For people in relationships, if one partner doesn’t get turned on easily or feels like they’re never in the mood for sex, it can sometimes feel like a hopeless and insurmountable problem. Desire discrepancy, when one partner wants more sex than the other, is a common issue in long-term relationships. Folks in this situation often receive advice about “spicing things up” to increase desire—things like sex toys and candles and lacy lingerie—but often, these are merely one-time band-aids that don’t get to the root of the issue.
If you’re someone who has lower desire than your partner and want to have more regular sex, sex and relationship coach Pam Costa, M.A., recommends taking a different approach to sex entirely.
The case for “first-base dates.”
Costa recommends what she calls “first-base dates.”
When you’re spending dedicated couple’s time together, take genital stuff off the table. Or perhaps you two might come up with specific parameters, such as, “We can do anything but X act.” The idea behind this approach is making intimacy more accessible by getting rid of expectations for a specific set of sexual acts.
“A lot of couples really put a tremendous amount of expectation on sex, and that does not allow desire to blossom,” Costa explains. “What happens when we get into these routines around sex or these scripts or these certain definitions—it’s like we think have to go from this to this to this to this. It would be like if I go to some restaurant, and I’m like, well, what I have to order is this because it’s what I always order. Versus going into the restaurant and going like, oh, what do I feel like today? Or what is my stomach growling about? Or what does my heart feel nostalgic about? Then I’m actually listening to what I need in the moment.”
That’s the key: listening to what your body wants. When you’re not expected to behave a certain way or do a certain thing, all of a sudden you open up your senses to really pay attention to what your body is telling you you’re feeling like doing. This is particularly important for people who don’t tend to get turned on easily or immediately by sexual stimuli.
“The higher-desire partner is the higher-desire partner because they have access to turn-on. And the lower-desire partner, it’s not as easy for them to access,” Costa explains. “The higher-desire partner is going 60 miles an hour, they’re ready to go, and the lower-desire partner is like, I can’t find my car keys.”
A first-base date allows you to spend time in a space that’s sensual and intimate without feeling like there’s any agenda or pressure. You don’t have to worry about why you’re not getting turned on as fast as your partner is, because that’s not the point. Cost says you may want to engage in simple acts of touch like hand rubs, foot rubs, or cuddling on the couch. “But actively. Not mindlessly, like we’re watching TV,” she adds. “Let’s lay together and notice what happens. I think most people, when they start to get touched, if there truly is no pressure, and if their partner is paying attention to them, they start to feel good.”
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Prioritizing sexual energy over sexual acts.
“Couples tend to define sex or being sexual as penis in vagina or intercourse,” Costa explains. “When we define something that rigidly—and have to include orgasm—that sets a really high bar for success with you then not having sex at all. That’s a really, really big gap.”
When you make it intercourse or nothing, you’re more likely to get nothing. Instead, Costa recommends completely ditching the focus on intercourse—and even the focus on having orgasms, which are not necessarily a barometer for good sex. Sex has nothing to do with what specific acts you do, and it’s definitely not about goalposts. Instead, the meat of sex is more about getting to tap into that heady sexual space together with your partner. It’s an energy more than anything else.
“Remember what it was like when you were in high school, and being sexual was a bit of making out,” Costa says. Often, those earliest positive intimate experiences stand out in our memories as incredibly hot and heavy, even when they didn’t involve any direct genital contact at all. There’s just something very unique about sharing experiences of physical pleasure and touch with another person, sensations we usually aren’t able to get in any other context.
If you’re someone who takes longer to get turned on or who doesn’t have a lot of spontaneous desire for sex, you don’t need to try to change those things about you. It’s hard to force yourself to just spontaneously be in the mood for sex more often. Instead, if you do want more sex in your life, make it simple. Focus on spending more time in that sexual headspace with your partner where you can just enjoy touch, pleasure, and intimacy together. That is what sex is really about anyway.
The bonus? From that space, you just might find yourself occasionally transitioning into sexual desire more naturally. That’s not the goal (remember: no goals!), and you should plan on abiding by the rules around your first-base dates. But your relationship is going to get a lot of other yummy benefits from being this intimate with each other nonetheless.
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