Sexual desire. The phrase alone holds such loaded, voluptuous power that the mere expression of it sounds like a come-on — a little pungent, a little smutty, a little comical and possibly indictable. Everybody with a pair of currently or formerly active gonads knows about sexual desire. It is a near-universal experience, the invisible clause on one’s birth certificate stipulating that one will, upon reaching maturity, feel the urge to engage in activities often associated with the issuance of more birth certificates. Yet universal does not mean uniform, and the definitions of sexual desire can be as quirky and personalized as the very chromosomal combinations that sexual reproduction will yield. Ask an assortment of men and women, “What is sexual desire, and how do you know you’re feeling it?” and after some initial embarrassed mutterings and demands for anonymity, they answer as follows:
“There’s a little bit of adrenaline, a puffing of the chest, a bit of anticipatory tongue motion,” said a divorced lawyer in his late 40s.
“I feel relaxed, warm and comfortable,” said a designer in her 30s.
“A yearning to kiss or grab someone who might respond,” said a male filmmaker, 50. “Or if I’m alone, to call up exes.”
“Listening to Noam Chomsky,” said a psychologist in her 50s, “always turns me on.”
At the same time, the researchers said, it is precisely the complexity of sexual desire, the depth, richness and tangled spangle of its weave, that call out to be understood.