How do desire and sexual curiosity develop?

Published:

Dear Sex Counselor,
Is sexual desire and the ability to try new things based partly on how you were raised and what you saw of your parents' love life (like the smooching, hand holding, hugging)? I understand that some of this desire thing is built-in, but is some of it learned? I have been married to the same woman for 18+ years, and she really has no desire to expand our sexual horizons. While she may be satisfied, it often leaves me very frustrated. Where does one go and what does one partner do after all the discussions have taken place?


You are asking several questions here. The first, about where sexual desire and curiosity come from, is very complex to answer. You are right to suspect that early experiences and environment play a part in how one thinks about sex for oneself. While no one has come up with a definitive answer on how we form our sexual selves, several components come together in the development of how we think about our sexuality.

Yes, our family exposure has an impact - if the family "rule" about sex is that it is not talked about, affection is not freely expressed by parents, and sexuality is not apparent in one's parents, then it is up to the individual to develop their own views on sex later in his or her development. That doesn't mean that ultimately the person ends up with less interest or curiosity, but it could mean that.

Another factor in how a person develops her or his sexuality is early sexual experiences and sexual education in general. If one is raised to think that sex is for procreation only, and that there is only one way to have sex (face-to-face sexual intercourse between one man and one woman), that education lingers. Many people do work to change those beliefs for themselves, but many do not.

Whether one is sexually curious probably has more to do with one's personality in general; if you are one to explore and grow and challenge your boundaries, you are likely to do so in all areas of your life, including sex. If you are one who seeks the comfort zone of constancy and less change, then you are likely to be the same way about sex. So the reason your wife is not as interested in exploring beyond the current boundaries has many roots, some of which she may know and some she may not. What you can do about it is a very different question.

When you say that all discussion has been had, that tells me that she has said, "this is the way it is, and I don't want to talk about it any more". If that is so, then there is little you can do about her position. You can only influence how you think and behave, especially if there is no negotiation possible between the two of you. So you can start exploring more interesting self-pleasuring avenues, you can choose to try to find a way to explore outside of your relationship, or you can look at ways to try to gently open your current relationship to different ideas.

You may want to try to figure out if your wife is afraid of something when you talk about expanding your sexual horizons. Something in her experience or education may have her envisioning something frightening to her. If she has any history of abuse, that may be playing a part in what she is envisioning. If she has limited sexual experience, including not much exposure to sexy books and movies, then she may have no idea what you are asking for, and that may be frightening.

You might want to see if she would be willing to watch some educational movies with you that talk about how to keep your sexual relationship lively and pleasurable over the lifespan. The Sexplorations Series is very good for that, and is not threatening to most people. If she is completely closed, and you don't want to jeopardize your relationship (and she is not open to your seeking an outside partner), then you can explore a wide variety of self-pleasuring activities. You may even want to get a toy for yourself, so you can broaden your horizons on your own. Try the Velvet Glove or Maven masturbation sleeves - these tend to be popular with our male customers.

It may also be true that your wife will warm up to more exploration if she doesn't feel pressure from you, and sees you creating your own adventures. Then it becomes her choice, on her own timeline, which can be helpful. One book I would recommend looking at is The Heart of Desire by Stella Resnick. It is a great book for long term couples looking to improve their sexual relationship, and it's very approachable. However, like everything else, it requires both partners to be open to working with it.

You might also try something that increases your emotional connection in a fun way. Games like Sensations or books like 101 Nights of Grrreat Sex or You Still Give Me Butterflies have been very successful at helping couples play together more as well as get closer to each other emotionally.  Negotiate with her to see if she'd be willing to try something like that with you. It's a directly indirect approach that may be more appealing to her. Good luck!

The Sex Counselor