The Accelerator and the Brake: What Is Needed for Good Sex

A good sex life is one of the key ingredients in a good life. Sexual satisfaction has been shown to increase relationship and life satisfaction as well as multiple indicators of physical and mental health.

Sexual dysfunction, however, is a common problem, affecting up to a third of sexually active people and leading to impaired sexuality, less satisfying intimate relationships, and mental health issues.

Generally, women tend to experience issues such as low desire, difficulties with sexual arousal or orgasm, and pelvic pain. For men, the most common problems relate to erection quality and early ejaculation.

It’s no wonder, then, that psychologists have been interested in figuring out the causes of dysfunction. Early research on the psychological mechanisms of sexual arousal has focused mainly on the role of attention. The psychologist David Barlow proposed an influential model arguing that sexual response is a function of attentional focus.

Specifically, problems happen when a person’s attention during a sexual encounter shifts from sexual and arousing cues to non-erotic thoughts, such as performance concerns. As attention turns away from arousal cues, arousal disappears.

This work was based mainly on research into erection problems in men. Later work has elaborated on this model to argue that processes other than diverted attention may interfere with sexual performance. Sexual Inhibition, it turns out, is not merely a lack of excitation or a diversion from it, but an independent process, and the two may work at cross purposes.

In the 1990s, Erick Janssen and John Bancroft, researchers at Kinsey Institute in Indiana, offered a revision of the old model accounting for these insights. They proposed a dual control model, which argues that sexual performance depends on the balance between two independent factors, sexual excitation (SE) and sexual inhibition (SI), the latter of which has been shown to include two components: internally focused inhibition due to threat of performance failure (e.g., early ejaculation) and externally focused inhibition due to threat of performance consequences (e.g., contracting a sexually transmitted disease; damaged reputation).

According to this model, one’s sexual functioning depends on how these two dimensions interact. For example, high levels of SI coupled with low levels of SE may predict sexual dysfunctions. High SE combined with low SI may predict a propensity toward high-risk sexual behavior.

The model offers a useful framework within which we may study and understand sexual functioning. Conceptually, it resides alongside other known dual psychological mechanisms such as approach/avoidance and reward/punishment. To clarify their model, Janssen and Bancroft offer a car analogy: For a car to function properly, two separate pedals must be properly used: the brake and the accelerator. Flooring both the accelerator and brake pedals will take us nowhere. All acceleration with no brakes will take us nowhere good. All brake with no acceleration—well, why enter the car in the first place? You get the idea. (Kinsey Institute sex educator Emily Nagosky has used this analogy in her popular work disseminating the dual control model.)

The dual control model posits several core assumptions. First, it argues for the existence of specifically sexual inhibitory and excitatory systems unrelated to inhibition and excitation in other areas. In other words, you may be uninhibited in social situations, yet inhibited in sexual ones.

Second, the model assumes that both inhibition and excitation tendencies may serve adaptive purposes. To wit: sexual excitement may serve the obvious purpose of facilitating reproduction and human connection. Sexual inhibition, for its part, may serve the adaptive function of self-protection and threat avoidance. As adaptive functions, both tendencies are assumed to have an innate, biological basis.

Two points are important to note here. First, just as in other areas so with sexual functioning: individuals are bound to differ in their neurophysiological propensities. Different people are wired differently, for sex as for other things. Some people are more inhibited, with a default mode of withdrawal. Others lean toward easy excitation and an ‘approach’ default position.

Second, specific inhibition and excitation cues are bound to differ between individuals. While we may both be equally excitable, what excites you may not be what excites me. What inhibits, scares, or distracts you sexually may not be the same things that do the same for me. Our specific brake and accelerator operations will depend heavily on our upbringing, culture, and personal experience.

As you may suspect, common inhibitory and excitatory concerns are bound to differ between men and women. It is not difficult to see why, for example, women may be more attentive to safety cues than men and tend to find a lack of safety more prevalent and more inhibitory. A woman’s decision to engage in (heterosexual) sex takes on the biological risk of pregnancy, physical risk of violence, and psychosocial risk of a damaged reputation—none of which is likely to be faced by her male counterpart. Indeed, research suggests that women tend to score higher on inhibition and lower on excitation than men.

The model has implications beyond the academic and theoretical realms. It may serve as a useful prism through which individuals and couples may appraise their sexual relationships and work to improve them. If the sex is not as satisfying as you want it to be, you may be wise to intervene on both sides of the model’s equation—that is, introduce turn-ons and eliminate turn-offs.

On the side of excitation, you may examine what things, features, or circumstances are associated with high arousal and desire and then seek to incorporate them into your sexual repertoire. On the inhibition side, you may examine whether you have fears related to your performance and/or the consequences of sex.

Once identified, such fears may be confronted, interrogated, communicated, and neutralized. Addressing only one side of the equation without the other is, according to the model, insufficient to produce the desired results. Only when you let go of the brakes and press the accelerator simultaneously at the right time may you experience the ride of your life.

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