2020 has been a year that has put unprecedented stress on relationships. Navigating a global pandemic; increasing tensions between law enforcement and communities that have amplified demands for racial justice and accountability; Non-Traditional Instruction (NTI) educational programs that have led many families to name their experiences as akin to homeschooling that they may not have signed up for (and teachers working tirelessly to seamlessly manage this transition) – not to mention countless themes emerging that include death, fear, grief and loss, uncertainty, job loss, economic downturn, and change that has happened, maybe even faster than we know how to adapt.
These are only some of the factors affecting individuals with whom I work, with this post intended to support anyone navigating connection, particularly sex and intimacy, amidst this backdrop. One tool that we have used to better understand what leads folks to feeling closer or further apart has been the Dual Control Model of Sexual Response.
Created by former Kinsey Institute director Dr. John Bancroft and Dr. Erick Janssen in the late 1990’s (https://kinseyinstitute.org/research/dual-control-model.php), and popularized by sex educator and professor Dr. Emily Nagoski (https://www.wbur.org/radioboston/2015/03/12/emily-nagoski; https://www.heartfeltcounselingmn.com/blog/2019/11/4/accelerators-and-brakes-two-things-everyone-should-use-to-talk-about-sex), the dual control model explores the way that sexual response has its own excitation and inhibition systems, with these corresponding to the metaphor of a car in that we all have a ‘gas pedal’ (accelerator) and ‘brake pedal’ (decelerator) as it relates to sexual intimacy.
I explore this with folks as our ‘gas pedal’ being anything that moves us closer to intimacy, and the ‘brakes’ as anything that takes us away from this or out of this mindset (http://www.integrativehealthinstitute.ca/libido-its-not-about-the-drive-its-about-the-brakes/). It is also important to know that as whole people, we are impacted not just by what happens between us and a partner, but by what we are carrying of the day, the world, our pasts, our hopes, our needs, etc. Some people also have more powerful excitation or inhibition systems, meaning that they may be more sensitive to one pedal being pushed down more than the other.
Examples of this for someone having a very strong ‘gas pedal’ may include someone having a hard day, but feeling their ‘gas pedal’ being pushed when they see their partner at home, and being able to focus on that, where it really overtakes everything else. Someone else who has exquisite brakes may have an apartment that is clean; candles and music there that usually help them to feel relaxed; but may catch sight of themselves in the mirror and experience guilt or body image shame, and feel pulled ‘out of the mood.’ Our gas pedals and brakes may co-exist and influence our desire, with the brakes for many people, particularly women, having a more powerful impact (https://www.wbur.org/commonhealth/2015/03/13/come-as-you-are-women-sex) on their sexual response and desire.
Some people might list turn-ons under the gas pedal, but it is much more than that. It can include these, but may also include feeling inspired, appreciated, or seen; overcoming something difficult; delegating something, etc. Likewise, our brakes are more than our turn-offs, and may even include practical concerns (children crying) that can pull us out of the moment and/or that seemingly have nothing to do with sex or sexuality.
These have the potential to evolve over time. Each of us at any moment may have things that propel us towards or halt us in our tracks when it comes to intimacy with others (or even ourselves!). As we go through life changes, and particularly with the changes that have come with a pandemic and the state of our world, it makes sense that our gas and brakes may evolve, as well.
While these may differ for everyone, some potential examples of ‘gas pedals’ may include:
• Feeling desired, cherished, seen, or validated
• Being in an environment that feels good and one can relax in
• Any potential distractions (children, pets, phones) taken care of or at bay
• Feeling sexy or desirable in one’s own body
• Sensory stimulation ranging from particular fabrics or sensations [sheets, PJ’s, lingerie, and softness of one’s skin, all the way to how enjoyable sensations may be leading up to or including sex]
• Savoring the moment and taking time to build up… or enjoying or feeling delighted at the speed with which things are moving!
• General hygiene and/or grooming (as perceived by what feels right by an individual and/or their partner)
• Being touched the way that we like
• Being talked to in a way that we like
• Feeling free, open, curious, and/or relaxed
• Being in the moment
• Security (for some – for those who need this, it may be a locked door, alarm as a container for how long ‘sexy time’ is, being with a partner with whom you feel safe, etc.)
