brain chemistry, anthropology and attachment theory point in one direction: monogamy. As Dr. Johnson writes in Love Sense, “Love is vital to our existence.... Our need to depend on one precious other -- to know that when we “call,” he or she will be there for us --- never dissolves.. All of us may not be destined for a single, lifelong relationship, but we are naturally monogamous.” This may be surprising, even shocking, based on the narratives we constantly are downloading from the wider culture. Both men and women need secure attachments, and this provides the context for us to explore our sexual fantasies. One problem Lehmiller nails on the head is shame, which should cause us to consider the idea of confessing our sexual desires in safe spaces.   He writes in his book, “the more shame, embarrassment, and anxiety people feel about their sexual desires, the more likely they are to avoid talking about sex at all, and to experience sexual performance difficulties, finding it challenging to become (or stay) aroused or to reach orgasm.”  When things stay in the dark, nothing good happens. It’s only when it’s brought into the light that shame is eradicated. It’s important to be open about how we are feeling and what we are fantasizing about, especially to our spouses, as honesty is a hallmark of secure attachment.  We need healthy spaces to confess and process. Ultimately, our sexual fantasies and desires must be harnessed, which we’ll get into later in the blog.

SEXUAL SENSITIVITY

While the first scientific discovery revealed why we have certain sexual fantasies, this next discovery reveals how the arousal process works in our bodies. Our nervous system is like a car. When we get turned on, the sexual accelerator is being pressed. And when we get turned off, the sexual brakes are slammed. Developed in the 1990s by researchers Erick Janssen and John Bancroft, this system has been called the dual control model of sexual response. In Come As You Are, Nagoski explains, “the Sexual Excitation System (SES) is the accelerator of your sexual response. It receives information about sexually relevant stimuli in the environment – things you see, hear, smell, touch, taste or imagine – and sends signals from the brain to the genitals to tell them, “turn on!”” On the other hand, the Sexual Inhibition System (SIS) represents your sexual brake. Nagoski explains that, “it notices all the potential threats in the environment – everything you see, hear, smell, touch, taste or imagine – and sends signals saying, “Turn off!” It’s like the foot brake in a car, responding to stimuli in the moment.” This could be as simple as being in a sexually inappropriate environment, like having dinner with your parents, and naturally your brakes are pressed on. Some people have extremely sensitive brakes, meaning they are “very responsive to all the reasons not to be aroused,” Nagoski adds. The “turn on” system (SIS) and the “turn off” system (SES) are in part genetically determined, meaning we all are born with a baseline of sexual sensitivity. Most of us fall in the middle, but some of us are more sensitive to arousal and others more sensitive to the brakes. In other words, we are all plotted across the spectrum in terms of the baseline of horniness we feel on a daily basis. No one state is more “normal” than another. On average, men are more sexually sensitive than women. “At the population level, on average, men have a more sensitive accelerator. Women, on average, tend to have more sensitive brakes.”  But this doesn’t mean there aren’t extremely horny women, where the slightest thing could turn them on. As one of Nagoski’s clients tells her, “It can feel like my sex drive is constantly demanding my attention and won’t leave me alone.” It also doesn’t mean there aren’t men who struggle to get aroused.  On a statistical level, it may be true that more men are sexually sensitive than women, but every individual is different.

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SEXUAL LIBIDO

The next component of understanding how our sexual desire works is examining how it responds to sexual stimuli, sometimes known as your sexual libido. “The standard narrative of sexual desire is that it just appears– you’re sitting at lunch or walking down the street, maybe you see a sexy person or think a sexy thought, and pow! You’re saying to yourself, “I would like to have some sex,” Nagoski writes in Come As You Are. This is known as “spontaneous desire”, which is how it often works for 75 percent of men and 15 percent of women. “But some people find that they begin to want sex only after sexy things that are happening. They don’t have “low” desire, they don’t suffer from any ailment.. their bodies just need some more compelling reason than, “that’s an attractive person right there,” to want sex,” Nagoski adds. This is known as “responsive” desire, which is how 5 percent of men are wired, in addition to 30 percent of women. Particularly for women, much of what influences their responsive desire is the emotional connection. And when it comes to the rest of the population, the remaining 20 percent of men and 55 percent of women, their desire is context-dependent. Meaning, they could experience a range between spontaneous and responsive desire. This is partially why the cultural narratives about sex we learned about in the opening paragraphs are misrepresentations of how our sex drive works.

