We're actually not that complicated. We're not even that different from men.
Men's and women's sexual arousal, desire and pleasure work in essentially the same way. The sexual response mechanism in your brain — everyone's brain — has two basic parts: a sexual "accelerator" (the Sexual Excitation System, or "SES"), which notices all the sexy things in the world and sends a signal that says, "turn on," and sexual "brakes" (the Sexual Inhibition System, or "SIS"), which notices all the potential threats and sends a signal that says "turn off."
The process of becoming aroused is the dual process of activating the accelerator and deactivating the brakes.
Where men and women differ a little is in what activates the accelerator and what hits the brakes. Fortunately for all of us, science has been investigating what those factors are, and how you can create them in your life.
Here's five things women really want — and science-y ways to create them in your life:
1. Pleasure. Of course.
The trick is that pleasure is situation-specific. Like tickling: if you're in a sexy, flirty frame of mind, your Certain Special Someone starts tickling you, that has the potential to feel fun and sexy and potentially even lead to some nooky. But if you're feeling frustrated and annoyed with that same Certain Special Someone and they try to tickle you ... you just want to punch them in the face.
It's the same sensation (tickling), but a different perception. It's either fun or annoying (or some variation thereof) because the context is different — your state of mind, the state of your relationship. And that's normal. No one would ever judge or blame you for not wanting to be tickled while you're feeling annoyed, right?
So when I say, "Women want pleasure," what I mean is we want to be in situations that facilitate pleasure. It's not just the way your partner touches you that gives you pleasure; it's the context in which the touching happens.
For most of us (but not all — all people vary!), that means a context of low stress and high affection. Create a great, pleasure-inducing context and just about any sensation (including pain) can be perceived as pleasurable.
2. A Master. Or a servant. Or both … at the same time!
In the research, it's called "Love/Emotional Bonding Cues." In romance novels, it's more heteronormatively called The Hero. A lot of romance novels are about a "masterful" hero "dominating" the heroine … but if you read closely you'll find that the romance novel version of "masterful" is an awful lot like the real life version of "personal assistant." He protects her, feeds her, prioritizes her pleasure above his. He takes care of the little details of life so that she doesn't have to worry about them — orders her drink, chooses her clothes, buys her a car … then ties her to the bed and gives her four orgasms.
Who wouldn't want that? Somebody to just remove all those stressors that hit the brakes, remove all the responsibility you carry around with you all day, every day? Who wouldn't want someone you can trust with your body, who wants nothing more in life than to make you melt with pleasure?
A context where a woman can trust her partner so profoundly that she can let go of control is a context where she feels safe inside her own body, and all the brakes are off.
3. To be passionately courted
In romance novels — and in the research — the hero wants the heroine with a laser-focus. He doesn't just want sex, he wants her and only her. He sees what's extraordinary about her, he worships her body completely. He understands her as no one else does.
In the research, this shows up as "feeling desired versus feeling used by your partner," "feeing 'accepted' by your partner;" and has to do with the "style of approach/initiation and timing." Focused, special attention that shows you the partner was thinking about you when you weren't there, that they understand your needs and desires.
This "understanding your needs and desires" thing is complicated, right? In romance novels, the hero just magically knows what the heroine wants and needs, but in real life, we have to tell our partner what we want and like, and we have to say it in a way that allows them to feel empowered and self-confident.
Which brings us to …
4. Confidence. Our own and our partner's.
Confidence comes from knowing what's true about your body. That comes from education and from practice.
Important caveat: What's true about your body will be different from what's true about your partner's body. Neither person is "right" or "wrong," we're just all different. There are as many sexualities as there are humans alive on earth, and confidence comes from knowing what happens to be true about our own individual sexuality.
Your partner's confidence is just as important as your own. You want to communicate honestly and openly about what you like, what you want, and what you'd like to try — or not try. And if you're afraid that, in being honest, you might hurt your partner's feelings or make them feel insecure or defensive … you'll hesitate to say anything. You may even hide your desires.
Worst of all is when an insecure partner judges a woman for wanting or liking what she wants and likes, for doing the things she's done, for having the thoughts and feelings she has.
A couple's ability to appreciate each other's bodies and sexualities and welcome them as they are is at the core of all the first three things women want. Mutual acceptance creates a context that facilitates pleasure, that lets you turn off the brakes, that makes you feel worshiped.
That's why the last thing women want is:
Joy is loving what's true about our bodies and our sexualities. Sometimes that's easy, sometimes it's not. If your sexuality doesn't match what you were taught it "should" be, it can be difficult to accept what you are.
And since most of us have been taught to expect that our bodies are "supposed" to look and behave in ways that are totally unnatural (because: patriarchy, ugh), a lot of us struggle to love ourselves as we are.
We're all in process, all the time, of learning and relearning that our bodies are beautiful and powerful precisely as they are. And this process is just that important little bit easier when our partner openly loves what's true about our bodies.
(PS: Your partner really wants you to be joyful about their body, too.)
See? Women aren't that complicated. We want to feel good; we want to feel safe and protected; we want to be the object of intense, specific desire; and we want to understand ourselves and to embrace ourselves as we are. These are just universal human desires. Simple — though not always easy, especially in a culture where women are told daily that they're broken, flawed and unlovable.
All we need is the right context, and our desire for sensuality, our pleasure in it will expand like a flame meeting air.