This Is What Actually Turns Women On, According To Science
Kelly Gonsalves is a sex educator, relationship coach, and journalist. She received her journalism degree from Northwestern University, and her writings on sex, relationships, identity, and wellness have appeared at The Cut, Vice, Teen Vogue, Cosmopolitan, and elsewhere.
What sparks sexual desire in women?
People might have their own private theories about it, but a new study published in the Journal of Sex & Marital Therapy has identified three specific factors that make women more likely to have more sexual desire for a partner: intimacy, "celebrated otherness," and "object-of-desire affirmation."
Researchers surveyed 662 straight women who were currently in some kind of relationship, whether in the form of a long-term commitment or a casual sexual partner. The team, led by sexuality researcher Sofia Prekatsounaki, M.S., found that increased levels of each of these three factors in the relationship were associated with the woman having more sexual desire for her partner.
Let's break these down.
Intimacy refers to feelings of closeness, deep involvement, and affection for a person, and it usually comes with "expectations of understanding, affirmation, and demonstrations of caring," according to a past study cited in the paper. The researchers also referenced a 2010 analysis from psychologist Dr. Kathryn Hall, who theorized that "while men tend to approach sex as a way to experience intimacy, women consider desire and sex a result of emotional connection."
This term refers to the ability to appreciate your partner as separate and different from yourself. When you have a sense of personal autonomy in your relationship—as opposed to a feeling of "fusion" or total unity—you're able to see your partner as something exciting and attractive because they're something you still don't fully understand or have. A 2010 study by psychologists Dr. Karen Sims and Dr. Marta Meana suggested this distance between two people can trigger sexual desire.
"The link between separateness and the construct of desire is evident in theoretical views that describe desire as a wish for something one does not have, or for something that is currently unattainable," Prekatsounaki and her team write. "In this line of thinking, separateness is beneficial to sexual desire; desire can be sharpened by withdrawal or abstinence and be stimulated by fantasy, hope, and promise. Related prerequisites for desire are identified by [psychotherapist Esther] Perel. In her view, desire thrives in 'otherness,' defined as the space between the self and the other that allows for the unknown, novel and unexpected, for surprise and risk."
Importantly, the researchers view this specific kind of otherness as separate from the kind involved in unrequited love or other potentially alienating scenarios.
"We use this term to refer to couple interactions where otherness between partners is explicitly maintained; not only recognized and accepted but also positively valued, cultivated, and built upon," they explain. "We conceptualize celebrated otherness as relationship experiences that emphasize, at the same time, partners' autonomy and investment in each other. As such, celebrated otherness is an antithesis to fusion, but not to intimacy."
The study found women are particularly inclined to be turned on when they feel they're being viewed as attractive and desirable by another person—and this actually emerged as being the most significant factor of the three in determining female desire.
"Women often adopt an erotic self-focus, instead of a relational one, during sexual activities with a partner," the researchers explain. "This has led to the suggestion that female desire may be partly narcissistic in nature and that affirmation as an object of desire may be an important pathway to it for women."
In other words, women tend to be a little self-focused when it comes to sex: They want to be desired and to affirm their own sense of self-worth. Past research has shown women feeling good about themselves and their bodies is an important ingredient for sexual functioning and sexual satisfaction. The researchers note self-validation may be the actually important factor here, but external confirmation can be an effective way to stoke those feelings of confidence.
One point of evidence of how important feeling attractive is to female desire: Women's fantasies, the researchers note, tend to involve things like having sex with strangers, being exposed, and other things that involve confirming their own sexual value. One 2006 study found straight women get particularly turned on when they hear their partner has been fantasizing about them.
For women, a combination of all three may be important.
The study found the three factors were all related: Having more intimacy in your relationship, whether steady or casual, was associated with having more celebrated otherness, which itself was associated with more object-of-desire affirmation. In steady relationships specifically, more intimacy was also associated with feeling more object-of-desire affirmation.
"A possible explanation for this finding could be that intimacy provides the trust necessary to allow for the experience of separateness, and the safety needed for the expression of oneself as a sexual being," the researchers explain. "Celebrating otherness in the interaction and immersing oneself in the sexual acknowledgment by one's partner may conversely enhance the emotional significance attributed to and the emotional closeness experienced with them."
Why does desire decrease after a while in long-term relationships?
Confirming popular wisdom, the study found sexual desire tends to decline after a relationship goes on for a while. Women with casual partners tended to have higher levels of desire for their partner than women in longer relationships. For those with steady partners, the longer the relationship was, the less intimacy, celebrated otherness, and object-of-desire affirmation there was.
"Decreased desire in long-term relationships has often been attributed to increased intimacy between partners, which may lead to overfamiliarity or even fusion," the researchers write. "The results of the current study, however, do not support the idea that intimacy increases with relationship duration. In fact, intimacy was negatively correlated with the length of the relationship with a steady partner. … These results could imply that decreased desire is not so much related to an excess of intimacy as to a shortage of intimacy, celebrated otherness, and ODA that develops over the course of a relationship."
In other words, when a woman stops being attracted to her partner over the course of a long relationship, it's not so much that she's feeling too close to the person—it may be that she's actually lacking the feelings of closeness, as well as the novelty and appreciation, that tend to spark desire.
Looking to turn up the heat with or as a woman?
These findings suggest the secret lies in creating more emotional closeness, playing with the idea of mystery and discovery, and most importantly, making her feel valued and sexy.
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