Summarised from Come as You Are by Emily Nagosky.
In Nagosky’s book Come as You Are, she comprehensively explains a really useful theory in sexuality research – The Dual Control Model of sexual response.
Complicated name, but incredibly user-friendly.
This post is my summary of the most critical points in the theory, and how they might apply to our sex lives. Please indulge me as I use an automotive analogy throughout.
The Dual Control Model: Sexual Accelerators and Sexual Breaks
The Dual Control Model explains the brain systems that coordinate sexual responses. This model works off the understanding that our central nervous system is made up of a series of excitors (accelerators) and inhibitors (breaks). These accelerators and breaks help to coordinate all kinds of systems around our body.
The sexual system is no different – there is a sexual accelerator and a sexual break within the central nervous system.
Our sexual accelerator and sexual break pick up information from the external world (sights, smells, noises, touch, tastes) and the internal world (thoughts, feelings, sensations, memories, fantasies, fears, associations, etc).
Sexual Brakes / Sexual Inhibition System (SIS)
The Sexual Inhibition System (SIS) responds to sexual threats and dampeners, such as anxiety, fear of unwanted pregnancy, fatigue, stress or feeling rushed. When sexual dampeners are detected, SIS sends “turn off” signals from the brain to the genitals.
Sometimes SIS slams on the breaks – like when a child runs into the bedroom mid sexy-time. Other times, SIS is more like a chronic “no thanks” to sex.
SIS can feel like a light foot on the pedal, or a handbrake stuck in place.
Sexual Accelerator / Sexual Excitation System (SES)
The Sexual Excitation System (SES) responds to sexually relevant information in the environment, such as the sight or smell of an attractive person, pleasant sensual touch, or a sexual fantasy in your mind. When sexually relevant information is detected, SES sends “turn on” signals from the brain to the genitals.
SES may present as being actively in the mood for sex, or just being open and receptive to sexual contact.
Why is this significant?
From this theory come a range of useful insights about our sex lives. Here are a few of the important and practical ones.
1) It doesn’t matter how much you rev the gas if your foot is on the break – Know your turn-offs.
Often couples try to address sexual boredom or sexual difficulties by focusing on adding more turn-ons – more lingerie, more erotica, more sex positions, more candles and oils, more whispering-sweet-nothings.
This can be useful, but you still can’t get anywhere if one foot is on the break. Or if the hand-break is still on.
It’s important to understand what factors impact our own sexual breaks.
SIS (the sexual breaks) is the system that identifies sexual threats and dampeners – both internally and externally. What exactly equates to a sexual threat or dampener is influenced by genes, experiences, sex and gender identity, sexual orientation, social messages, cultural expectations and life stage.
Possible turn-offs triggering the sexual breaks may be:
- Feeling tired;
- Feeling stressed, anxious or depressed;
- Feeling too cold, or feeling too warm;
- Feeling disconnected, or feeling smothered;
- Worrying about your body;
- Illness and medication side-effects;
- Pelvic pain or discomfort;
- Past trauma memories;
- Unenjoyable or un-negotiated sexual activities;
- Feeling unsafe – physically or emotionally.
While there are some common turn-offs (e.g., a majority of people find chronic stress a dampener in the bedroom), SIS is very individual.
What turns one person on may turn another off.
Self-knowledge is the key here – if you know your own turn-offs and are interested in decreasing them, then you can problem-solve ways to minimise them as much as possible, or work on them over time.
Knowing a partner’s turn-offs is also of major significance. This gives us the opportunity to assist in minimising those too.
2) Generic turn-ons are for generic people – Know your own turn-ons.
What turns you on? Not what magazines say you should be turned on by; not what the people do in porn; not what you’ve been taught or told you should like.
What actually arouses you or makes you positively anticipate sexual contact?
SES (the sexual accelerator) is the system that notices sexually relevant information – both internally and externally. And just like SIS, this is a very individual system.
Some things might be innately sexy, but a lot of what we find sexually desirable is learnt through sexual experiences and social messages.