Songs like W.A.P. lead you to believe that some, if not most women, constantly are immersed in spontaneous desire where their sexual thirst just needs to be quenched. Since the reality is far different, it creates a disconnect for women.

“Some women feel disappointed [that they don’t have spontaneous desire]. Many of us have been taught that the capacity to want sex in almost any context is not only preferable, but actually the only “normal” way to experience desire. The spontaneous desire style is so privileged in our culture, so valued, that it’s easy to feel disempowered if that’s not your primary style,” Nagoski writes. The dual control system we just discussed above, is a partial influence in whether you experience spontaneous or responsive desire. Both responses are completely normal, meaning one is not “superior” or “better” than the other.

WHY THE DISCONNECT?

The findings related to sexual fantasies, sexual sensitivity and sexual libido lay an important foundation for understanding how our sex drive works from a scientific perspective.  Nagoski doesn’t like the term “sex drive” itself, because it communicates that sex is a need, which isn’t true. We go into that more in another blog here. When considering the findings, you can’t help but wonder how culture has deviated so far from science about the truth of our sex drive. First with the “do whatever you feel” narrative related to sexual fantasies. But then also surrounding the conversation on sex drive and gender. Just talking about gender differences in the first place has become controversial. “I know a lot of scientists who won’t speak publicly about any gender differences at all out of fear of backlash! That’s problematic. Scientists shouldn’t be afraid to talk about their data, and the public shouldn’t be so quick to bash scientists who publish research that reveals politically inconvenient or uncomfortable truths,” Lehmiller comments in Tell Me What You Want. There are big differences rooted in scientific fact. It’s clear that men are typically more sexually sensitive than women, in addition to experiencing spontaneous desire more often than women. Keep in mind that Nagoski is a self-proclaimed feminist, who is reporting on this data. But this isn’t the message we are hearing. Surprisingly, even prominent gynecologist Jen Gunther praised Cardi B’s W.A.P. for letting “women express themselves the same way men have been expressing themselves”.  On the increasingly popular Whatever podcast, which hosts a panel of women in their late teens to early twenties to talk sex and dating, we find women who regularly boast about having high body counts. So much so, that in a recent episode it was the first time the host heard a woman saying that body count matters. But from the data, it’s likely that social expectations are causing women to respond to sex in these ways, not because they really want to.  Sex researcher Lisa Wade says as much in American Hookup: The New Culture of Sex on Campus. She reports, “[in previous decades] students [didn’t] think they were supposed to be having casual sex. Casual sex was happening before in college, but there wasn’t the sense that it’s what you should be doing. It is now.” Women are now being pressured to go act like men. They’re told they should want sex all the time, especially the emotionless-no-strings-attached kind of sex. But in her book, you read story after story about women who don’t truly want to participate in hookup culture, but do so to be viewed more favorably by their peers. So while it might be true on an individual level that some women are wired like men and some women truly do desire sex in this way, on a statistical level there is a sizable difference. Not to mention that for both genders, desiring sex in this emotionless-no-strings-attached way has been linked to avoidant attachment behavior in study after study. So what is this really all about? Why is it so controversial?

Historically, the way men have expressed their sexuality has been dysfunctional. Of course, we saw this culminate with the #MeToo movement and consent, but it’s been prevalent for centuries. Behaviors and comments like, “grab em by the p**sy” by Donald Trump have regularly been excused. 

