Libido: It’s not about the drive, it’s about the brakes

August 30, 2019

Most people who ask me about libido assume it is a hormonal issue.  Men want to know if they have low testosterone, women want to know if they maybe have too much.  But the honest answer is that while hormones can be a contributing factor in libido, our sex drive is much more complicated than that.

It’s Not That Complicated

While hormones and the body changes that occur during sexual response are complicated, libido can be understood in a much simpler way: it’s not about the drive, it’s about the brakes.

Two researchers, Erick Janssen and John Bancroft at the Kinsey Institute for Research in Sex, Gender, and Reproduction found a simple, compelling way of describing libido and sex drive when they developed their Dual Control Model of Sexual Arousal. 

Basically, think of your libido as a car.

Your Libido As A Car

In a car we use a combination of accelerators (gas pedal) and brakes to get us where we want to go.  And our libido is much the same. 

We each have a gas pedal, the accelerator of our sexual response.  In this model it is known as the Sexual Excitation System (SES), but I like to just think of it as the gas.  When we are exposed to sexually relevant things – things we see, touch, smell, or imagine – we put gas in our tank.  What puts gas in your tank is really up to you.  What’s important is that there is gas in there.

And, just like a car, we each have a brake – two actually, just like a car.  These make up our Sexual Inhibition System (SIS).  One brake is just like the foot brake in a car – it is alert to all the danger in the environment and when hit yells “STOP!” 

Our other brake is like the hand brake – just a constant “No, Thank You” signal.  You can drive with the hand brake on, you may be able to get where you want to go, but it will take longer and use a lot more gas. 

Them’s The Brakes

Most of us, when we learn this way of understanding our libido, recognize that we are likely riding the brakes.  While it is important to make sure there is gas in our tanks, from positive relationships with our partners, warm baths, or loving touch, many of us just can’t seem to relax the brake to get our libido going.

What the brake is for you, is going to be unique to you.  Just like the things that put gas in your tank are unique to you.  But generally, the things that cause us to keep the brakes on are:

  • Body image or negative feelings about one’s body
  • Concerns about reputation – e.g. only “bad girls” do this
  • Unwanted pregnancy or contraception concerns
  • Feeling desired versus feeling used by our partner
  • Feeling accepted by our partner
  • Inappropriate timing or style of sexual initiation
  • Feeling tired, stressed, or overwhelmed by life
  • Negative mood, depression, and anxiety

Baby, You Can Drive My Car

Understanding the Dual Control Model of Sexual Arousal is great.  But what is even better is using it.  I love the simplicity of this model – it’s a car metaphor!  Guys totally understand it!  Using the common language of gas and brakes makes it very easy to engage in healthy conversations about our own sexuality and libido. 

It becomes easy to be more direct with our partners when we have a common language.  Statements like:

It puts gas in my tank when you _______ (hold my hand at the movies, tell me I’m a wonderful partner, give me a long hug when I get home from work)

My brakes are on today because ________ (I’m exhausted from work, I’m worried about my sick aunt, I don’t like having sex in the mornings)

We can ask our partners to support our libido by doing the things we enjoy, the things that put gas in our tank.  And we can start working through the things that are causing us to keep our brakes on, like our energy, mental health, body image, and yes, hormone imbalances. 

Keep On Learning

If you are intrigued by this way of looking at libido, I highly encourage you to check out the book Come As You Are: The Surprising New Science That Will Transform Your Sex Life by Emily Nagoski.  It introduces the concept of the Dual Control Model and goes into more detail on how each of us can have healthy sexual arousal, and a pleasurable sex life.  I can’t recommend it enough.  Not a reader? – she’s got a Ted Talk too.

Your Libido Mechanic

If you need help letting go of the brake, maybe it’s time to come in and talk about it.  Whether it is body image issues, stress, exhaustion, hormones, or anything else that is slowing your libido, I’m here to help.  Book in a free 15 minute conversation to see if I can help you to get where you want to go. 

Download your copy of Dr. Watson’s postcard that breaks down The Dual Control Model of Sexual Arousal! Libido: it’s not about the drive, it’s about the brakes.

Dr. Lisa Watson believes that you don’t have to be perfect to be healthy.  Lisa encourages her patients to take a proactive approach to their health – taking meaningful steps towards achieving their goals for balanced and vibrant health.  An expert in women’s health and hormones, Lisa is a passionate advocate for women’s health and strives to educate all the women in her practice on how to achieve lifelong abundant health.  Dr. Watson practices at the Integrative Health Institute in downtown Toronto and writes regularly about women’s health on her website at

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