beepbeep mm beepbeep, yeah

“Sex Drive.”

(WARNING: Big time NERD post ahead.)

Your sexuality is not a drive.

This is contrary to the model of sexual response used in the diagnosis of sexual dysfunction, as well as the theoretical groundwork of most clinical sexology. So if you thought it was a drive, that’s completely understandable.

But it doesn’t make you less wrong.

I’m gonna need more than one post to deal with this question because as I write I realize how terribly complicated (and also how potentially coma-inducingly dull) it is. But let’s start today with the basics:

A DRIVE is a homeostatic motivational mechanism – like hunger, thirst, thermoregulation, and sleep. You need to keep balanced in order to stay afloat. Without food, water, heat or cool, sleep, etc, you will eventually die. And these systems have shut-off switches, i.e., satiety mechanisms that tell you to stop eating or drinking, to stop shivering or sweating, or to wake up or go to sleep. They shut off when your internal state changes.

They are not simple, these internal mechanisms. They’re affected not just by whether or not you’ve eaten, slept, drunk water, or put on a sweater, but by your biological rhythms – across a day, a month, a year, and a lifespan. And they’re affected not just by your internal state but also by the aversiveness (“ew!”) or appetitiveness (“yum!”) of the stimulus. But ultimately they tell you to go and stop based on a change that happens in your body.

Like a thermostat.

Or better: like errand-running. Say you are out of toilet paper, so you drive to the store and buy some and then go home. On the way you might stop elsewhere or you might get some other things while you’re at the store, or you might get totally distracted and forget to buy toilet paper, but essentially you have a need, you meet the need. Drive.

INCENTIVE MOTIVATION SYSTEMS, on the other hand, such as exploration and aggression, have no homeostatic mechanism – there is no baseline to which you must return, and consequently you have no internal shut-off switch. The system turns off when environmental stimuli change, like you successfully beat the shit out of someone or invent a perpetual motion machine.

So it’s not like running errands. It’s like… playing the lottery. You want to win the money, so you buy the tickets, but winning the lottery will not stop you from buying more tickets, because you can always (theoretically) win more money. Some people are more inclined to buy tickets than others, some people will be irresponsible in their gambling and some people have no interest. Incentive motivation.

Here’s the weird thing about sex: it’s an incentive motivation system with an internal shut off switch.

Satiety without homeostasis.

Insert the sound of hundreds of people yawning. Christ, you are all so bored right now, huh? Sorry.

But this is so important!

Why? Why does it matter??

It matters if you’re interested in how sex works, and if you’re interested in what a healthy sex life is. It matters if you want to know why we make some of the mistakes we make about sex.

For example, if there is no homeostasis, that means (roughly) that there is no “normal, healthy” quantity of sex. But because we have a shut-off switch, we might FEEL like sex is seeking homeostasis, so we perceive something that isn’t there – or is it? It’s like the optical illusion of the candlesticks and the profiles. Homeostasis appears to exist in the negative space between satiety and excitatory impulses. We talk about it like it’s real, we diagnose it, we feel like it’s REALLY IMPORTANT. But really it’s just empty space.

As I continue to talk about this extremely nerdy stuff, I’ll explain why it’s interesting and important that sexual arousal is never aversive, what the evolutionary implications are of an incentive motivation system with an off-switch, and how the incentive motivation approach to sexuality helps us understand sexual dysfunction better than the standard model.

I promise to space out these posts with the fun, interesting ones about orgasms and blow jobs and relationships.