So where were we?
I mean this in the technical sense. As in, sex is always appetitive. Rewarding.
I do NOT mean that there are no occasions when humans find their arousal to be inappropriate, uncomfortable, or undesirable. That is to say, arousal may be unpalatable, while still being appetitive.
The technical sense is that when you, for example, see something and you feel aroused at the same time, it feels rewarding. The arousal links whatever you saw with pleasure, which makes you want more of it.
(This is behavioral psychology made as simple as it gets.)
I’m making this point in order to describe why the increase in sensitivity of SES when a person hasn’t had sex for a while, and then its decrease when the person finally has sex, is not a “return to baseline.”
When you’re hungry or thirsty or cold, those are technically aversive experiences. Punishing. When you’re thirsty, your body is explaining to you how far away you are from your baseline, and when you drink your body rewards you by a process of negative reinforcement, which means THE REMOVAL OF AN AVERSIVE STIMULUS.
If you whack off quickly before going to work because you’re horny, that is NOT the removal of an aversive stimulus, it is the introduction of a rewarding stimulus.
SES’s job is to make you more sensitive to EXTERNAL stimuli – i.e., all those incentives – not to make you more sensitive to your own internal state. If SES had a BASELINE to return to, it would tell you more and more about how much you need sex, how far away you are from the baseline, rather than more and more about how sexy the world is.
(Your conscious, everyday experience of this may not match what the mechanism is doing. Given cultural expectations, you may well EXPERIENCE the sexiness of the world as a straightforward hunger, but that’s got nothing to do with what’s actually happening in your sexual response system. Did I mention your brain is a liar?)
It’s not even clear whether or not SES ever maxes out – it could be the world just gets sexier and sexier forever. There are all kinds of potential but wildly speculative consequences of this possibility. If your SES gets so high, through lack of sexual behavior, that EVERYTHING in the world looks sexy, might a person begin to associate some pretty inappropriate things with arousal? Might this (WARNING: HIGHLY SPECULATIVE) be a reason why Catholic priests, guilted and shamed into sexual continence, their SES going mad, begin to sexualize the children by whom they are surrounded? (<— utterly, utterly speculative! I’m not saying that’s how it works! It’s one story that might fit but we don’t even know if SES really does grow forever! It’s just an idea!!)
And what about a non-baseline SES’s relationship to SIS? After sex, your SES (sensitivity to incentives) goes DOWN and your SIS (brakes) goes UP (if you ejaculated).
Suppose a person’s sexual shut-off switch is broken or missing; then sexual motivation can run rampant in a way that drives can’t. I mean, imagine if you had no shut off switch for thirst. You just kept drinking and drinking, more and more water… until you got a dangerous salt imbalance and ended up in the hospital. With sex, you might make some bad decisions, but you won’t get sick just because you had a lot of sex.
And conversely if a person’s sexual shut-off switch (SIS) is over-active, since they have no baseline their body demands that they return to, they just shut down completely. Imagine if you ALWAYS felt the way you feel at the end of Thanksgiving dinner – overfull and kinda grossed out by the idea of more food. All the time. Even if you hadn’t eaten anything for a week. You’d die of starvation soon. With sex, all that would happen is you’d never have children, which is not great from an evolutionary perspective, but you also wouldn’t die, which IS great from an evolutionary perspective.
As Beach famously observed, no one ever suffered tissue damage for want of sex.
Let’s see if I can wrap this up with a one sentence summary:
The longer you go without sexual release, the more sensitive SES gets, in order to make you more sensitive to sexually relevant stimuli, which will motivate you to pursue sex; it is NOT an aversive process telling you how far you are from a biological baseline but rather an appetitive process telling you how lovely and sexy everything is.
Christ that was hard to write, and I’m not at all sure I’ve made it clear. Still. Got other things to do this fine Memorial Day. Feel free to ask questions if this sounds muddled.