How To Figure Out What Turns You On: A Sex Therapist Explains
What turns you on? If you're not sure, you're not alone: Many people don't actually know what their sexual turn-ons are. When I work with couples in therapy, I hear about how people struggle to figure out what they like and what they want, as well as the challenges they have communicating these things to their partner. Here's how to explore what turns you on and how to talk about your turn-ons with your partners:
1. Don't assume what turns you on will be the same as what turns on other people.
It's important to understand that what turns you on might be pretty different from what you think "should" turn you on. We tend to be highly influenced by our society and have ideas about what "should" be sexy and arousing to us. We're surrounded by sexualized images and advertising. We're exposed to glamorized sex in movies and exaggerated sex in mainstream pornography. We're steeped in misinformation about sex in general, and we develop unrealistic expectations about sex as a result. This bombardment of input about what sex is, what it should look like, and what we should want can completely cut us off from access to our own desires. And understanding our individual desires is the key to creating our best possible sex life.
The truth is, what's arousing will be different for each of us. Our eroticism is comprised of the specific things in sex that really turn us on, revealed in our sexual preferences, our fantasies, and our reactions to sexual media. There are no rules when it comes to turn-ons, and there are no rights or wrongs when it comes to sexual excitement. Each person's eroticism is completely unique, like a fingerprint.
2. Take time to explore your own body, slowly and intentionally.
First things first: Spend some time learning more about the physical side of your pleasure and arousal. Where and how do you like to be stimulated? What parts of your body respond to touch? How do you want to be touched? What kind of pace do you need to respond and get aroused?
Don't focus solely on your genitals; explore your whole body and see if you find new or surprising opportunities for pleasure. For example, you might spend time stimulating your nipples, your ears, your neck area, your feet, or the insides of your thighs and discover something unexpectedly turns you on. The list goes on and on—get creative with where you're focusing your sexual attention on the body and see what comes up.
You can do this alone in solo sex play or with a partner. Let go of all the ideas you have about what you're supposed to like and figure out what you actually like.
(Here's our full guide to how to make a woman reach orgasm, in case you're curious.)
3. Pinpoint the sexual dynamics that intrigue you.
The mental aspects of pleasure hold a lot of power. It's been said the mind is the biggest sex organ because our mind is where our eroticism lives. While some of what we find erotic is specific sexual acts or behaviors, much of it is more mental or energetic than that. It's the meaning we make of what's happening, and it's the enjoyment of the particular dynamics of a sexual situation or the interactions with our partner.
You can discover your own erotic template by paying attention to what arouses you. Do you have specific sexual fantasies? What makes the best sex you've ever had stand out? What have you read or watched that really turned you on? Why was it so sexy to you? That "why" is key.
4. Read and watch erotica to see what really flips your switch.
If you don't already, spend some time looking at porn or other erotic media—it's an excellent tool for assessing what scenarios turn you on. View scenes outside the mainstream or outside what you might ordinarily think you "should" want to look at. As you explore your responses to these sexual scenarios, you'll likely discover themes that reveal your individual eroticism: themes of power, danger, romance, safety, force, submission, autonomy, or more. This is how to learn what the elements of your eroticism are.
Sometimes what we find highly arousing is upsetting to us; it doesn't fit with who we are in real life or what we value. Just because we are turned on by thinking about something doesn't mean we want to do it. (A perfect example is a rape fantasy. Women don't want to be raped, but the loss of control in the fantasy can be appealing since there is no real pain or risk.)
Nothing is off-limits in our mind, and there are often reasons that we respond sexually to things that are the opposite of our nature. For further learning on this subject, I recommend Arousal: The Secret Logic of Sexual Fantasies by Michael J. Bader as a great resource.
5. Write your own fantasies.
You can also write sexual fantasies and stories, whether just to keep to yourself or to share with a partner. When you create your own stories, these scenarios only include elements that arouse you. There are no off-putting aspects that you have to overlook. This means these stories are more personal, too—your fantasies are pure erotic material that reveal your core erotic nature.
6. Experiment with different types of eroticism and fantasies with a partner.
If there's something you've never tried but are curious about—or if you tried any of the above ideas and now have a few newly discovered erotic elements you want to try out in real life—grab a partner and give it a whirl. You should be clear about what's in- bounds and what's off-limits, especially if you're playing with a new partner but even if you're exploring sex in a long-term relationship. Having these conversations in advance, laying the ground rules, is a way to build trust and intimacy, and they will help avoid consent incidents that can be traumatic. Consider easing in slowly, taking smaller steps, making sure your sexual encounters are working for both of you.
If you're nervous, start slow and ease into it.
Simply share with each other some of the scenes that really flip your switch. Talk about which parts are the hottest to you and which parts are irrelevant to your response (and ask for their thoughts as well!). View a few clips or read a few lines from a few different erotic stories to give a full picture of the themes that underlie your eroticism.
From there, you can actually do some of these things, acting out a whole scene or adding a specific element to your sexual play. You might decide to meet up at a bar, pretending to be strangers, and enjoy the energy of getting hit on. Or you might add some bondage or power play to what you're already enjoying with a lover. You can also harness the erotic energy by just talking about or imagining the arousing elements without ever actually doing them.
It's OK if you and your partner don't find the same things arousing.
You can find where there is overlap, however small, and start by playing in that area. The goal is to find a way to put your desires together in a way that works for both of you.
Even the erotic interests that don't overlap can have a place in your shared sex life: You might be willing to role-play some things with your partner or talk as if you're going to do something, even if you aren't interested in participating in real life. You can each dabble in some of the sexual aspects that don't excite you but add a lot of excitement for your partner. Collaboration is key.
Go into this with the agreement not to criticize each other.
Try to keep openness and curiosity about what you each find to be a turn on, actively striving to understand the erotic landscape each of you enjoys without judgment.
Exploring your eroticism with a partner can open new levels of intimacy as well as sexual intensity. This is not for the faint of heart, though; it can feel very risky to share this side of your sexual self. Coming to terms with your sexual desires and making room for those in your sex life takes some courage, but the payoff is a more exciting sexual relationship and an increase in trust and engagement.
Ready to explore?
Whether you're in a relationship or not—and whether you choose to share this process with a partner or not—your exploration of your own erotic template and your own arousal patterns has value. Each and every one of us deserves to enjoy the most satisfying and exciting sex life possible, and knowing your own true definition of eroticism is the key to opening up all of life's pleasurable possibilities.
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Jessa Zimmerman, M.A. is an AASECT-certified sex therapist, licensed couples’ counselor, author of Sex Without Stress, and the host of the Better Sex Podcast. She holds a bachelor's from Cornell University, a master’s in Psychology from Saybrook University, and has completed a certificate in Sex Therapy from the University of Michigan. She specializes in helping couples who have a good relationship but are avoiding sex because it’s become stressful, negative, disappointing, or pressured. She educates, coaches, and supports people as they go through her nine-phase experiential process which gives them real world practice in changing their relationship and sex life.