Ayden Ferstenberg, Psy.D.
The "Gas" and "Brake" of the Sexual Self
Do you sometimes feel like the slightest thing can turn you on sexually? Maybe the smell an enticing cologne, or seeing someone with a cute smile on the bus? Or how about the opposite? You see something or think something that you think should interest your sexual self, and still…nothing. These differences in people’s sexual responses are quite normal, and in order to understand them, we’re going to talk about the dual control model.
The dual control model was developed by Erick Janssen and John Banecroft in the late 1990’s. This model explains how everyone has a sexual excitation system (SES) and a sexual inhibition system (SIS). The SES is often likened to a gas pedal in your car–-it’s your acceleration. The part that tells the system to “go” and propels you forward. This system is constantly on (even if you’re not aware of it) and scans the environment for stimuli that it perceives as sexually relevant. It then instructs your brain to signal your genitals to “go” or turn on. For example, you might be walking down the street and see someone you perceive as good looking. Your SES notices this stimuli and you might start feeling aroused, psychologically or physiologically. The SIS, by contrast, is often likened to the brake pedal in your car. It’s the part that tells the system to “stop” and puts a halt on any activity. This system scans the environment for potentially threatening stimuli or anything that might indicate now isn’t a good time to get aroused, and then instructs your brain to signal your body to shut down any arousal. For example, it’s the part of you that worries about unwanted pregnancies, STIs, that your kids are home and can walk in at any moment, that you are anticipating a phone call from your boss about an important matter, or that your mother-in-law is in the room right next door.
These two systems operate independently and in order to understand your own sexual responses, you need to understand how these two systems work for you. Everyone’s SES and SIS have different levels of sensitivity. If you have a sensitive SES and a low SIS, you are likely to be very responsive to sexual stimuli. For that person, a fleeting sexually charged thought or seeing someone attractive while walking down the street can result in arousal. Your gas pedal is always ready to go, go, go and your brakes don’t easily stop. You only need the slightest pressure on the pedal to shoot forward while your brakes are minimally engaged, if at all. Because of this sensitive brain system, people with high SES and low SIS tend to be highly motivated to pursue sex, even under conditions that other people might not find very sexy. By contrast, if you have a low SES and a high SIS, it will take a lot of concentration and intentional focus on sexually arousing stimuli in order to feel “turned on.” For this person, a physical or sensual encounter with a partner might not elicit any strong experience of desire, or hearing your child cough in the other room, and the brakes come slamming down. Your brake pedal is always ready to stop, stop, stop, and since your SES isn’t sensitive to many sexual stimuli to begin with, it’s hard to feel motivated to pursue sex. For this person, the slightest threat or perceived threat to sex shuts doen all sexual interests.
In order to determine if you have a sensitive SES, ask yourself questions like: Do I experience desire or arousal when I think about someone attractive? Do I find myself becoming excited when I see my partner doing something that is physically or emotionally meaningful for me? Do I get turned on when my partner does something for me? Do smells activate my sexual interests? Do I feel desire when I feel sexually desired by my partner? Do I allow myself or enjoy fantasizing about my partner?
To determine if you have a sensitive SIS, ask yourself questions like: Can small interruptions turn me off? Do I find myself thinking about all the reasons not to have sex? Do I need certain specific conditions in order to feel comfortable enough to have sex? Do I find myself worrying about different things during sex? Do I feel self-conscious in a way that interferes with my ability to experience desire or arousal? Do I worry that I or my partner won't experience an orgasm, which then prevents me from feeling aroused?
Everyone has some variability to their of SES and SIS sensitivity. Sexual arousal, then, can really be understood as the cooperation of these two systems: activating the gas pedal and deactivating the brakes. Your level of arousal will be determined by how much pressure is being put on the gas pedal and how little pressure is being put on the brakes. Although you might be pressing down full throttle on the gas pedal, if the brakes are fully pressed too, you aren’t going to be going anywhere any time soon, and you might even feel emotionally or physically drained in the process, similar to how flooring the gas pedal and brake pedal simultaneously burns a lot of fuel Taken together, this means everyone has a different level of arousability and getting aroused isn’t just a matter of external exposure to sexually intriguing stimuli, but an attunement to our internal processes that excite or inhibit the sexual response cycle. In order to facilitate arousal, both systems need to be sufficiently engaged or disengaged. This might mean getting in touch with the things that enhance or contribute to your sexual excitation while also being aware of and reducing factors that lead to sexual inhibition.
So what can you do with this information? One important takeaway is how each person is uniquely responsible for their own experiences of desire and arousal. Reflect on the things that seem to propel you toward sex and the things that repel you from it. Ask yourself what contexts are most arousing, and what contexts will shut you down. If you are in a relationship, these examples also demonstrate the importance of communicating with your partner about yours and their SES and SIS triggers. Set aside a time to communicate about the contexts you need in order to feel turned on. In doing so you create the situations that allow for arousability. Maybe this means sharing the ways you enjoy being touched. Maybe it means creating the environment that primes your mind for sexual activity, like music, emotional connection, or playfulness. It also means dialoguing about the things that suppress your sexual interests. Maybe this means making sure your room is tidied or the chores are completed, which frees up your mental space. Maybe it means getting a lock for your bedroom door to ensure privacy. Maybe it means shifting sex to the morning since you're too tired in the evenings. Be clear about your turn-offs and turn-ons and be open to hearing about your partner’s. Problem solve together ways of respecting each of the sexual contexts you need in order to really support each other’s sexual excitation systems and sexual inhibition systems. Remember, it’s not just about just about ramping up the pressure on the gas pedal. It’s also about decreasing the pressure on the brakes by removing the inhibitions you have around sex.
Many individuals and couples struggle with understanding their SES and SIS and how to navigate invariable differences that exist between two people. If this is something you or your partner struggle with, therapy can be a valuable resource to facilitate the sex life you and your partner would like to move towards.