Science of Sex: Dual Control Model

August 13th, 2017

Welcome to the fifth installment in a new feature on Of Sex and Love: Science of Sex. In this feature, I plan to discuss the science of sexuality in an easy-to-digest format that’s accessible to the casual reader. I will also follow up with some extended reading material for people who want to know more about the subject of each post.


dual control model of sexual desire

I’ve been interested in the dual control model since I first read about it in Emily Nagoski’s book Come As You Are, which I highly recommend but apparently never got around to reviewing. The dual control model was first proposed by Bancroft and Janssen in the early 2000s. This theory is relatively new, but it’s become accepted because it explains desire for many people.

The dual control model explains why desire is more complicated than we’ve been led to believe. It’s not just about what turns us on (our Sexual Excitation System (SES)). Turn offs (Sexual Inhibition System (SIS)) are also as important, and things that arouse you and detract from your desire happen at the same time. Whether you want to have sex is the result of this equation.

SESes (accelerators) can include being attracted to someone, sexy books, music or movies, someone who smells good and, in a few people, stress. SISes that put the kibosh on your arousal might be needing to shower or brush teeth (or needing the same from your partner), having kids or roommates home in the house, dissatisfaction with a relationship, being self-conscious about your body, or any kind of stress. Mood can be a brake, and women are more sensitive to mood when it comes to desire.

The original surveys were given to men and focused on issues with erectile dysfunction. Bancroft and Janssen divided inhibitors into type types for men: SIS1 refers to performance anxiety while SIS2 is inhibition due to possible consequences of sex. Since then, a survey with modified questions has been given to women.  Results indicated that feelings about relationships are especially important to a woman’s desire.

Nagoski’s book is geared toward women, and the dual control model is especially helpful for women who can’t figure out why they don’t want sex more — or even if that means something is wrong with them (hint: there’s not). The dual control model specifically explains why pressing down the gas pedal isn’t enough for many people to want more sex. They must let up on the brakes (inhibitors/turn offs).

I found this explanation especially intriguing because it affects everyone. Dr. Nagoski does discuss this in Come As You Are, mentioning that men tend to have more sensitive accelerators and less sensitive breaks than women. The things that want to make them have sex are many and powerful while the things that make them hesitate are fewer and weaker.

I was eager to apply the dual control model to myself. As best as I can tell, I have more sensitive accelerators than many women but more sensitive brakes than most men. I think many people will benefit from analyzing their desire though the filter of the dual control model.

Interestingly, bisexual women tend to have higher levels of desire than straight women according to the dual control model. I’d like to see how different demographics stack up to straight men and women.

Further Reading