If you haven’t read my blog on how lust implicates your parents then read it first. In it I talk about how our parental patterns can drive lust and even lead us into relationships. In this post I’m going to delve deeper into what else can fire up our lust, the difference between arousal and desire, what’s normal, and how to find our own personal ‘healthy.’
First, arousal versus desire. Arousal is of the body. It is being turned on because someone is touching your erogenous zones. You can be aroused by an object (vibrator, flesh light). Or any person, of any gender, who touches you the right way in the right spot. Arousal means lubrication, erection, and orgasm. It is fairly mechanical, biochemical, and represents what our bodies do naturally with the right stimulation, all by themselves. Difficulties with arousal normally indicate a ‘dysfunction’- and the cause for this could be emotional, psychological, physiological, or relationship-based. In other words, anything can interfere with our bodies’ ability to become aroused. And this is why people seek help not just through physicians when they have arousal difficulties, but with psychologists or holistic bodyworkers (such as myself).
Desire, on the other hand, is of the mind. It could emanate from a fantasy, or a mental and emotional connection; it is the force of one’s intellect, preferences, the logical mind and the irrational mind all brought together to bear on the dance of seduction and the intertwining of bodies and lives.
Desire can spark arousal, deepen and lengthen it, moderate it, contextualize it. This is why desire, which is of the mind, is so hugely dependent on underlying psychological patterns, unconscious drives, unspoken relational dynamics. Desire is bondage and fetish, it is the fantasy of romance, the vision of pornographic flesh, the enticement of intellectual connection. The entwinement of arousal and desire can be intoxicating, each igniting the other to orgasmic heights. Or they can be at odds.
Someone with normal arousal abilities may suffer lack of desire for a partner because of relationship dynamics. So he or she is able to orgasm alone, but not in company. On the other hand, there can be desire with no arousal, a common complaint of post-menopausal women. There can be sensory amnesia, or numbness in the genitals, even when it seems to be going as planned. I have had the experience of feeling emotionally very low, disappointed about a lost lover, and have had all the signs of arousal and have even orgasmed (the contraction was present), without feeling any erotic pleasure or sensation at all! This is not uncommon. Many men who suffer early ejaculation note low levels of pleasure associated with their orgasms. Arousal and desire are intertwined.
It is desire which creates lust—and as I wrote about earlier, for better or worse, lust often relates back the enactment of the parental patterning, the attempt to grasp the model of love which was presented to us as children.
In The Erotic Mind: Unlocking the Inner Sources of Passion and Fulfillment, author Jack Morin explores how sexual passion is created and intensified. He explains how early research into human sexuality from the 1970s (inherited from the Masters and Johnson studies), focused on removing pathology from sex (deviance, anxiety and guilt). This research viewed the best and most normal kind of sex as simple and uncomplicated and the goal for any patient with concerns was simply to remove obstacles to pleasure. Morin writes, “they don’t dwell on the fact that eroticism is intertwined with the untidy struggles of being human and is therefore inherently complex and unpredictable.” Morin did a survey which had some fascinating results. He interviewed more than a hundred people on their experiences of lust, and came up with this equation: ATTRACTION + OBSTACLES= EXCITEMENT. Obstacles (uncertainty about reciprocation, distance, a partner who is married), the longing and anticipation, and the sense of taboo are what increase lust so exponentially.
Lust is not love. It’s not valuing another human being for a complex of qualities; it’s about connecting with a body, and seeing very particular and narrow characteristics in the other person which ignite lust – not those qualities which make you want to have a lengthy intellectual conversation or bake lemon cake together.
“The nature of lust is to objectify,” says Morin, and we view this with a certain inherent unease in our culture. We objectify porn stars, but we don’t want to objectify our partners. But the fact is, lust does make us objectify, and in so doing it narrows our preferences, it highlights what turns us on about a person, about sex, about the scenario of arousal. By objectifying, we define. And often our definition of what turns us on includes the taboo – fetish, dominance, submission.
Alas, in mainstream culture, there is still a tendency to view fetishes as an example of deviance, rather than see them as no more than preferences. And in a culture which obsesses over romantic love, we risk de-emphasising the joy and excitement of lust. Erotic pleasure can be a form of recreation and adventure, and not something that must adhere to conservative standards in which sex is always simple and relegated to a relationship. BDSM occupies an important place in our erotic imagination, as does fetish, and kink. If feet are a turn on for you, or the pain/pleasure threshold, role play, or dogging, then by all means, explore it and integrate it into your sexual experience. But do so thoughtfully, and always with clear communication if you have a partner.
I’ve mentioned before (and in my talk on female sexuality for men*-see note below), that as a general rule, women are more desire-based and men more arousal-based. What this means is that women tend to entwine lust and relationship more deeply; hence readers of erotica are more likely female, for example – there is a narrative embedded in relating that touches women more deeply. Men, on the other hand, are more arousal based. They are more able to separate physical sensations of pleasure from the relationships in which they occur. Hence men are more likely than women to initiate swinging. For a man, the notion of shared sexual experiences can be as simple as “more breasts!” For women, the same notion is replete with relationship considerations, “will he desire her more,” for example. This is a very simplistic view, but one which is helpful to grasp. I firmly believe that women should aim to develop their sensate capacities outside of relationships by indulging in adventures in masturbation without romantic fantasy. Outside of self-pleasure, men can help a woman increase her appreciation of arousal by blindfolding her and giving her sensation play. Men, by the same token, should on occasion give themselves the experience of making love with nothing but the thought of love: with each movement and caress not thinking about how their penis feels, but feeling as much as possible ONLY with their hearts. Of course the side-effect of this is often full-body orgasm!
As the Taoists believe, women’s sexuality begins in the heart, and then moves into the genitals. Whereas men’s sexuality begins in the genitals, and moves into the heart. Once more, this touches on arousal and desire. The combination of both together can elevate sex to the heights.
A little self-reflection goes a long way, and can help us understand and empathise with others and ourselves. In any case, there is no ‘normal’ when it comes to what turns us on. Be it leather, caning, role play, feet, or romance, the chase, anticipation, or slow sex in the missionary position, it’s a matter of each person finding his/her particular song and singing it loudly.
*In this article I refer to men/women in a cis-sense, i.e. those who were born with genitals corresponding to social identity, and in any case, whilst I speak in general terms based on my work with clients, there is a huge variance and naturally some men are more desire-based and some women more arousal-based. I use dichotomy to illustrate a point.