Even when it’s not about consent, men have constantly treated women like sexual objects designed to fulfill their animalistic desires, especially in hip-hop culture.  Recent American history would tell you that it’s the men's pleasure that is the most important. One college student comments in Wade’s American Hookup, “the guy kind of expects to get off while the girl doesn’t expect anything.”  This narrative is repeated over and over again in pop culture, TV and film, which we talk about more deeply in our blog on the double standard of orgasms. It’s clear that throughout history, men have not done a good job at honoring, loving, protecting and respecting women. Instead, men have chosen to sexualize, demean, and dishonor women in ways that have been incredibly damaging. It’s one thing to be the more sexually sensitive gender, but it’s quite another to act out on that in appalling and harmful ways.  So women think, if men aren’t going to change then let's level the playing field. But that’s not a solution. It goes against the basic wiring of women, it goes against what we’ve learned from attachment theory and only perpetuates the problem of acting out in dysfunctional ways.

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HARNESSING OUR SEXUAL DESIRES

The question remains, how do we deal with our sex drive?  We’ve learned that while there are differences in gender, men and women everywhere experience sexual desire, sexual fantasies and exist on a spectrum of sexual sensitivity.  So practically speaking, if we're horny, what do we do? We have a fantasy, how should we respond? How do we deal with spontaneous vs. response desire? Or an overly sensitive accelerator? For both men and women, sexual desire must be harnessed And our starting point to harnessing our desires is understanding what a healthy sexual environment actually is. As we’ve noted, culture tells us whatever feels good, go for it, as long as it’s legal and there is consent. But this is a low view of sex, built on a bed of lies. For both men and women, we’re being taught to sell ourselves off for cheap. This ideology essentially communicates “bare minimum for entry” and violates everything we just learned. So what is a healthy sexual environment?  Science is clear that our ideal sexual environment is one that is a safe space with a committed, loving partner who we can openly communicate and express our feelings with and which we feel secure with. The ultimate expression of this is marriage, not cohabitation. And it’s in monogamy, not polyamory or open relationships. We’ve talked about the science behind this extensively in other blogs. But it’s not just any marriage. 50% of monogamous marriages end in divorce, so clearly something isn’t working. This is partially why our generation has rebelled against the institution of marriage. All we’ve seen is dysfunction. However, notice the list of qualifications science has laid out:
    1. A safe space
    2. Committed, loving partner
    3. Open communication
    4. Ability to vulnerability express your feelings
    5. Someone we have a secure attachment with
 Many marriages clearly aren’t meeting these parameters. But marriages who are actively practicing them thrive. Really grasping the truth might take a constant unlearning of the ideas put forth by culture in recent history. It requires recognizing when you’re being sold a lie and keeping your eye on what the ultimate goal is for your love life. As Lehmiller puts it, “we need to be willing to consider data that challenge our worldview instead of burying our heads in the sand.. to the extent we simply dismiss every study that challenges our beliefs as “fake news,” we’ll never truly understand how the world works.” While modern sex science has recently put forth these findings, they are not new. For thousands of years, the Bible has been saying the same thing.  Of course, the Bible has never been considered less of an authority on matters of sex and relationships than it is today. But this has more to do with what we think the Bible says about sex, rather than what it actually says. Lehmiller himself holds this distorted worldview, writing, “For centuries, religious authorities have argued what’s acceptable to desire when it comes to sex is very narrow.. with threats of divine retribution.. not to mention the moral prescription that sex should only be for reproductive purposes.” This couldn’t be farther from the truth. But this is understandable, as he’s a scientist, who doesn’t know what the Bible says or how to interpret it. So he’s going off preconceived cultural ideas, in addition to the fact we’ve lived through an entire generation who is biblically illiterate and has distorted what this beautiful text says about sex. Ultimately though, if the Bible actually comes from our Creator, which evidence suggests it does, then he is also the author of science. Scripture and science are simply representing different sides of the same coin.  But the conversation about harnessing our sexual desire isn’t limited to just knowing what a healthy sexual environment is.  The second component is to understand how to express our masculinity and femininity within that environment. Jesus is the ultimate model of healthy masculinity and what it means to be human. He leads with servanthood. He invites openness, honesty and vulnerability. He creates an environment of trust, empathy and compassion. In a society that was patriarchal, Jesus loved, honored and respected women in ways that were revolutionary. Every interaction we read about was a sight to behold. His example can be summed up in one word: self-sacrificial love. And self-sacrificial love is proven to be an essential component of secure attachment. If we were to model this ourselves, it would radically change how men treat women. When this is the standard, we discover a healing power capable of bridging the controversial gap between genders.  Men might have stronger accelerators and spontaneous desire, but this doesn’t mean we have the license to express ourselves however we want. Following the example of Jesus, our first concern should be giving pleasure, not receiving.  Dr. Tim Keller says it best in his NY-Times bestseller The Meaning of Marriage: “Each partner in marriage is to be most concerned not with getting sexual pleasure but with giving it. In short, the greatest sexual pleasure should be the pleasure of seeing your spouse getting pleasure. When you get to the place where giving arousal is the most arousing thing, you are practicing this principle.” As mentioned, Jesus also sets the stage for us to create environments of openness and environment. This is critical for self-disclosure, which Lehmiller talks extensively about in his book. He writes: “Self-disclosure has been shown to be one of the most powerful ways of establishing intimacy with a romantic partner. This is because self-disclosure builds trust. When someone reveals a major secret to us, it shows that they’re putting a lot of faith in us – and we tend to reciprocate by trusting them right back. If they can trust us to hold their secrets, we can trust them to hold ours.” This type of relationship of mutual self-disclosure allows you to share your sexual fantasies with your spouse and have them be an active participant in the conversation. Rather than letting it fester in the dark, you bring it to the light. However, not every fantasy is a good one, which we’ll get into in a moment. Ultimately, to learn to become people of self-sacrificial love and secure attachment, we need to apprentice under the person that did it best, Jesus. We learn his rhythms, observe how he responded in particular situations and then start practicing them in our own lives. The data doesn’t lie. For monogamous married couples that have Jesus at the center of their marriage, who are actively apprenticing under him and regularly practice the rhythms of self-sacrificial love, divorce rates are non-existent Marital satisfaction is consistently rated as very high. As we close, there’s one obvious elephant in the room. Not all of us are married. In fact, it’s possible that most people reading this might be single. We may have laid out what a healthy sexual environment is and how to conduct ourselves in that environment, but we still have to live with the here and now. The following principles will help you harness your sexual desires, while you’re currently single (and potentially dating).

