Many couples come to therapy because they have challenges with sexual arousal and desire. They believe that they should be turned on and don’t understand why they are not, or want to be turned on and don’t know how to create that energy. This can cause conflict in the relationship.

As sex therapists, we used to think about sexual arousal as a linear process and consisted of four phases- the excitement phase, plateau, orgasm and resolution phase. In the ’90s, researchers came up with what’s called the Dual Control Model. What this model says is that there’s a gas pedal or accelerator, and there’s a brake. The gas pedal is the sexual excitation system and it responds to everything in the environment that your brain thinks is sexually relevant. For the accelerator to kick into high gear you have to be in the right context. These can be things that you see, smell, touch, taste, hear or imagine. When the brain experiences these conditions, it then sends a signal to your body to “turn on”.

Then there’s the brake, the sexual inhibition system, which notices all of the potential threats in the environment. These are all of the reasons that you probably won’t be turned on right now. Things such as stress, anxiety, grief, fear, fatigue. Even cultural messages of sex being immoral or wrong can cause shyness and reticence and lead to feelings of “stage fright”. Experiencing these states will likely send the body a signal to “turn off”.

An environment that doesn’t promote pleasure, safety, affection and trust will often make us back away from having sexual desire. This brake is often more active than we would like it to be.

We often think that difficulties with sex are a lack of stimulation to the gas pedal, but actually, a lot of sexual difficulties are caused by too much stimulation to the brake. For example, many folks have had the experience of having a tough day at work. Maybe you had a poor evaluation from a boss or a disagreement with a co-worker. When you come home you may find it difficult to let go of your workday and connect sexually with your partner.

In regards to gender differences and arousal, men tend to be better at compartmentalizing their lives. They’re likely to be more sexually aroused than women by putting pressure on the accelerator, or the gas. Things like putting on lingerie, porn, role play or sexy talk may work for them. Women are likely to be more sensitive to the brake pedal, so the arousal process is not simply about adding more gas but letting up on the brakes. Things like having less stress in their lives, or being in a safe environment, having a good body image or feeling more emotionally connected to their partner all can be beneficial.

You can apply this model to your relationship and create more fulfilling and fun encounters. Some suggestions are:

  • Create the scene. Be intentional with creating a space to help cultivate desire. Pick a time when you’d like to create an erotic environment and think of ways to make the environment secure and sensual, with as many turn-ons as possible and avoiding turn-offs.
  • Communicate what puts on your gas and brakes. Learn about what your accelerators and your brakes are and express them clearly to your partner. This may take some time and experimentation, so keep the conversations flowing.
  • Be curious about your partner. Part of being a good lover is learning about what turns your partner on or off. This can partially be achieved through observation and experience, however, it’s important to ask them as well.
  • Have sexual check-ins. Even if you’ve been together for 10 years, regular check-ins are important. Desires and bodies can change over the years so what may be a turn on a few years ago may no longer be as time goes on.