It’s Just Like Driving a Car
By Carlyle Jansen
In a car, when you want to drive faster, you hit the accelerator. When you need to slow down, you push the brake. If you hit both at the same time, (not a very effective driving strategy), your speed will depend on which one you press harder. Sex can be a little like driving a car, with one part feeling like an accelerator that stimulates arousal and/or another part that gets in the way of arousal like riding the brake.
Dual Control Model
In Emily Nagoski’s book Come As You Are she describes what Janssen and Bancroft called the dual control model. It essentially recognizes that through the phases of the sexual response cycle from desire to orgasm, we each have our own unique accelerators (turn-ons) and brakes (turn-offs). The Sexual Excitation System is the accelerator. It uses all of our five senses as well as our thoughts and feelings in the moment to determine whether to tell the brain to turn on or not and if so, how much. In contrast, the Sexual Inhibition System is the brake that also takes in all of the same information as well as any thoughts about sexual performance to tell the brain how much and how hard to turn the sexual system off.
Everyone has accelerators and brakes but everyone’s are different. The messages about sex, desirability, pleasure, love, relationships and sexual behaviours we absorb from our parents, peers, media, and the culture around us influence what turns each of us on or off. Any previous experiences we have with arousal, pleasure, partner eroticism will also affect our accelerators and brakes. For example, an experience of a partner shaming us for how we look, behave or feel can often result in an effect similar to putting a brick on our brakes.
Context also plays heavily on our response. Being told that we are sexy by a love interest will have a radically different positive effect on our arousal than hearing the same words by someone whose attention we don’t want. Having sex when we are afraid of the kids walking in generally hits the brakes more than in a context where there are no distractions. The context can change the same experience from a turn-on to a turn-off or vice versa.
Examples of accelerators that can fuel our arousal include: certain smells such as a favourite scent, sexy sounds that are or remind us of a fabulous erotic moment, visuals such as sexy images, an erotic video, or a partner in a provocative pose, a taste of sex, or a specific type of touch that feels amazing. Some of us have sensitive accelerators that get going with just a little stimulation; others need more intensive turn-ons to fuel our arousal, especially after the New Relationship Energy has worn off. Knowing our accelerators means we can request them from another and create conditions for ourselves in order to fuel our pleasure and arousal.
In a culture with many mixed messages about sex, most of us have a multitude of brakes. Some brakes are socially useful, such as inhibiting our desire to self-pleasure while riding the bus if we see or imagine someone sexy. Other brakes include slowing down for fear of pregnancy, acquiring an STI, getting caught or doing something “wrong”. The shame that stems from the fear of not having an erection and/or orgasm or not feeling sexy or “taking too long” or not tasting good to a partner are also strong brakes.
Some of these brakes can be managed: putting a lock on the door to reduce the chances of being caught or using condoms and other safer sex barriers to prevent pregnancy and/or STIs. Other ways to try to overcome the turn-off messages include talking to a partner about a lack of confidence or pleasure, or seeking professional help for performance challenges that you and/or your partner cannot seem to shake.
Some of us, especially women, have sensitive brakes that shut us down and turn us off despite what the accelerator is trying to do. Our partner might be doing their best to make us feel awesome but the brakes can be too strong to make any movement forward, which is frustrating for both. And of course if we don’t feel much pleasure during solo or partner play, then we won’t have a strong accelerator that gets us excited about the anticipation of pleasure. Many people think that we just need more accelerators in order to get more desire and arousal: vibrators, lingerie, candles and even a magic pill. But if we have strong brakes then no pill or variety of accoutrements might ever overpower the turn off signal that our brain is receiving. Sometimes it’s the brakes we need to focus on first. And a sensitive brake (being easily distracted, negative feelings about one’s body or performance or sex in general) can make even the thought of sex and pleasure a difficult endeavour.
Awareness of Our Unique Patterns
Some of us have sensitive accelerators that turn us on at the drop of a hat, others have sensitive brakes, or both. Our level of arousal depends on how much we can press on the accelerator and how much we can keep the foot off the brake. The first step is to begin to notice our turn-ons and turn-offs. Building more turn-ons in our lives and communicating those key ingredients with a partner is essential to a healthy sexual connection. And becoming aware of our brakes can make a huge difference to our sexual arousal and pleasure. We often have such unconscious brakes that we are unaware that they are even operating. Noticing what we think and feel while having sex or even while thinking about sex can uncover many limiting thoughts and body responses that have become such habits that we are unaware of their presence or impact. And awareness is the first step to being able to choose accelerators when we want them and managing and taking control of brakes that inhibit our pleasure. With the power of knowing our own unique recipe, we can create our own path to greater pleasure and erotic experiences.
Carlyle Jansen is a sex therapist (RP) and the founder of Good For Her, a sexuality shop and workshop centre in Toronto. If you have questions or comments, email email@example.com or visit goodforher.com or carlylejansen.com.