For the longest time, I’ve always thought that sexual needs were analogous to other bodily needs: hunger, thirst, good temperature to stay alive, sleep, etc. But the more you think about it, sexual needs don’t quite fit into that schema. After all, you don’t need to satisfy your sexual desires in order to stay alive. On the other hand, you do need to satisfy your hunger desires or your sleep desires to stay alive. I think it’s because we are used to the language of sex being a drive, in the same way we have thought of hunger and thirst as a drive. But what are drives? (Note: I’m getting most of this info from Emily Nagoski’s Come As You Are, mainly pp. 229-239)
I. Sex isn’t a Drive
Drives are leveling-off systems, meaning that if there is something that goes below the minimal threshold where if we feel hungry, sleepy, thirsty, we will do whatever we can to get back to those leveling-off thresholds. If you don’t satisfy those those desires, those leveling-off systems will get worse and worse and you’ll be unhealthy, and perhaps die if they’re not taken care of. In short, we have certain baselines to meet and if our systems go below the baseline, we feel a push within us to satisfy various needs to go above the baseline. These pushes are hunger, thirst, fatigue, and thermoregulation. These mechanisms push us from a below-the-baseline spot to a comfortable baseline.
Sexual desires aren’t like that. Sure, it seems like we have leveling-off systems where if they’re not satisfied, then we feel like…well, what? We don’t die, we aren’t immensely suffering. We may be more cranky, impatient, frustrated, or susceptible to be more annoyed if those desires aren’t met, but to say we won’t survive is a stretch. Is it possible that we won’t be unhealthy? Maybe, although I have to qualify what it means to be unhealthy which I’ll explain later in this post.
So then, if sex isn’t a drive, what is it? It is an “incentive motivational system.” Instead of being pushed by an uncomfortable internal below-the-baseline experience, you are pulled by an attractive external stimulus. Nagoski presents it like this:
Drive—–>survive. Pushed by an unpleasant internal state, which ends when you return to the baseline.
Incentive—–>thrive. Pulled by an attractive external stimulus (the incentive). It ends when you’ve obtained the incentive.
There are a lot of reasons why it’s important to understand that sex isn’t a drive. One is the accurate biological mechanism and the truth behind that. The other is the socio-political importance to know that sex isn’t a drive. I won’t go into the details here. If you do, please read Nagoski’s book, particular pp. 231-233.
However, I do think that sexuality, for the most, part is an important aspect of who we are. Let’s frame this in terms of desires.
II. Categorizing Desires
Even though we need water, food, and sleep, we also desire them. Let’s call them survival desires. These are the desires that one has to have in order to survive. Without these desires being satisfied, we would surely die.
There are other desires that we want satisfied in order to flourish, or to thrive as Nagoski puts it. These needs include friendship, belonging to a community, love, not feeling alienated in your work. Now you don’t need these in order to survive, but notice that if you don’t have them, you wouldn’t be living a very good life. You’d be living a life that is stunted, minimal, and not to the best of what you could potentially be. I’m hesitant to call these “incentive motivational systems” because these things aren’t motivations. We may be motivated to have friends, but friendship itself isn’t a motivation. Taking my cue from virtue ethics, I think friendship, love, belonging to a community, and even sex are flourishing desires. Let me be clear. These are not biological desires; rather, they are eudaimonic desires. They may be eudaimonic needs or wants, but that’s parsing into territory that I’m not familiar with, and the notion of wants/needs may be too dichotomous for my purposes here. So, if I can simplify them, let’s call these flourishing/thriving desires, where we can go above the minimal standards of survival. Fulfilling these desires not only gives us fulfillment, but a sense of well-being.
Finally, there are desires that we often think of as desires: listening to our favorite band, watching our favorite show, eating our favorite food, taking a bath as opposed to a shower, etc. There’s a whole foray of activities you can think of here. Let’s call these preferential desires, or simply call them preferences for short.
So far, we can make a list of surviving desires, flourishing/thriving desires, and preferential desires.
So let me provide an example to show a difference between flourishing desires and preferences.
Suppose partner A gets sexually aroused when there is pornography playing in the background during sex. It gives partner A intense pleasure but partner B has no desire to engage in that activity. Partner A will have to forgo having this desire fulfilled. Surely partner A will be disappointed, but does this mean that partner A cannot be sexually fulfilled? There are many tastes and desires that each individual has and we need to make a compromise. It could be that this desire, while it can give partner A intense pleasure, is not something that partner A needs in order to be sexually fulfilled. Partner A, it seems, will have to forgo this desire or somehow make a compromise with partner B in order to have this desire fulfilled. Thus, having pornography playing in the background seems to be a preferential desire.
On the other hand, suppose someone was a homosexual in a region or time period where homosexuality was not only forbidden, but criminally prosecuted. Having same-sex relations would help this person achieve sexual fulfillment. Not having this desire fulfilled would not only hinder this person’s sexual fulfillment, but it could stifle this person as a human being. Having tastes and desires could be superficial like desiring a specific type of car, or having an exquisite breakfast every morning. But other tastes and desires could be important desires, not like food or water, but important in that it helps one achieve well-being. That is the question: is obtaining sexual fulfillment a mere preference, or is it an important desire?
I do not have enough knowledge in this area, but I would venture that fulfilling same-sex relations is more like a important desire, a desire where fulfilling it constitutes well-being, and that desiring to have a certain sexual position in every sexual encounter is similar to having an exquisite breakfast every morning, and that it is more like a preferential desire.
For the most part, I would consider sex a flourishing desire in the same way I would also count love, a sense of belonging, and being part of a community a flourishing desire. Notice with these desires, we can live without them, but we would not live a very good life. And yet, they are not merely preferences either. (Note: I should add that asexuals makes this more complex. Asexuality is a spectrum. Some have sexual desires but are not attracted to either sex, while others do not have sexual desires at all.)
But what about certain desires that are ambiguous as to whether they are flourishing desires or preferential desires? For example, are desires such as fetishes, BDSM practices, or being polyamorous flourishing desires or preferences? How do we differentiate between superficial tastes and desires as opposed to important tastes and desires that helps one obtain sexual fulfillment? The answers may vary on context, partners, time in one’s life, and how one see’s one’s sexual identity. The answers are going to be widely varied since each individual may see these different sexual components as either constituting their well-being or simply a fun experience to be had. In the end, it is up to each individual to learn what sort of desires are part of their well-being, or part of their preferences. The way to figure this out is partially through self-reflection, and partially through experience. Of course, this is also construed through each individual’s filter based on their own values, previous experiences, and how they identify. But the upshot is a greater understanding of who they sexually are.