Sex is not a need

The first principle to understand is that sex is not a need. Emily Nagoski has talked extensively about this, and we’ve written a whole blog about it. As she writes in Come As You Are, “We can starve to death, die of dehydration, even die of sleep deprivation. But nobody ever died because of not being able to get laid. Maybe they wanted to, but that’s different.” Sex is not like food. It’s not actually a “drive” either, which implies survival and is pushed by an unpleasant state that ends when you return to baseline. Like eating food or drinking water.  Or being suffocated, then finally getting a moment to breathe. Instead, sex is an “incentive motivation system”, she explained. We are pulled in by an attractive external stimulus, like an attractive person, and it ends when you obtain the incentive, which represents sex and orgasms. Nagoski explains that with sex, “there is no baseline to return to and no physical damage that results from not “feeding” your sexual desire.” Thinking of sex as a need, can also promote a culture of entitlement, which is partially how we got the #MeToo movement.  “If you think of sex as a drive, like hunger or thirst, that has to be fed for survival, if you think that men in particular – with their 75 percent spontaneous desire – need to relieve their pent-up sexual energy then you can invent justifications for any strategy a man might use to relieve himself. Because if sex is a drive, like hunger, then potential partners are like food. Or like animals to be hunted for food. And that’s both factually incorrect and just wrong,” Nagoski writes. It might feel like an unpleasant internal state, but when your energies are directed elsewhere, the unpleasantness will eventually subside.

