The History Of The Sexual Tipping Point® Variable-Switch Model

The Sexual Tipping Point® Variable-Switch Model evolved over the last 45 years, initially during two decades of collaboration between Helen S. Kaplan, MD, Ph.D. and Michael A. Perelman, Ph.D.

Kaplan founded the NY Weill Cornell Medicine’s Human Sexuality Program at the Payne Whitney Clinic of the New York Hospital in 1973. Perelman was Kaplan’s first doctoral student who at the time was pursuing graduate studies at Columbia University’s clinical psychology program, where he completed the first Ph.D. thesis on sex therapy in Columbia’s history with Kaplan and Raymond C. Rosen, Ph.D. serving as outside readers. Kaplan’s first book, The New Sex Therapy (1974), described an outpatient treatment approach, which modified Masters & Johnson’s (1971) two-week pioneering residential program.  As Kaplan’s book became the standard text for most students and medical institutions around the world, it had an impact on where and how people were treated for sexual problems both nationally and internationally. Kaplan brought the principles of multi-determinism and multilevel causality to sex therapy (Perelman, 2014a). Kaplan practiced a therapeutic eclecticism that anticipated current sexual medicine approaches that combine/integrate appropriate selection of medical and surgical treatments with sex counseling, first described by Althof, Leiblum, McCarthy, Perelman, Rosen, Segraves, and Wylie, among others, by the turn of the 21st century. 

In Kaplan’s final book (1995), she described a "psychosomatic" dual-control model of sexual motivation emphasizing “inhibition/excitation” processes. Kaplan’s concept was derivative of the work of Kupferman (1991) who wrote, “All examples of physiological motivational control seem to involve dual effects—inhibitory and excitatory—which function together to adjust the system” (p. 751).  In response to that insight, Kaplan wrote, “Control of sexual motivation is no exception and also operates on such a “dual steering” principle… Once again, we can learn from the similarities between eating and sex” (Kaplan, 1995, p. 17).

Adapted with permission from Kaplan HS, The Sexual Desire Disorders. Dysfunctional Regulation of Sexual Motivation. Brunner-Routledge (Taylor and Frances, London, 1995: p. 15 (Fig. 2)

An artist by training, Kaplan had sketched a cartoon in that 1995 book (Figure 2 on the left) that foreshadowed the current digital graphics developed for use in the Sexual Tipping Point® model, all of which can be seen on this website. 

Kaplan’s description and illustration of the dual control elements underlying human sexual motivation and sexual desire dysregulation anticipated Bancroft and his Kinsey Institute colleagues, including Graham, Heiman, Janssen, Sanders, and others. They later provided continuing erudite articulation of dual-control theory, research and related psychometrics becoming the best known of these various models (1999, 2000, 2005, 2009).  Kaplan also foreshadowed the work of James Pfaus’ (2006) concepts of satiation of appetite being related to satiation of sexual desire as a theoretical mechanism to explain Hypoactive Sexual Desire Disorder.

Kaplan dedicated that final book to her two-decade collaboration with her colleagues at Cornell. In 1995, having been appointed Co-Director of that program, this author found inspiration from Kaplan’s sketch  and refined his own mind/body ideas into the Sexual Tipping Point® model. The initial plan was for the model’s graphics to provide a visual heuristic that assisted Cornell clinicians in training to recognize the intra- and inter-individual variability of all sexual function and dysfunction.

The Sexual Tipping Point® model easily illuminates the mind-body concept that mental factors can “turn you on” as well as “turn you off”; the same is true of the physical factors. The Sexual Tipping Point or STP depicts a person’s moment to moment sexual response (or lack), as regulated by the interaction of their constitutional sexual capacity with biomedical, psychosocial and cultural determining factors. An individuals STP differs from one experience to another, based on the proportional impact of one factor dominating, as others recede in importance. The STP model can illustrate both the intra and inter-individual variability characterizing sexual response and its disorders for both men and women. Initially, the STP was viewed as one of a number of “Dual Control” biopsychosocial models. Instead, by 2018 it was recognized as the first “Variable Control” model (Perelman, 2018). The reason(s) for this theoretical recapitulation are explained later in the below text, but essentially the change reflected advances in our biological, psychosocial and technological knowledge about the human body.

The Sexual Tipping Point® name derived from a concept that was “in the air” at the end of the 20th century. In fact, with the publication of his book in 2000, journalist Malcolm Gladwell made the concept iconic. While Gladwell wrote and lectured about social epidemics and other macro forces, such as viral marketing, the STP was focused on individual uniqueness and the continuous variability of both interpersonal and intrapersonal factors from a biomedical and psychosocial–cultural perspective. Its initial application was for sex therapy; later, it expanded to incorporate all aspects of sexual medicine. To document and distinguish the differences between Gladwell’s exceedingly well-known views and the Sexual Tipping Point® concepts, a trademark registration was sought and awarded by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office in 2005. 

