A guide that gets straight to the point about sex and relationships.

Exploring what feels good and doing what works for you

Everybody gets turned on by different things, and it's useful to learn more about how sex and desire works specifically for you.

📖 6 min read

Why do we get turned on?

Here’s a science-based theory, called the Dual-Control Model, on how sex and desire work for most people. No matter your sexuality, human beings can be said to have two sexual systemsworking at the same time:

  • Sexual Excitation System (aka 'Turn-On Dial')
    This is like the accelerator pedal in a car, that makes us go further → What turns us on?
  • Sexual Inhibition System (aka 'Turn-Off Dial')
    This is like the brake pedal in a car, that makes us slow down or stop → What turns us off?

    The trick is to get these two systems in balance.

Sexual Excitation System - the 'Turn-On Dial'

Different people are turned on by different things. What you notice and respond to (like sexy underwear) might be different from your friends (like the smell of vanilla glazed donuts and armpit hair). Our brains ‘code’ what is and is not sexy differently, in part because of things like our different cultural backgrounds, life experiences, and even what we’ve seen in porn and media.

Once the brain has noticed the sexy thing, it sends a message to your body and genitals to ‘WAKE UP’, or ‘TURN ON’.

Sexual Inhibition System - the 'Turn-Off Dial'

Your brain is also built to notice signals for why it isn't a good reason to have sex right now. Whenever we notice something threatening, or if we don’t feel safe and relaxed enough, then our brain can send messages to the body and genitals to say, ‘THIS IS NOT A GOOD TIME TO GET SEXY’. This can include things like feeling shame, feeling insecure about your body, and so on. Our ability to get turned on is slowed down, or turned off. Being worried or anxious (for example, about losing your erection), or fearful (like are my parents going to walk in on me?) can stop you from being able to relax enough to enjoy sex.

This is the Sexual Inhibition System.

Finding balance

It's by finding a balance between familiarity (what feels safe and familiar) and novelty (what feels new, exciting, or risky).

  • Too familiar
    You might get bored, and not turned on.
  • Too much novelty
    You might get scared or intimidated, and not be able to be turned on.

What feels familiar and what feels novel is different for different people, and will depend on many different factors. These can include how old you are, whether your body feels comfortable, whether or not you are menstruating, how well you know your partner (is this an old or new relationship?), whether you have tried something before, how good you feel about your body, or whether you had enough sleep last night

Some people’s dials are also really sensitive, so you might find that you get turned on or turned off more easily. Learning about these dials can support you in understanding your own and others’ levels of sexual interest, and to become more comfortable with having sex or not having sex.

How do I know what feels good?

Some people are not easily turned on or off by much at all. You might be asexual . Or you might be at a time in your life that you intentionally choose to take a break from sex and relationships, so that you can focus on other things.

Or you might actually want to have more sexual interest, but you struggle to understand why you don’t. You might experience stress, social anxiety, or other kinds of factors which get in the way of sexual interest. If this is a problem for you, then you might want to find the balance between looking for more ‘turn-on’ stuff (like trying new things), and less ‘turn-off’ stuff (this is the stuff that makes you feel more worried or under threat).

For example, you may want to take it slow with someone, to build safety, familiarity, and trust, so that you feel more safe, and relaxed enough to be turned on.

How porn influences how we feel

Many people talk about feeling both turned on and turned off at the same time by the porn they watch. Have you ever felt this way? For example, you might feel turned on by the sex you have seen, but you might be equally disturbed or turned off by the level of aggression shown, or other aspects that make you feel uneasy or upset.

You might be turned on by things like aggression in porn, in a way that you don't usually feel attracted to when you are offline. This is actually extremely common. This is one way that watching porn all the time can impact what you find sexy. One of the ways that porn turns us on is by showing us things that trigger our sense of excitement, and this can include things that are taboo or problematic in some ways. Your body responds to sexual images. It's built that way.

  • On one hand, new and different things in porn can turn you on because of the element of novelty (because it's exciting), especially when balanced with enough familiarity, such as the privacy of being alone with your own computer, or phone browser. Because of this, your brain can start to convince you what you watch in porn is what really turns you on.
  • At the same time, once away from your computer, new and different may start to feel intimidating. You might wonder: Why aren’t I as turned on as I thought I would be? You may feel anxious, and your dials are out of balance, as you are no longer feeling as safe because everything is too unfamiliar.

As a result, watching a lot of porn can sometimes make it more difficult to know what turns you on when you are offline. Are you just buying into what culture and porn tells you is sexy? How do you know that this is really how you would feel, if you were away from the safety of your own computer? Can you discover what is genuinely sexy for you, outside of the influence of porn and culture?

If you are concerned about how much porn you are watching, and how it is affecting you, you can read more about that [here] .

In summary

What is a turn on for you may not be for other people. What turns somebody else on may not actually do anything for you. At the same time, all this can change throughout our lives, depending on circumstance and other factors. We can think of the ‘dials’ that we have, to practice and find the balance between what feels safe or familiar and what feels new or exciting, in order to enjoy sex and relationships. The most important thing is making sure that everything is ethical and genuinely consensual .

❓ What helps you to find balance?

Can you make a list of: 1) What turns you on; and 2) What turns you off?

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