Indulge beauty, not shame

The second principle is correctly understanding how to frame our desires and fantasies to begin with.One of the most common themes you’ll read about across the board is the destructiveness of shame. This includes shame about our bodies, our fantasies, our accelerators, our brakes and our spontaneous (or responsive) desire. Shame takes something good, and makes it dirty. The consequences have been heavily documented. As we learned earlier from Lehmiller, “the more shame.. people feel about their sexual desires, the more likely they are to avoid talking about sex at all, and to experience sexual performance difficulties, finding it challenging to become (or stay) aroused or to reach orgasm.” Shame was a defining feature of the 1990s and early 2000s purity culture in the American church. Its central focus was pursuing abstinence at all costs, even framing dating and kissing before marriage as taboo acts. If not having sex before marriage was the goal, it worked. As author Sheila Wray Gregoire writes in She Deserves Better: “Girls who took purity pledges were much more likely to save sex for marriage than those who did not.”  However, the shame-centric messaging and approach created a sex-negative environment and produced all sorts of dysfunction. Over the last few years, Gregoire and her two colleagues gathered survey data from over 27,000 women and the results are distressing.  “Those same girls who took purity pledges before purity had lower self-esteem in high school (and they still have lower self-esteem today), and they know less about how sex and their bodies worked in general,” Gregoire writes.   Perhaps most shockingly, are the medical problems that developed.  “They were also more likely to suffer from vaginismus, a sexual pain disorder long known to be more prevalent among conservative Christians. So purity culture “worked” only if the sole metric for success was virginity until marriage. Yet if we also value future relationships, mental health and spiritual wellness, then purity culture failed, big time, ” Gregoire adds.  From a biblical standpoint, it's clear that from the very beginning shame did not come from God. In the Garden of Eden story, God created the first human couple and we read that they “were both naked and were not ashamed.” When evil enters into the story, the couple suddenly becomes ashamed of their nakedness. So we must understand that as designer and creator, erotic pleasure was God’s idea. As mental health counselor Jay Stringer observes in Unwanted: “The clitoris, for example, is the only organ in the human body that serves no other function except for providing an avenue to sexual pleasure. God’s mind, like ours, is sexual. We are made in his image and therefore don’t need to feel ashamed that we are sexual beings.” So how should we frame our desires and fantasies?  This process first begins with acknowledging our desires as part of who we are, Lehmiller advises. But then we must see them primarily through the lens of beauty. Our desires are pointing to something greater. Stringer writes, “sex, if we allow it, will awaken us to the deepest reservoirs in our souls for pleasure and connection.” We long to be connected with another human being, in a securely attached way, where we can explore the fullness of our sexuality.  And that’s a very, very good thing.

Become curious

The third principle is to understand that while sexual desire is a beautiful thing, the same is not true for sexual fantasies. Why do we have some sexual fantasies and not others? As we learned from Nagoski, there is no innate sexual stimuli. What we fantasize about is directly influenced by our environment. And as we’ll learn, a large part of what has influenced the content of our sexual fantasies are toxic experiences from our past. Stringer goes into this extensively in his book based on his own survey data of nearly 4,000 people. He lists five findings, as core influencers of how our sexual fantasies develop. They include: 
    1. Dysfunctional Family Systems: Rigid or disengaged family structures cause people to recreate those power dynamics within their sexual fantasies, particularly with things like BDSM. 
    2. Abandonment: Of course, disengaged family structures can lead to a child feeling abandoned. Not only does this produce avoidant attachment, but it shapes our sexual behavior and fantasies.
    3. Triangulation: As Stringer writes, “triangulation, or emotional enmeshment, occurs when there is a breakdown in a marriage relationship and a child is brought in to fill the emotional emptiness.”
    4. Trauma: Unfortunately, trauma plays a large role in our fetishes. As Stringer reveals, there is often a direct link between the trauma that exists in our past and the type of pornography we seek out.
    5. Sexual Abuse: One of the bigger drivers of sexual fantasies, both Stringer and Lehmiller highlight this from their findings. 
 On many fronts, we often dismiss the experiences from our past as the cause of our behavior in the present. But the science is clear. Discovering the link between your past and present is essential for your freedom and sexual well-being. Stringer advises us to listen to our lust, likening our fantasies to a roadmap. He writes, “Sexual failures, internet searches and browser histories.. are roadmaps. The choice of.. sexual behavior is never accidental. There is always a reason. Your path.. begins with finding the unique reasons behind yours.. if we are willing to listen, our sexual struggles will have so much to teach us.” Almost all of the most common fantasies listed in Lehmiller’s book, like multipartner sex, power, control and rough sex, novelty, gender-bending, forbidden sex and partner sharing – are likely linked to dysfunctional experiences that are hidden in our past. None of these fantasies are healthy outlets for what science and scripture have revealed are sex-positive environments. Ultimately, the question to ask is: why is this turning me on right now? Why am I fantasizing about this, specifically? You probably won’t get all your answers in one night. Gathering insight happens over time, and might require some healthy processing with your therapist. But ultimately, developing this roadmap will do wonders for your sexual well-being.

