Have you ever started having sex, everything feels good in the moment, and then all of a sudden, something switched? How about feeling like your switch just won’t flip (meaning you no longer want sex at all)? That switch is not a simple on or off, instead it’s more like pedals in a car.
Losing or gaining sexual desire doesn’t inherently mean there is something wrong. Sometimes your arousal gas or brakes are being pressed too hard or not hard enough, which can impact the satisfaction of sexual experiences. If you are curious about understanding your unique relationship to sex, or want to enjoy sex more, the dual control model can help.
What is the Dual Control Model?
The dual control model, developed by former Kinsey Institute director Dr. John Bancroft and Dr. Erick Janssen in the late 1990s, purports two systems constantly working to move you closer or further along the ever evolving sexual response cycle.
The sexual excitation system (SES) moves you forward, and the sexual inhibition system (SIS) moves you further away. To put it plainly, one is the gas and the other, the brake.
Individuals’ responsiveness to these systems varies widely and is comprised of your personal physiology, sexual history, and personality preferences. Everybody’s sexual experiences are different, and that’s okay.
Examples of How the Dual Control Model Works
Max and Courtney start having what they define as sex. Max is feeling aroused and is ready to move further until all of a sudden, Courtney asks to stop. Max feels confused about the sudden shift. Courtney has learned from her sex therapist that sex is not her obligation and she is allowed to remove consent at anytime.
Upon reflection, Courtney realizes with her understanding of the dual control model, that Max started using erotic language (dirty talk) that didn’t resonate for her, and he withdrew his eye contact. These two nuances caused Courtney’s brakes to screech to a sudden halt. Courtney has lost connection, emotional safety, and most importantly, the intimacy that is necessary for her gas to keep revving and her brakes to remain at rest.
Bennett and Aaliyah haven’t had active sex lives in months. Each time Bennett tries to engage in sex, Aaliyah appears to give him the snub. After learning about the dual control model, the couple sits down to have a conversation about their sexual issues. Aaliyah explains everytime Bennet attempts to have sex it is at the end of the day when she is exhausted and it feels like there is no build up (foreplay/outercourse).
Aaliyah naturally has more sensitive brakes and her gas requires more time to warm up. In order for Aaliyah to feel desire or to become aroused, sex needs to start long before the act. For Aaliyah, this looks like receiving a sext during the day, intimate conversation, and help from Bennett (without prompting) with some of the domestic tasks around the home. If domestic labor is more balanced and her partner expresses more of his internal experience, this is a major turn on, and presses the gas pedal.
Learning to identify your gas and brakes is essential for understanding your personal arousal template and can help you more aptly create the sex life you want, rather than the sex you think you should be having.
Using the Dual Control Model for Great Sex
Learn Your Unique System
You might spend some time sitting down with yourself or with your partner and create a list of the thoughts, sensations, sex positions, favorite erogenous zones, and behaviors that press on your gas versus those that press on your brakes. Reading books by sexual health experts and Certified Sex Therapists is also a great way to enhance your sex education.
Don’t worry if the number of items on your “breaks” list is long. Remember: everyone’s sexual proclivity differs. As the idiom goes, what we don’t know can hurt us. Use this as an opportunity to have a conversation about your sexual relationship and what defines good sex to you. It can be challenging to have a robust sex life when you aren’t verbalizing your sexual wants and needs.
If you want a fun tool, checkout this free Yes/No/Maybe list for your next date night.
Consider the Context
In order for the gas pedal to move forward, the context needs to be right for your unique system. If the dishes are dirty, the lighting is appalling, or you’re having second thoughts about your relationship, these situations might be contributing to poor context and subsequently, lack of desire for sex.
There are a host of culturally conditioned expectations around sex. “Sex needs to be spontaneous”, “sex needs to reach orgasm”, “sex needs to happen at a certain frequency”, and the list goes on. If you can start to identify and transform these messages there is room for growth.
Waiting for a partner to figure you out means you could be waiting forever as people are not mind readers. Sexual preferences change and transform, just like people do.
You might take a tantric sex class, enroll in a partnered kink workshop, research some sex tips and fun sex toys, or maybe attend a sex party. Be intentional about your learning and exploration. Novelty increases dopamine, which can increase pleasure and satisfaction.
Modern Intimacy offers many courses, resources, and blog posts to explore your sexuality and mental health, whether it’s alone or with a partner. The dual control model can help guide you to greater awareness of your personal needs for sex and watch what unfolds.
Keep in mind: people have sex for different reasons and peoples’ definitions of sex vary widely. The more expansive your definition, the more freedom you have to explore pleasure over penetration. Consider sex as an acronym for: sacred or (soul) energy exchange. If sex becomes about being rather than doing, there is opportunity for elevated experiences.