Possible turn-ons that trigger the sexual accelerator may be:
- Feeling attractive, or being attracted to a partner;
- Feeling relaxed, or feeling stressed (for some people stress is exciting);
- Sexual fantasies or imagined scenarios;
- Pleasurable body sensations;
- Certain qualities or feelings – feeling loved, naughty, safe, taboo, in control, out of control;
- Smells, textures, tastes, sounds, visuals – silk, leather, feathers, oils, perfumes, erotica, chocolate, moans, commands, etc;
- Sexual novelty, or sexual familiarity;
- Being submissive, or being dominant, or having no power dynamics.
Self-knowledge again is the key here – turn-ons are not generic, they are individual. Once we know what turns us on, we can find ways to talk about this with partners and include these elements into our sex life on a regular basis.
You can create a positive sexual context for yourself and your partner.
3) Turn on your Ons, Turn off your Offs.
Sexual difficulties can occur when there is an imbalance of the sexual breaks & accelerator. Too many dampeners? Not enough excitation? Often sexual difficulties arise from a combination of both.
Therefore, addressing just one or the other can be unproductive.
Sexual satisfaction can be increased by turning on your Ons, and turning off your Offs. And of course, this applies to a partner’s Ons and Offs too.
We can create a sexual context where there are lots of “turn on” messages going from the brain to the genitals, and minimal “turn off” messages.
Note: “Turn off” messages are a very important part of the system though – their role is to keep us safe from unwanted sex, STIs and unwanted pregnancy, to keep us acting in socially appropriate ways (ie. not having sex in the middle of the library at lunchtime), and to help us be productive in other areas of life rather than constantly thinking about sex. We do not want to eradicate all “turn off” messages.
4) We’re all different – Be strategic, not judgemental.
While we all have a sexual accelerator and break, and we all have different turn-ons and turn-offs, different people will also have more or less sensitive accelerators and breaks.
For example, someone with low sensitivity to the breaks may find that not too many things turn them off. This means the brain is not sending a lot of “turn off” messages to the genitals.
Meanwhile, someone with very sensitive breaks may find that many things are a turn-off, and that it is more difficult to feel interested in sex, to get aroused, and to climax. The brain is sending lots of “turn off” message to the genitals, unless the conditions are just right.
Additionally, high sensitivity to the accelerator may mean that lots of things are stimulating and it’s easy to get aroused. Meanwhile, low sensitivity to the accelerator may mean that the list of turn-ons is smaller and more specific.
There is no right or wrong here, just differences.
And if we are judgemental about these differences – e.g. “I should be able to get turned on more easily” or “How on earth can they feel turned on right now?” or “Why aren’t they more like me?” – then we are usually less creative in how we manage them.
But if we can acknowledge and accept these differences as natural human variation, then we are in a much better place to strategically create the right kind of sexual context for ourselves and our partners.
And some differences in a couple really may need some creativity and strategic planning. For example, a sensitive break under the wrong conditions appears to be a strong predictor of sexual difficulties.
5) Change the Sexual Context
Little is known about the factors that may change SIS and SES in an individual. It is believed that we all have a predetermined range of sensitivity that we fall within, and there appears to be little we can deliberately do to change the Dual Control system significantly.
But we can change the sexual context.
Changing the sexual context means deliberately decreasing the dampeners (turn off the Offs) and increasing the sexually relevant information (turn on the Ons) in order to make your life more conducive of sexual receptiveness, arousal and satisfaction.
Changing the sexual context requires a focus both internally (thoughts, feelings, sexual memories, attitudes about sex, etc) and externally (managing stressors, communicating preferences, warming up the bedroom before getting naked, etc).
Are there gender differences?
Research suggests that on average cisgender men (men who were assigned male at birth) seem to have a more sensitive accelerator, and that on average cisgender women (women who were assigned female at birth) seem to have a more sensitive break.
But there is a great degree of variation within genders as well, with both cis men and cis women scoring from high to low on SIS and SES sensitivity. Most people fall in the average range. There is no research on trans and gender diverse people regarding this model.
Sexual Temperament Questionnaire
If you are interested in where you sit on the continuum of SIS and SES sensitivity, the survey below can help you to identify this. It gives a score of low, medium or high on SIS and on SES. A medium score on both is average – this represents around 50% of people according to Nagosky.
This survey is adapted from a more comprehensive questionnaire, but it can be a good way to get a feel for where you might sit on the continuum. It can also be a good conversation starter with partners.
Dr. Alice Hucker