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Your Sexual Brakes & Accelerators

Yes, sex and erotism can often be experienced as unsolvable mysteries. There are aspects of our sex life, anatomy, desire, pleasure, orgasm (or lack thereof), which seem like paradoxes we just can’t wrap our minds around. Sometimes experience will be the one to provide the answers, sometimes it’s the right partner, but other times it’s the right THEORY.

Many people such as myself have found that the Dual Control Model of Sexual Response (DCM) which proposes that we all have a sexual “accelerator” and sexual “brakes” in our central nervous system [1], can be an amazing revelation, providing incredible insight into our own sexuality.

What do you mean by sexual “brakes” & “accelerators”?

The Dual Control Model describes “the central mechanism that governs sexual arousal, which controls how and when you respond to sexually relevant sights, sounds, sensations, and ideas.”[2]

According to this model, arousal actually consists of two processes: activating the accelerator and deactivating the brakes. So, your level of sexual arousal depends on how much stimulation each one is getting and how sensitive they are. Here’s what you need to know about each of these systems:

The Accelerator or Sexual Excitation System (SES)

  • Receives info about sexually relevant stimuli in the environment (things you hear, see, touch, taste or smell) and sends signals from the brain to the genitals to “Turn on!”

  • Is constantly scanning your context for things that are sexually relevant (context includes thoughts, feelings, fantasies).

  • Is always at work, but below the level of consciousness.

  • In general terms, it's effect on you is to pursue sexual pleasure.

Accelerator = What turns you on

The Brakes or Sexual Inhibition System (SIS)

  • Scans environment for anything the brain interprets as a good reason not to be aroused in that moment: risk of STI transmission, unwanted pregnancy, social consequences, etc.

  • Consist of neurological “off” signals.

  • There are actually two types of brakes: The External: Notices potential threats such as getting inappropriately aroused or fear of consequences. -The Internal: Which has to do with negative feelings about one’s body and/or fears such as performance failure.

Brakes = What turns you off

To get an idea of how sensitive your own brakes and accelerator are, take the Sexual Temperament Questionnaire. The results to the questionnaire are intended to guide you, they are not meant to be taken as definitive or as a medical diagnosis of any kind. In the following section, we try to help you better understand them and their implications regarding your own sexual functioning.


How does knowing this change anything? Well, the implications of the DCM are powerful. As Emily Nagoski wrote in her book Come As You Are:

“We can conceptualize all sexual functioning (and sexual dysfunction too) as a balance (or imbalance) between brakes and accelerator.”

What does this info tell me about myself?

  • The SIS and SES are traits of your central nervous system, so they’re relatively stable over your lifespan. We all have them and, at the same time, each person’s sensitivities (of their accelerator and brakes) are different.

  • Arousal is the process of turning on the ONs and turning off the OFFs. But whether you are “turned on” or “turned off” depends enormously on your context.

  • Learning to appreciate the difference between the two systems (SES and SIS) can help you realize how easily you can become aroused, what prevents or decreases your arousal, when you are most likely to want sex or why your arousal can sometimes shut down.

  • Most people will fall under the “medium” category, but no matter how high or low you score on either scale you can say to yourself: “I’m normal”.

How can I apply this in my everyday life?

If you’re having trouble with any phase of sexual response, it would be wise to start by asking yourself: “Is it because the accelerator isn’t being stimulated enough? Or... is there something that’s hitting my brakes?” — Once you know whether it’s a problem with the accelerator or the brakes, you can figure out how to create the change you want in your sex life (Stay tuned for my next post).

Perhaps what’s most innovative about this model is that, rather than perpetuating the notion that YOU have to change to have better sex, it encourages you to embrace yourself and adapt your ENVIRONMENT in order to optimize your sex life.

“Your own SIS and SES, and their relationship to your mood or anxiety, are unique and individual. The goal of understanding your brake and accelerator is not to understand “what men are like” versus “what women are like” but to understand what you are like. Unique, with great potential for awesomeness.”

- Emily Nagoski


[1] Bancroft, J., Graham, C. A., Janssen, E., & Sanders, S. A. (2009). The dual control model: Current status and future directions. Journal of Sex Research, 46, 212–142.

[2] Emily Nagoski, Come As You Are. (2015)


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