• Thrill (something erotically charged or pleasing)
• Basic necessities met (it is easier to consider intimacy when we are fed, have gotten enough sleep, and don’t feel sick or ill)
• Feeling emotionally and physically safe (some folks may need this as a precursor to sex, whereas other folks may meet this need through being intimate or as a means of reclaiming safety)
Some potential ‘brakes’ for folks may include:
• Having unmet needs or expectations (food, sleep, help with something, attention, acknowledgement, etc.)
• Feeling unsafe
• Being targeted (for one’s race, gender, sexual orientation, profession, and many other identities + something that brings this to the forefront of one’s mind)
• Unresolved conflict, as well as criticism, contempt, or stonewalling (see Gottman’s Four Horsemen)
• Feeling worry or anxiety (especially within the pandemic, worry for loved ones or oneself for getting sick, uncertainty with jobs and/or school, being constrained/unable to travel, risks of going to public places/gatherings, navigating as someone immunocompromised or as loving someone who is immunocompromised, lacking financial security, etc.)
• Feeling judged, unheard, unacknowledged, or ignored
• Murder of and deaths amongst the Black community, without clear accountability, reparations, and/or other factors needed for healing
• Isolation, and feeling disconnected from community
• Political division
• Fear of one’s future depending on the political landscape/outcomes following the election
• Bullying, abuse, put-downs, or messages that one is not enough
• Body image concerns or feeling different/less than the status quo
• Feeling overresponsible, burdened, numb, etc.
• Being sick; taking care of someone who is sick; and/or battling a potential for getting sick, particularly as it relates to contracting COVID-19, as well as the fear that may arise with getting sick and not knowing one’s viral status
It should also be noted that when we discuss sexual excitation and inhibition systems, that it translates to being physically, emotionally, and erotically in the moment. Someone may list for themselves ‘gas pedals’ (i.e. something that is moving them towards intimacy) that include duty, obligation, or even a desire to get pregnant. While these may move someone closer to the act of intimacy, these may not promote someone desiring, craving, or really wanting the experience of sex. People also make decisions about what they want and what they are in the mood for based off of a host of factors, and often while simultaneously experiencing a range of ‘gas pedals’ and ‘brakes’ at the same time. Where our attention goes and what we are holding onto in the moment will often play a large role in what we decide to do, as well as influence our ability to enjoy and be present in what we choose.
Deciding what to do with this information all comes down to YOU! Some couples or individuals may benefit from making a list of their ‘gas pedals’ and ‘brakes,’ and being able to share these with each other. For others, beginning to notice and include the things that make them feel good, present, and desiring of intimacy can also be helpful.
Giving onself grace, and acknowledging the stress and fear that can arise with current events as it relates to ‘brakes’ may also be helpful! It makes sense for things that take over our systems to at times make it difficult to access, feel, or remember our desire, and that may not mean that there is something wrong with us, but rather, that we are holding and experiencing a lot at once.
Your sexual health, desire, and wellness matter, and if you need support, guidance, validation, or even permission to explore these at a deeper level, feel free to reach out to me through firstname.lastname@example.org, or you can use word-of-mouth or the website for American Association of Sexuality Educators, Counselors and Therapists (AASECT) to find a certified sex therapist local to you (https://www.aasect.org/referral-directory)!
1. Unknown. (Date unknown). The dual control model of sexual response. Kinsey Institute – Indiana University. Accessed from https://kinseyinstitute.org/research/dual-control-model.php
2. Becker, Deborah; Chakrabarti, Meghna; and Nagowski, Emily. (March 2015). 7 sex education lessons from Emily Nagoski’s ‘Come as you are’ Radio Boston. Accessed from https://www.wbur.org/radioboston/2015/03/12/emily-nagoski
3. Unknown. (November 2019). Accelerators and brakes: Two things everyone should use to talk about sex. Heartfelt Counseling. Accessed from https://www.heartfeltcounselingmn.com/blog/2019/11/4/accelerators-and-brakes-two-things-everyone-should-use-to-talk-about-sex
4. Watson, Lisa. (August 2019). Libido: It’s not about the drive, it’s about the brakes. Integrative Health Institute. Accessed from http://www.integrativehealthinstitute.ca/libido-its-not-about-the-drive-its-about-the-brakes/
5. Goldberg, Carey. (March 2015). ‘Come as you are’: Book explores old lies and new science on women and sex. Wbur: Common Health. Accessed from https://www.wbur.org/commonhealth/2015/03/13/come-as-you-are-women-sex
Nagoski, Emily. (2015). Come as you are : the surprising new science that will transform your sex life. New York :Simon & Schuster Paperbacks.