The Science of Desire

Article excerpt

It's a biological riddle. We think of our libidos as a force of nature beyond our control; yet we also complain, increasingly, that they are too weak. Cathy Holding investigates the enigma of sexual response

Human sexual response is a complex combination of social, hormonal, physiological and psychological factors, most of which are poorly understood. Society plays a role in what is considered to be acceptable in sexual desire: religious beliefs, family values and upbringing all affect one's attitude to one's own feelings of sexual desire. Hormones play a role - the massive surges in testosterone and oestrogen in adolescents that precedes sexual activity are overwhelming in the changes they bring about in the transition from youth to adult. Sexual desire is the first of three behvioural repertoires associated with reproduction: sex drive (to find a mate), attraction (to find the best mate) and attachment or love (to allow time successfully to reproduce). It is possibly one of the strongest drives in man (and animals) and it can bring out the best and the worst in people. In excess it can lead to hypersexuality and hyperstimulation of the genital region, sex crime, sexual addiction and persistent use of pornography. When repressed it can result in depression and neurosis - or conversely it can be channelled into great creativity. When ignored, within stable relationships, it can lead good men and women to stray outside these relationships and threaten the happiness and stability of their families. It can be entirely suppressed, as in elective celibacy, and the energies re- routed to the greater spiritual good of the person and those around them. It can be denied - and used to form the basis of lifelong friendships between people based on emotions much stronger than mere affection. It can be unfulfilled - producing some of the most beautiful prose, poetry, music and art. It can change lives following chance meetings. It can lead to shotgun weddings... or it can just end up in total frustration after a boozy night and lead to the writing of songs such as "All Revved Up and Nowhere to Go".

The term "sexual desire" can mean one of two things: it can refer to the need for sexual intercourse itself, or it can mean something closer to sexual attraction for a specific person. This can lead to confusion in how sexual dysfunction is interpreted: it is possible that failure of the partner of the first part in their desire for the partner of the second part has nothing to do with the partner of the first part's true capability for sexual desire. This dimension to sexual desire/dysfunction is not addressed at all in the scientific literature.

The sexual response comprises three phases: desire, arousal and orgasm. Desire is the anticipation through imaginary processes of a pleasure hoped for in reality. It both precedes and accompanies the rise of excitation or arousal. The phases are, however, not independent of each other: for example, problems with orgasm can be related to problems with arousal that in turn can stem from a lack of desire. Conversely, erectile dysfunction is associated with lowered sexual desire. Sexual dysfunction of female sexual desire, arousal, or orgasm affects approximately one in three (30 per cent) of women. Sexual desire decreases with increasing age, and social, psychological or physical distress lowers levels of sexual desire in both genders. Few studies are aimed at examining sexual desire in the normal population but most focus on sexual dysfunction, particularly in the older generation.


Having an orgasm is a powerful demonstration of a person's health. It is also very good for you. In a Welsh study on 918 men between the ages of 45 and 59, death from heart attacks or heart disease were 50 per cent lower in men with high orgasmic frequency than in those with low orgasmic frequency - sex actually has a protective effect on men. …