What Turns Us On?

black leather high heel stiletto bootsWhy do some things spark sexual excitement for one person while those same things leave another person quite uninterested?

I frequently speak to people who are upset because they’re indulging in sexually compulsive behaviors that cause problems in their lives. (I want to emphasize these are not the same as turn-ons or fetishes that any couple might happily incorporate into love-making or sexual play. No problems there!)

Sometimes sexual feelings and behaviors become a problem because they get in the way of healthy intimacy. For example, one man secretly discovered porn on Dad’s smart phone at an early age. Now he becomes sexually aroused whenever he’s alone and picks up his smart phone. Another grew up in a rural area where he peeked into the outhouse to watch female family members urinate. Now he uses spy cams in restrooms or pays prostitutes to give “golden showers.”

Women also find themselves thinking and participating in sometimes dangerous behaviors that are sparked by early experiences that are exciting, confusing, or, more often, traumatic. For example, if a woman experiences sexual, physical, or emotional abuse as a child she may move into adulthood finding that again and again she is attracted to dangerous, high-risk sexual encounters with volatile or unavailable people.

When sex becomes a problem, it is useful to explore our arousal template, which is a mix of physiology and learning based on relational or sexual experiences. A template is a pattern or blue print of how and why individuals think or behave in habitual ways. Arousal is an automatic knee-jerk sexual reaction that is usually closely related to excitement, fear, or how we’ve been wounded.

Almost anything can become an unconscious trigger that cues us to become sexually excited or aroused. The Internet provides thousands of examples. Numerous websites feature young girls (often fully clothed) smoking cigarettes. These sites cater to men who became obsessed as adolescents with girls who smoke. Objects that are sexualized include shoes, cars, lingerie, or anything made of leather. This last example can be linked with sensation (the feel of leather against the skin) or scent.

Emotions such as rage, fear, shame, pain, loneliness, and sadness trigger some people to sexual arousal, as do physical characteristics. Most of us can relate to feeling attracted to a particular height, weight, hair color, and body shape, as in, “well, s/he is really not my type…” Or perhaps someone is, and we are “hooked”—there’s that arousal template again!

It organizes what we believe about consent, equality, respect, trust, safety, dishonesty, domination, objectification, power, and control. Arousal templates also shape what is valuable, worthwhile, thrilling, or desirable, and just as importantly, what is to be feared and avoided. It is primarily an unconscious map of how we have become wired sexually, built on preferences already determined by basic survival instincts.

Fortunately, most of us are not compelled by violent arousal templates to act out in a violent manner. Fantasy can be a delicious and enjoyable way to spice up sex with a partner or engage in self-pleasuring. Some of us, however, are overwhelmed and debilitated by the vagaries of our arousal template.

Used in conjunction with experience of different types of sexual patterns and courtship developments, the arousal template is an essential tool to help therapists gradually detail components of a client’s sexual history. Each of us possesses a unique model of sexuality, formed at least in part by incoming family messages, childhood abuse or neglect, culture, the media, and, of course, religious influences.

As we explore and better understand our childhood relational experiences and memories we get to deconstruct our arousal template with what I like to call “compassionate curiosity.” As we explore these early messages, we can recognize and gently release old patterns that no longer serve us. This is what sexual healing is all about!

© Copyright 2013 GoodTherapy.org. 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 GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

  • Leave a Comment
  • cs

    September 23rd, 2013 at 11:32 PM

    this is interesting i do wonder why is it that certain sexual things entise me so.I would i would not want to experience them after my past.but find myself more often than indulging in these things.

  • channing

    September 24th, 2013 at 3:47 AM

    I suppose this is one of the cool things that makes us unique, right?
    What arouses me might not be what arouses you, so it kind of keeps things a little interesting.

  • Gloria

    September 24th, 2013 at 10:47 AM

    Um sorry but it is rarely the things from my childhood that I would see that would tunr me on today. That’s kinda creepy don’t you think?

  • Caroline Chester

    September 25th, 2013 at 4:05 AM

    I am having a very hard time identifying with any of this because I gess that I (gasp!) had a normal childhood, saw a healthy marriage between my parents and therefore I have healthy feelings about sex and intimacy. Reading this kind of makes me feel like I am the one who is odd, not in the norm, because it seems like all of these examples reflect to me the extreme but are actually a little more commonplace that I guess I would have thought. I hope that we can send the message that no matter what turns you on, it can be ok as long as it is legal and not harming anyone else and you find someone who will reciprocate with you. But for me? I am just looking for someone who wants that same normalcy that I had growing up and who wants to give that to our kids too, because the thought of getting turned on by someone going to the bathroom is just. . . there are not words for me to describe how out of my zone this is. And that’s fine, what’s for some isn’t for others, I am not here to judge, I just would like everyone to keep it healthy.

  • Jen

    October 19th, 2013 at 11:26 AM

    I figured out recently that after my confusing and comforting sexualexperiences as a child I was actually attracted to young girls. I always pictured myself as young in my fantasies with young girls.i used to fear I was a pedofile… I am upset now though that I wonder what people think or do when society says you cannot act on certain sexual impulses. Throw them in jail I guess and labl/isolate but not help them. I havent acted on fantasies but I feel dishonest to my partner and myself. Ill never be allowed to feel sexually satisfied because ive been sexually abused as a child. Is there hope to get past this? Im very open to everything (legal) fetishes and all…something ive found more fullfilling is emotional breakthroughs with a partner but I guess that can lead to some detrimental side effects as.ive been taken advantage of there too.

Leave a Comment

By commenting you acknowledge acceptance of GoodTherapy.org's Terms and Conditions of Use.


* Indicates required field.

GoodTherapy uses cookies to personalize content and ads to provide better services for our users and to analyze our traffic. By continuing to use this site you consent to our cookies.