What is a good sexual fantasy?

If sexual fantasies are a roadmap, the fourth principle is about understanding what a good sexual fantasy looks like. In Lehmiller’s book, one of the seven most common fantasies centered around passion, romance and intimacy. He writes, “these fantasies go well beyond simply gratifying a sexual urge – they also help us to meet profound emotional needs.. Desires for intimacy and emotional connection tend to be tied to particular people, as opposed to, say, just another hot body with a generic face.” If you’re married and having these fantasies about your spouse, then that could potentially be a very good thing. Imagining their body up against yours; you pleasuring each other; these are all a beautiful expression of how we were designed. This could include a wide-range of positions and environments. But it’s important even here, to consider the previous principle. If you’re fantasizing about BDSM or swinging with your spouse, it’s likely being influenced by a dysfunctional dynamic in your past. In these instances, it’s not something that you should continually keep entertaining and should be worked through in your roadmap and/or with your therapist. Secondly, if you’re not married and you’re not fantasizing about your spouse, it’s still not a helpful fantasy to entertain.  To understand why, we must first define sexual fantasy.  Encyclopedia.com calls it, “an imagined sexual scene that intensifies emotional and physical excitement by helping people play out their most intense sexual desires, fears, or memories.” If we are to keep our eyes on what the ultimate goal is for our love lives, a monogamous marriage built on secure attachment and self-sacrificial love, then entertaining fantasies of any kind won’t be beneficial to our sexual wellbeing or the sexual wellbeing of our future spouse. It’s important to clarify what we're not saying. Thoughts are often automatic and we can’t control if they come in or not. When we try to suppress thoughts, they often just come back stronger, as seen in Harvard’s White Bear experiments. However, we can control what we decide to do with them. Do we entertain them or dwell on them? Or do we acknowledge their presence and then turn our attention towards something else?  When you remove the toxic advice, fear-mongering and shame tactics of purity culture, we still find a compelling case for waiting to engage in the sexual domain until we are married.  As reported in the Atlantic, numerous studies have been conducted that correlate future marital happiness with fewer sexual partners pre-marriage. And this isn’t surprising, given the body of research around attachment theory. Secure attachment, the goal, is also linked with fewer partners. The problem is that in our culture of instant gratification, we hold little regard for the future self, especially with relationships.  Walter Mischel, the famed psychologist who discovered the immense benefits of self-control, says it this way in national bestseller The Marshmallow Test: “If you see more continuity between yourself now and yourself in the future, you probably put more value on delayed rewards and less value on immediate rewards and are less impatient than people who view their future selves as strangers. As the researchers point out, if we feel greater continuity with who we will become, we might also be willing to sacrifice more of our present pleasures for the sake of that future self.” Perhaps this is most obvious when it comes to the bachelor party mentality. One report says that 33% of men cheat on their future spouses at their bachelor parties. The mentality is that “I’m just getting it all out of my system” and that you will start becoming a model citizen as soon as you say I do. This type of person sees two worlds, the present self and the future self, with no overlap. But that’s not how reality works. It also directly contradicts all the science on the topic. We can’t create a clean break between who we are now and who we decide to be later. It’s impossible. One bleeds into another. Hookup culture is another prime example of this, thinking that our rising body counts will have no effects on our future relationships. But also more directly related to the conversation on sexual fantasies, we can’t expect to watch porn incessantly, orgasm while masturbating to loads of other people and train our minds in objectification, then suddenly turn that switch off when we meet the person we’re going to marry. Statistically speaking, 81% to 86% of people are married by age 40. That number jumps to 90% by age 50. As anthropologist and love expert Helen Fisher writes in The Anatomy of Love, “Human beings almost never have to be cajoled into pairing. Instead, we do this naturally. We flirt. We court. We fall in love. We marry. And the vast majority of us marry only one person at a time.” For most of us – not all – but most, marriage is inevitable. And the choices we are making today will influence whether that marriage becomes one of the best or worst decisions we ever make.  If a marriage built on secure attachment and self-sacrificial love is our future goal, then keeping our sexual energies reserved for our future spouse is the best thing we can do, for both women AND men. 

