The Willingness Model of Sex Therapy

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The purpose of sex therapy is to help people who are experiencing sexual problems. In order to do that, it is useful to understand the nature of sexual desire and sexual interaction. There are a number of models of sexual desire. One of the most commonly talked about is the model of sexual response proposed by Masters and Johnson. They described the sexual response cycle as having four stages:

  1. Excitement - This stage describes the physical arousal of the body. For women, this includes increased blood flow to the genitals and lubrication. For men, this includes erection.
  2. Plateau - This is the stage of pleasure that occurs where that pleasure is stable. Physiological excitement has already occurred. Orgasm is not yet imminent.
  3. Orgasm - This is the stage of release. Women, and some men, may orgasm repeatedly, going from orgasm to plateau, to orgasm and back again. In men, orgasm is usually, but not always, associated with ejaculation.
  4. Resolution - This is the stage where the body returns to an un-aroused state. Blood flow returns to normal, breathing slows. The system relaxes.

This linear model of sexual response works very well for some people. However, it does have a flaw. It presumes that sexual interactions can only occur when someone is excited, It also doesn't separate the fact that excitement may not be necessary for someone to experience enjoyment.

While it is certainly ideal for two people to be enthusiastic about engaging in sex, aroused, and ready to be intimate with each other, that is not always possible. Various factors, including depression and exhaustion, can sometimes make excitement hard to come by. Does that mean it's impossible for people to have enjoyable sex?

Most sex therapists would say no. Later models based on heterosexual interactions would add other elements to the model—arousal and desire. Arousal is the experience of physical excitement. Desire is one's active interest in having sex. However, for some people, even adding those elements isn't enough to describe how they experience their sexuality.


In the 1980s, a woman named Joann Loulan was studying how lesbians have sex. As part of her research, she developed a new model of sexual response that contained a sixth component—willingness. Her inclusion of willingness reflects the fact that studies have shown that, for many women, desire does not always occur spontaneously. However, if women decide that they are willing and interested in engaging in sexual activity—despite lacking desire—they may find that desire occurs as they become physically aroused. Furthermore, Loulan and other researchers showed that it is possible to have an enjoyable, connected sex life without a partner even if you never experience desire. In other words, it's possible to enjoy sex, and connecting with a partner, without sex being something that you were particularly interested in doing that night.

Sometimes it can be hard to understand the difference between willingness and desire. It can help to think about it in terms of a less charged subject—such as food. Imagine that you've been vaguely thinking that you'd like Chinese food for dinner. Your partner comes home with pizza. Although you weren't thinking that you wanted to eat pizza, you have it for dinner. Eating it is enjoyable. It tastes good. It makes you feel full. You enjoy the conversation you're having over the table. You might still not particularly want the pizza, but the experience of having it still brings you pleasure and satisfaction.

Willingness Still Requires Consent

It's important to discuss the fact that willingness is not an excuse for sexual coercion. Willingness is not saying that it's appropriate for a person's partner to say, "well, I bet you'd enjoy it if we just started having sex." Instead, willingness is a way for individuals who want to connect with their partner, but who don't experience spontaneous desire, to find a path towards enjoyable sex. In particular, the willingness model is useful for people who know they enjoy having sex with a partner, but find themselves too tired, depressed or stressed to want to initiate sex. It makes it okay to say to oneself, "I'm not really in the mood, but I might be if we start to fool around," and then see what happens.

Sometimes this can lead to a fulfilling sexual encounter. Other times, it might mean a little bit of exploration that stops when one or the other partner no longer wants to participate in the sexual interaction. Just as with consent, willingness isn't an absolute. A person can always decide that they no longer want to be having sex. That doesn't mean that sex is never going to happen again. It just means that it's not something that they want to be doing right then.

Willingness Isn't Just for Women

The willingness model was designed to describe women's experience of sexual arousal. However, it's also a useful model for men. Despite the expectations of popular culture, many men do not want sex all the time. They may not find arousal easy to come by. They may remember that they enjoy sex but feel like having it is too much work. For such men, if they want to improve their sex life with their partners, the willingness model is helpful as well. It lets them decide to take a risk and explore sexual interaction that might, or might not, end up with penetration and intercourse. They don't have to feel like the absence of an erection means that they don't want sex, if they're willing to have other experiences.

Willingness and Sex Therapy

One of the most common reasons that couples seek out a sex therapist is a mismatch of desire. One person wants sex more than the other, and this has led to both people becoming unhappy in the relationship. Sometimes, there's more going on than just what's on the surface. But other times, age, life, and other circumstances have just made it hard for one or both partners to be interested in sex.

If both partners remember that they enjoy sex with each other, but one no longer feels desire, the willingness model can help. The couple can schedule intimacy with each other and work on finding arousal and enjoyment, without desire burdening the interaction. They can remove the stress of wondering if they want sex, and want each other, and decide to just try to enjoy each other instead. It can be a powerful experience.

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