What is sex context?

Daisy Jones

March 2nd, 2023

Daisy Jones explains the phrase that encompasses both the nuances and circumstances around desire.

The concept of sexual desire isn’t exactly synonymous with the word “libido.” A vague term used to describe the baseline amount a person wants to have sex, the concept of a libido can feel a bit too fuzzy to have much meaning.  Just because you don’t want sex right now, for example, it doesn’t necessarily mean you have an objectively “low libido,” and vice versa. 

Instead, a term that can be useful or more accurate for some people is “sexual context.” Sex context means what it says on the tin: it is the context in which you’re having sex, and, in turn, how that affects your desire. “Context” can mean anything, from the environment you’re in to how safe you feel with the person you’re with to your current emotional state.   Maybe being submissive really turns you on, but only under very specific circumstances in which you know and trust your partner implicitly. Or maybe you can only feel horny once you’ve got your work done and showered off the day. Or maybe you don’t really get turned on unless you’ve built up an emotional connection first (see: demisexuality, greysexuality). Or maybe you feel horny in most consensual contexts! The degree to which sex context affects people will, obviously, have a massive range. 

Where did the phrase come from?

The term sexual context was first coined by sex educator and writer Emily Nagoski in her book Come As You Are, a 2015 New York Times best-seller diving into the science behind peoples’ sex lives. To explain, she writes: “Context is made of two things: the circumstances of the present moment—whom you're with, where you are, whether the situation is novel or familiar, risky or safe, etc—and your brain state in the present moment—whether you're relaxed or stressed, trusting or not, loving or not, right now, in the moment.” 

To Nagoski, sex context is important because it explains why sex might not feel great in specific scenarios and why you might not feel spontaneously “ready for it” at all times. If you’re stressed, or have just eaten a ginormous meal, or simply aren’t in the mood for no clear reason, the context just isn’t there for you. 

With that in mind, if you’re already wondering about the state of your sexual desire, it’s worth asking yourself: do I have a low sex drive, or is the sex context not lining up for me at this present moment? 

Some people have more specific sex contexts than others.

We probably all know someone who is able to have a quickie in the toilet with a fit stranger they just met and enjoy it. Maybe that person is you. Maybe that person is me. For others though, the sexual context of a toilet quickie isn’t right. They need to be in a much more private space, or have some sort of build-up beforehand, or not be quite so near someone else’s pee. 

Generally, everyone’s sex context will vary, and some will be more specific than others. Nagoski theorises that women are slightly more selective about the environments in which they have sex in than men, possibly because of something called Parental Investment Theory, whereby women are hardwired to be more selective about sex in general so as to benefit their potential offspring. Really though, there are all sorts of reasons for variations in sex context, most of them unrelated to gender – just like there are variations in sexual preference, with no one right or wrong way to be. 

Can you change your sex context?

If you’re definitely not into having sex in front of an audience, or somewhere you could get caught, or with someone you don’t know very well, then your preferences are unlikely to change overnight — just like with anything else relating to sex and sexuality. 

However, it can be worth making a note of what sexual contexts you’ve felt most turned on by in the past, and playing around with them in the future. For example, if you had really great sex with your partner after feeling super relaxed in the bath, then it’s probably worth bringing those same elements into future encounters. If you have really intense sex after meditating, then maybe that’s something worth incorporating moving forward. Or maybe there are sex contexts you have yet to discover that really work for you, and it’s worth exploring that with someone to find out. If you’ve never tried outdoor sex you could find it a huge turn-on once you experiment. Or maybe you’re a low-key dom, but have yet to put that feeling into practice. There are as many sex contexts as there are stars in the universe, so why not (quite literally) fuck about and find out?

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