Practicing self-control

The fifth principle of harnessing our sexual desire is learning to practice self-control. But first, we must define what we’re trying to have self-control for. Previously, we discussed that if we are to learn how to become people of self-sacrificial love and secure attachment, we need to apprentice under the person that did it best, Jesus. Here’s how Jesus frames the conversation in Matthew 5:27-28:  “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery. But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” It’s clear by the passage that Jesus is not speaking to the initial thought, but the intent to keep on engaging the thoughts. He’s not speaking to simply noticing that someone is attractive on the street. Rather, it is the decision to actively engage the “second look”, both physically and/or mentally.  That might mean turning our heads to look at someone’s butt when they pass by. It may be scanning our eyes up and down, imagining that person naked or imagining ourselves having sex with them. And of course, it would include the more obvious things, like gossiping about a person sexually to friends, masturbating to porn or nude pictures and/or sleeping with someone who is not your spouse. To practice self-control in these areas and prioritize the future self may feel like a gargantuan task to many. The most recent statistics show that 95% of the population will sleep with someone before they get married and most of the world watches porn that has access to the internet. Not to mention the daily temptations that surround us by simply logging onto Instagram. Our world is sexually-charged and thus, is encouraging us to lose any sense of self-control, outside of consent. But this task is not impossible. Many people have done it before, many people are doing it in the present and will do it in the future. But the goal shouldn’t be perfection. We can’t just say, “I’m just going to stop engaging in these behaviors” and expect it to happen. We are bound to falter. Through the Marshmallow Test, Mischel not only was able to demonstrate the enormous benefits of self-control, but how people practically can grow in exercising self-control. One of those findings is to keep the future self in mind, to imagine the damages your current actions will have on that future self. But he also talked about the importance of having a plan. He calls these “If-Then” plans. If situation [y] happens, then I will do [x]. If this person texts me to come over to their house to have sex, then I will do.. If I’m alone at home at night, and I have an intense spontaneous urge to watch porn, then I will do… Mischel shows that through studies done at New York University, they were able to identify “simple, but surprisingly powerful If-Then plans for helping people deal more effectively with a wide variety of otherwise crippling self-control problems – even under very difficult and emotionally hot conditions, when they were trying to pursue important but hard to achieve goals.” If there is no plan established, then the urge is likely to win out. Springer gets at the same idea, telling us to anticipate our struggles. Like Mischel he warns, “if you do not have a plan for these times, you will default to your past behavior.” What can partially inform our If-Then plans is the roadmap of sexual fantasies.  Springer advises us to “study the predictable times, places and themes associated with your unwanted sexual behavior. When you do, you will likely find they are predictable. The most common themes I hear about are loneliness, frustration, futility and boredom.” Mischel adds, “a map of your If-Then situation-behavior signatures can alert you to your hot spots and when and where you are prone to react in ways that you are likely later to regret.” Not all of us will start on a level playing field. The starting point of one individual may make the practice of self-control more difficult than for another person.  Among the evidence-based strategies that Mischel and Springer reveal are incorporating accountability layers and/or partners into your If-Then plan, in addition to Freud’s theory of sublimation. With sublimation, you redirect your sexual energies towards something else. These distracting strategies worked remarkably well in Mischel’s research.

