What, Exactly, Is Sexual Desire, And How Does It Fit Into A Loving Relationship?

Dr. Sheryl Kingsberg answers the question: 'What, Exactly, Is Sexual Desire?'

BySheryl Kingsberg, Ph.D., Chief, Division of Behavioral Medicine MacDonald Women's Hospital, University Hospitals
December 22, 2008, 3:55 PM

April 2, 2009 -- Question: What, exactly, is sexual desire, and how does it fit into a loving relationship?

Answer: Desire is a deceptively complicated concept. Most of us think of it as a simple term: desire. But in actuality, if you really want to understand desire and how it fits into a loving relationship, it's best to see it as really comprised of three separate but related components.

The first component of desire is what we call drive. Drive is the biologic component of desire and is what we know of as spontaneous sexual interest. When your body signals to you, through sexual thoughts, dreams, fantasies, when a movie sort of turns you on, what you know of as sort of feeling horny, that's the drive component. It is based on neuro-endocrine mechanisms, hormones if you will, and neurotransmitters, and is very spontaneous. It is the body's hunger or craving for sex.

Most of us have a certain level of drive. We're either born with a high level -- maybe every day would be barely enough -- and some of us, a moderate level -- once a week would be plenty. But drive can certainly be impacted by many physical things, illness and medicines.

The second component of desire is a cognitive component, your beliefs and your values. So, for example, religious concerns or cultural prohibitions can certainly impact desire in a negative way.

And the third component of desire is what we know of as motivation. Motivation reflects all of the psychological and interpersonal factors that creates a willingness to bring your body to a sexual experience.

For example, you could have all the biologic drive in the world, but if you're not motivated to be intimate with a partner, because you're angry with him or her or you're worried about your child's health, or you're having marital conflicts, then drive really goes out the window, and motivation will sort of rule the day.

So, it's important to know which component of desire may be compromised if you're having some problems so that you can work on making sure all three are addressed in order to enhance the quality of a loving relationship.

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