Change Without Shame: Exploring the Arousal Template

Close-up shot of forearm and hands of couple on white sheetAt times, the people I work with in therapy ask questions that lead to rich exploration of their intimate lives. Years ago, Marty (not his real name) burst into my office wondering, “Why is it easier for me to talk to my friends about past sexual experiences than it is to talk about what really—secretly—turns me on?”

I laughed and reminded him it had taken a long time before he’d been willing to talk about what I call his “arousal template” with me, and we were only just beginning to explore it.

My focus has never been on the sexual performance—how long, how much, or how many—of those I see in therapy. Instead, I focus on the shame– and judgment-free acceptance and appreciation of the arousal template, or what my colleague Jack Morin calls our core erotic theme (CET). (This may be why a high percentage of the individuals I work with actually prefer to conduct sessions by phone.)

When Marty and I began our work together, his CET was well hidden. He sought me out when his wife insisted he call a therapist when she discovered, to her horror, hundreds of file folders filled with pictures Marty had cut out from magazines. These cutouts all depicted parts of the female body. When he showed me the folders, I noted that they were not all of nude bodies—many of the bodies portrayed in the images were clothed. Each was carefully cut from magazines such as Playboy and mounted on black paper. 

Marty’s wife, who thought her findings meant he was addicted to sex, blamed the pictures on the demise of their sexual relationship. But when I asked him how often he was masturbating while looking at the images, after he explained to me that he and his wife had stopped being sexually intimate, he looked startled.

“Not at all,” he told me. “I do have some fantasies, but my cutouts help …” He paused before telling me he liked to organize them because they made him “not think.”

I reminisced about how I had really loved stamp collecting during my childhood in a household affected by alcoholism.

He beamed. “It’s soothing, isn’t it?”

Collecting stamps was my personal mood-altering experience. Collecting and arranging photographs was Marty’s.

We began to talk about what sex meant for him and explore the ways it could enrich his life and his relationship with his wife, whom he loved dearly. Together we began to cultivate an atmosphere of what I call compassionate curiosity.  I shared with him the idea that we are all sensuous and sexual as babies, that we become erotic as we receive and experience messages about ourselves from our parents or primary caregivers. Gradually, we incorporate these messages with our own experience of touch and the profoundly personal emotions that go along with it. Through this process, we develop our CET.

Marty laughed. “It’s not just what we do or don’t do in bed, then, is it?”

I agreed. “What you and I get to do here is explore your erotic landscape in its entirety, because your CET has a profound effect on the difficulties you’re experiencing in your marriage right now, doesn’t it?”

He nodded. We discussed some of the particular childhood challenges that may have formed a blueprint for arousal that then wrought havoc when it fused with the loneliness and isolation he had experienced throughout most of his life. As Marty began to understand, accept, and even embrace his CET, he stopped judging and criticizing himself, and his fear diminished. People who struggle with sexual patterns that distress them usually want to change these patterns, but the conflicts they hope to resolve can produce hurricane levels of anxiety.

Marty began reaching out to his wife, who had remained suspicious, and they were able to reconcile. Recently, I received a photo they had taken together in Bali with the words, “Passion grows, though my hair no longer does!”

Changing Sexual Patterns

Change is essential to the erotic adventure, but the difficult erotic patterns are often the most resistant to change. As Buddhist wisdom teaches, “What we resist, persists.” What we struggle against becomes stronger. And troublesome arousal templates can trip us up!

People who struggle with sexual patterns that distress them usually want to change these patterns, but the conflicts they hope to resolve can produce hurricane levels of anxiety. Many of those who are challenged by erotic themes they find problematic often feel compelled to repeat them. And repeat them. And repeat them.

In The Erotic Mind, Morin identifies what he calls seven pivotal steps that lead to positive change:

  1. Clarify your goals and motivations.
  2. Cultivate self-affirmation
  3. Navigate the gray zone.
  4. Acknowledge and mourn your losses.
  5. Come to your senses.
  6. Risk the unfamiliar
  7. Integrate your discoveries

The only way out is often through.


Morin, J. (1995). The erotic mind: Unlocking the inner sources of sexual passion and fulfillment. New York, NY: Harper Perennial.

© Copyright 2016 All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Jill Denton, LMFT, CSAT, CSE, CCS, Sexuality / Sex Therapy Topic Expert Contributor

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • Thom

    October 19th, 2016 at 8:10 AM

    It must be very difficult to have strangers come into your office and help them feel comfortable talking with you about something that is usually so private and intimate.
    Not difficult for you I men, but really for those talking with you. I mean, that must be hard to open up about things like that to someone that you don’t even know.

  • Jill Denton

    October 19th, 2016 at 2:26 PM

    I think in the beginning many folks find that it’s easier to open up about this kind of stuff because we don’t know each other! And they know I’ve had years of experience and training talking about sex. And…this is why so many of my clients work with me by phone – no office to walk into!

  • Wilson

    October 19th, 2016 at 10:22 AM

    I am not sure that I could make it through my marriage if I knew that my husband looked at porn. I’m not dumb, I guess that most men do at some point but to know that would be the total ruin of my own self esteem and self image. I think that I would rather not know,

  • Jill Denton

    October 19th, 2016 at 2:33 PM

    Many people of both genders feel the way you do – so I encourage spouses and partners to work with a supportive therapist who can remind them that compulsive behaviors on the part of one person looking at porn usually have nothing to do with their partner’s appearance or desirability. It’s true by the way that most men do look – and many women do, as well!

  • Eliza

    October 19th, 2016 at 4:43 PM

    You say “both genders,” but not every person is male or female. What about the non-binary people who also experience intimacy issues?

  • Jill Denton

    October 19th, 2016 at 4:52 PM

    Eliza I say “thank you” from the bottom of my heart for your kind and perceptive comment…I didn’t want to assume that Wilson was female so I sought to respond to that comment being with inclusive language. Of course non-gender-binary people DO experience intimacy issues – our dualistic culture certainly sees to that!

  • Paul

    October 20th, 2016 at 8:41 AM

    Think of how much easier things would be if both partners could always be on the same page

  • Ellis

    October 20th, 2016 at 10:42 AM

    I wish that my husband and I could have a better sex life with each other but with work and the kids now this is what seems to have fallen off to the side.

    We used to intentionally make time to spend with each other and now not so much. I hope that we can get that back before too long, before even the desire to do so has come and gone.

  • Belle

    October 21st, 2016 at 10:31 AM

    I am so fortunate to have a man in my life who understands and wants to know about my desires and my needs just the same way that I want to know about his. Our sex life while it is ours is not something that we should ever feel like we have to be ashamed of. I like talking to him about what we would like to try and doing different things, and I actually think that instead of putting up barriers this actually allows us to be closer to each other. There is a richness that comes along with understanding and wanting to be involved in your partner’s sexual needs and desires.

  • Jenn

    October 24th, 2016 at 10:38 AM

    why did it have to become so taboo to have an adult conversation about sex?

  • Winnie

    October 27th, 2016 at 10:59 AM

    We have been so programmed to think that everything to do with sex is bad and dirty that we fail to have some very important conversations about it. Why something that is chemical and natural causes this much shame is beyond my understanding.

  • Bruce A.

    August 17th, 2018 at 6:31 AM

    My wife and I have not had a sexual encounter in 11 yrs ,we have been married 12. The last time we actually had penetration she said it hurt that I was too big. Since then whenever I can get a erection as soon as I start to penetrate my erection ceases to exist. Sometime I think it’s afraid ?

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