Inhibitors of self-control

The sixth principle of harnessing our sexual desire is to recognize the inhibitors of self-control, which can be many. Universally, the first one might simply be your mental state. Not surprisingly, if you are chronically stressed or depressed, that is going to be a major inhibitor of self-control. In fact, the lack of self-control actually might be a coping mechanism for your stressed or depressed state. You might find yourself feeding off the immediate rewards and high that you get masterbating to porn. If that’s the case, in the immediate term you should prioritize improving your mental state over implementing self-control strategies. As a byproduct of improving your overall mental wellbeing, you’ll likely see an increase in your ability to practice self-control. Another inhibitor towards self-control is the constant delay of long-term rewards. In Proverbs 13:12 we read, “Hope deferred makes the heart sick, but a desire fulfilled is a tree of life.” Again, we see the scripture and science align on this front. In the Marshmallow Test, Mischel writes, “in the extreme, delay of gratification becomes stifling, a joyless driven life of postponed pleasures, happy diversions not taken, emotions not experienced, possible lives unlived.” As we’re waiting to meet someone, and get married, the longer time goes on, the harder it can be to practice self-control. For many, the social pressures of being in your 30s or 40s, or worrying about your biological clock, can make this process feel excruciating. Finding someone we can love, securely attach to, and have glorious sex with is a beautiful desire. But when we place all of our hope in this basket to fulfill our happiness, it’s a God-sized role that no person can fill. We should not put life on hold, simply because we haven’t met someone yet. Romance is often idolized in our culture, viewed as an essential component for a fulfilling life. We’re led to believe that our lives are incomplete if we’re not romantically or sexually involved with another person.  But remember, sex is not a need. And consider this: Jesus never had sex or was married. Yet he is the most famous figure in human history, the ultimate example of human flourishing and he was surrounded by rich connections and friendships. Lastly, the effects of porn as an inhibitor are widely-documented. Kevin Majeres, of Harvard Medical School and Anna Lembke, director of addiction medicine at Stanford, have spoken extensively about this. After conducting studies, Majeres warns of how easily we can get into an addicting cycle with porn because of what happens in the brain. “This is why pornography causes a vicious circle. When someone views pornography, he gets overstimulated by dopamine; so his brain destroys some dopamine receptors. This makes him feel depleted, so he goes back to pornography, but, having fewer dopamine receptors, this time it requires more to get the same dopamine thrill; but this causes his brain to destroy more receptors; so he feels an even greater need for pornography to stimulate him. So as guys keep gaming the dopamine system, they start to find that they have to use pornography for longer and longer periods to have the same effect, and they have to visit more and more sites.” We go into this more extensively in our blog here.

Change is possible

The last principle is to simply recognize the truth that change is possible. Our sexual desires are beautiful and in the right context, are beautiful to express. Mischel dedicates a portion of chapter 18 in his book towards talking about neuroplasticity, or the brain's ability to rewire itself. The way we once behaved and thought is not static. It can change, and as a result, the brain also makes physical changes as well to adjust for that. That bodes well not just for us personally, but our present and future relationships. If you are married, then that can be a beautiful invitation into a passionate and fulfilling sex life. We talk more about orgasms, sexual love languages and reviving a sexless marriage in separate blogs. And if you are single, dating or waiting, the invitation is to prioritize the future self by taking care of the present self. We learn that as we consistently apprentice after Jesus and model his way of life, his thoughts become our thoughts.  A new way of being, which once seemed like pulling teeth, starts becoming natural to us. And this new way of being paves the ultimate path towards secure attachment, a life of self-sacrificial love and the most fulfilling sex lives. If you’re looking to learn more, check out our blogs on sex as a need, masturbation, porn addictions and what happens to your brain on porn.

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