Over the past 20 years, the way sex researchers think about desire and arousal has broadened from an initially narrow focus on stimulus to one that sees inhibition as equally, if not more, important. (The term inhibition, for these purposes, means anything that interferes with or prevents arousal, ranging from poor self-image to distractedness.) In her book Come as You Are, Emily Nagoski, who trained at the Kinsey Institute, compares the brain’s excitement system to the gas pedal in a car, and its inhibition system to the brakes. The first turns you on; the second turns you off. For many people, research suggests, the brakes are more sensitive than the accelerator.
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Desire is part biology, part psychology, often as subtle as it is predictable, and takes shape differently in men and women. For men, arousal typically precedes desire. But for women, desire precedes arousal, in response to physical intimacy, emotional connection, and an atmosphere free of distractions and everyday concerns. Scientists are continuously exploring the interplay of biological influences, such as neurohormones that suppress or enhance desire, and psychological influences, such as emotions and relationships. Smell plays an often subtle role in attraction; research shows that women are attracted to mates whose natural body odor (sometimes referred to as pheromones) signals a genetic profile distinct from their own. Low sexual desire is a common occurrence, among both sexes, and often it can be resolved by regularly exchanging affection and conversation outside the bedroom as well as in it, making sufficient time for each other and for sex, and addressing conflicts within a relationship.