“It’s a chicken and egg problem.”
This is a phrase people use to describe a situation where the direction of causality is unclear. Which came first, the chicken or the egg?
It was a conundrum for me in the 5th grade, and then I forgot about it.
Then while I was in grad school, my BFFL, a logician, animal epistemologist, and general extremely clever person, told me, “The egg came first, obviously.”
“Obviously. Something that was almost but not quite a chicken laid an egg from which hatched the first thing that was a chicken.”
What on earth does this have to do with human sexual motivation?
Well this is the part where I feel like I might be beating a dead horse, but then again it’s one of those things you can’t explain too much. Responsive versus Spontaneous desire, remember?
Which comes first, you see, arousal or desire? How can desire give birth to arousal without itself having been born from desire?
For the purposes of this post, we’ll call “desire” the experiential phenomenon of being “in the mood” and arousal the physiological process of “the central nervous system (brain and spine) responding to sexual cues.” That’s not quite right, but it’ll do for now.
Meet Kaplan’s Triphasic Model of sexual response, which was actually developed to make a better accounting of women’s sexual response – better than M&J, that is, who described only the arousal process. The Triphasic model is the theoretical model currently used for diagnosis of sexual dysfunction. It’s a drive model of sexual response. If desire comes first, it means you’re being PUSHED by an internal mechanism to seek external resources. Kaplan put desire BEFORE arousal. Can’t get aroused, she proposed, until you WANT sex.
But it’s wrong. Of course you can get aroused without wanting sex. Any 14 year old boy who has sat at the back of the bus can tell you that. Kaplan developed the model before we understood about women’s sexual response being non-congruent.
Rosemary Basson and Suzanne Iasenza, both feminist sex therapists (… I’m pretty sure), have been more successful than anyone else I know of at trying to spread the idea that arousal can come first for women. And that idea helps women tremendously.
But let’s simplify it. Arousal comes first for EVERYONE.
The egg comes first, you see. The title isn’t just a poke at Ian “She Comes First” Kerner (who will roll his eyes at me if he sees it) – it’s really appropriate.
Arousal comes first. Your brain notices sexually relevant stimuli in the environment and sends messages to your genitals saying, “turn on!”
Some people only need a very low level of arousal – so low that they don’t even notice being physically aroused – to notice that they want sex. Others… quite the opposite.
If sexual motivation is an incentive motivation system – and it is – then the situation is that AROUSAL (generated by the presence of sexually relevant stimuli) GENERATES DESIRE, not the other way around.
Arousal comes first. Before desire.