Besides illustrating all etiological permutations, including normal sexual balance, the Sexual Tipping Point® concept is particularly useful for modeling treatment and can easily be used to explain risks and benefits for patients with sexual disorders. The STP model can be used to teach patients where different treatment targets should be focused, depending on diagnosis of their etiological determinants. Typically expressed erroneous binary beliefs can be politely disabused and the patient can be reassured that “No, it is not all in your head,” nor “all a physical problem.” Reciprocally, their partner can be assured it is “not all their fault”! Teaching the STP model to the patient and partner can reduce patient and partner despair and anger, while providing hope through a simple explanation of how the problem’s causes can be diagnosed, parsed, and "fixed” (Perelman & Watter, 2016). In fact, the Sexual Tipping Point® also allows for modeling of a variety of future treatments, including medical or surgical interventions not yet discovered or proven, such as novel pharmacotherapy, genetic engineering or nanotechnology (Perelman, 2011b).  

Some ideas embedded within the STP were first incorporated into the author’s presentations on “Sex Coaching for Physicians” (Perelman, 1998) and were also referred to as part of the author’s 1998 Journal of Sex & Marital Therapy commentary on the “Cornell Model.” The author first introduced the “Sexual Tipping Point” term to the professional public in a lecture called “The Role of Sex Therapy, an Overview,” delivered at a CME sexual medicine update course called “Sexual Dysfunction 2001” at Columbia University’s College of Physicians and Surgeons’ Department of Urology. That was also the first time that “Female Sexual Dysfunction” was discussed in that forum, and the STP model was used to illustrate how all the mental and physical factors both implicit and explicit in male sexual dysfunction were also true for disorders and common concerns of women. While obvious to some at the time and to all in retrospect, the profound success of the 1998 launch of sildenafil by Pfizer had overwhelmingly tilted urologists’ attention at the millennium to focus on male disorders with little recognition of the problems and concerns of women.

A number of ensuing presentations and publications described how the STP model could be applied across the full spectrum of specific sexual concerns and disorders. That work led to a presentation at the combined 2008 American Urological Association & Society for Basic Urologic Research summer institute devoted to young investigators interested in the field of sexual medicine. The proceedings of that conference were published in the 2009 Journal of Sexual Medicine, which included the manuscript “The sexual tipping point: a mind/body model for sexual medicine,” thus greatly expanding awareness of the model.

The graphic representation of the STP has evolved rapidly over the past 20 years. Early images of the STP through 2009 were generated from Microsoft Office graphics and, their resolution was modest as reflected in these illustrations below from 2006.

 In 2012, the first retrospective of the various STP images used over the previous decade was presented to the 15th World Meeting of The International Society For Sexual Medicine (ISSM).  The poster used to supplement that presentation is shown below.

In 2013, the STP trademark registration was assigned to the MAP Education & Research Fund, Inc. so that the Fund could distribute STP resources worldwide for free. At that time more sophisticated and nuanced figures featuring “building blocks” that could be used to assemble unique representations of any given individual’s STP. The Foundation has always maintained a key to those STP images and its homepage and began offering fully narrated video descriptions of the STP Model that may be found on the home page of this website, as well as on YouTube and Vimeo channels. 


The recently published, "The Sexual Tipping Point is a Variable Switch Model" explained the logic and science underlying the recognition that all factors that comprise the STP are continuous and not binary. Therefore a dimmer switch analogy provdies a much more accurate illustration than a  plus/minus binary on/off switch. Accordingly new drawings were created that illustrated both the concepts of variable factor polarity and valence and it is reproduced below. That resulted in a new key to the STP diagram which is shown in the adjacent pane and a download that provides a complete explanation of all the symbols is available on the homepage

STP Model_ Variable FactorePolarity and Valence.png
PERELMAN_JSM_Figure 1 STP KEY_600dpi.jpg

In conclusion, it remains critical to advance a model that will help students, professionals and the public alike understand that sex is always both “Mental And Physical.” Greater success will be found within such integrated thinking. All the bio-medical-psychosocial and cultural models of sexual dysfunction provide a compelling argument for sexual medicine treatments that integrate sex counseling and medical and/or surgical treatments (Perelman, 2008b). Given the choice of so many different biopsychosocial-cultural models, why embrace the Sexual Tipping Point Model®? Perhaps the greatest advantage of the STP model is its simplicity and the ease with which it provides clinicians as well as their patients (and their partners) with a common sense explanation of sexual problems and potential solutions thus inspiring hope. At Weill Cornell Medicine, when contemplating the clinical need for understanding etiology, diagnosis and treatment, we find the Sexual Tipping Point ® (STP) variable control model particularly helpful and easy to use. The healthcare professional that can accomplish a patient-centered, holistic view of healing within the context of an integrated treatment will offer the most optimized approach and the most elegant solution. 


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