So what is a sex drive, anyway? What does “libido” mean?

Both are questions considered so basic and well-understood that most people would scoff at hearing them asked, but actually, this concept is not so well defined as people would think.

It’s pretty clear that both refer to a desire for sex or sexual acts strong enough that it becomes a motivating force. The problem word in this definition is “sex.”

A few weeks ago, I was playing Truth (we are too lazy to come up with dares) with a couple of friends of mine, and, not being able to think of anything else to ask, I fell back on the standard, “How many people have you had sex with, and how many were guys, and how many were girls?”

The friend I was asking shrugged his shoulders in honest confusion. “Well, what counts as sex?”

This highlights a problem with certain acts being categorizable as either sex or not sex, depending on who you ask. Intercourse, both vaginal and anal, is generally considered to be solidly within the “sex” category. Oral and manual sex (I had to clarify that because he didn’t know it meant fingering/handjob, so I suppose I should here too, to be on the safe side), on the other hand, despite being identified by the word “sex,” are considered sexual acts, but are not necessarily categorized as sex. The same is true of frottage, or dry-humping, which if I remember correctly, was interestingly enough the only kind of sex engaged in by (I believe) Greek homosexual males, because they considered the anus dirty. If these men had a desire only for this specific act, but not for any other sexual act of any kind, would people (according to our cultural mindset) consider that to be a sex drive? I’m not sure.

There is a clear heterocentric bias revealed by the way that people think about sex. It’s all about penetration, and because of this idea that sex is necessarily penetrative, many people think that lesbians can’t have sex with one another. The only reason that they think that gay men can have sex with one another is because anal sex mimics vaginal sex in that sense. When people think of “gay sex,” they automatically think of anal sex, rather than any other sexual act. In actuality, most of my gay friends tell me that they rarely (if ever) engage in anal sex, because they find it uncomfortable. Of course there are plenty of gay men who DO engage in it, but the idea of anal sex as the ultimate gay sex act is pretty overinflated, I think, by those with no experience to the contrary.

All these conflicting ideas come into play when it comes to the question of virginity status. Some people would consider anyone who has not had vaginal intercourse to be a virgin, others would consider anyone who has not had vaginal or anal intercourse to be a virgin, and still others would say that even if you’ve only had oral, you’re not a virgin. Some people try to avoid all this confusion by separating each act into different types of virginity, because focusing on people’s status as virgins or not virgins is not really worthwhile anyway.

I think the biggest definitional point of confusion about having or not having a sex drive, within the asexual community at least, is this: are we referring to a purely physiological drive for physical pleasure when we talk about sex drive and libido, or are we referring to the desire for sexual interaction, too? And if we are not referring to any desire to engage in sexual acts with another person, are we using terms that would make that clear? Are we using terms that would fit in with a typical sexual person’s understanding of those words, or are we causing extra confusion by contradicting their ideas?

Asexuals who masturbate typically say that they have a sex drive, or a libido. They feel physiological, sometimes accompanied by mental arousal, and this drives them to masturbate. The distinction is that they do not feel sexual attraction, so there is no motivation for them to act on it with another person, although they are motivated to (sometimes grudgingly) satisfy it by masturbation, and may be able to enjoy having sex with another person even if they are not attracted to them, depending on how comfortable they are with acting outside their orientation. This makes sense to me, but would it make any sense to someone who is not familiar with asexual discourse? That, I’m really not sure about.

I asked my sister, and she gave me something completely different. She said her definition of a sex drive is the “frequency and intensity of the need for sexual intimacy.” Whoa, intimacy? Now you’re talking about emotions. That’s totally different from what the asexual definition is. The way I see it, sex and intimacy are not necessarily connected at all. I can (and have, once, sort of) felt intimacy during sex, but much more often, I feel distanced from my partner, and I don’t feel intimate because of the sex itself anyway. According to my sister’s definition, then, I cannot possibly have a sex drive, because I don’t even know if I can even experience “sexual intimacy,” much less have a drive to seek it out.

I asked her also if she knew the difference between the terms “sex drive” and “libido,” and she started quoting the dictionary, admitting that she didn’t know. It seems that the terms are used almost interchangeably, but I’d be interested to see a run-down of what subtle differences there are between the two terms. It seems to me that “libido” carries a lot more connotations of weird Freudian “psychic energy,” whatever that means. Freud’s theories, though… interesting, all seem very vague and unprovable, anyway.

Oh, and at the end of my lovely little conversation with my sister, she argued with me about how she doesn’t think asexuality exists, and how I’m just a prude who is totally unqualified to talk about sex because I haven’t experienced it. *cough* Little does she know. Now you see why I post this blog anonymously!

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One thought on “So what is a sex drive, anyway? What does “libido” mean?

  1. i think everything sex-related in biased towards heterosexuality. A lot of the debates that we have now wouldn’t be so confusing if it wasn’t for choice of terms and how they consciously or unconsciously for many cary straight meaning.

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