The Surprising Secret To Getting Turned On — As Explained By A Sexpert

Does your sex drive need some help? An expert shares two ways to get it going. (GIF: Tumblr)

We all know that certain things get our sexual engines revving, right?

Well, it turns out that’s more literally true than you might think. In your brain, there’s a sexual “accelerator” (the Sexual Excitation System, or SES), which responds to all the sexually relevant stimuli you encounter by sending a subconscious signal that says “TURN ON!”

Your brain also has sexual brakes (the Sexual Inhibition System, or SIS), which responds to all the reasons not to be turned on right now by sending a subconscious signal that says “TURN OFF!”

Your level of arousal at any given moment is the balance of these two simultaneous processes. To increase arousal, turn on all the ONs… and turn off all the OFFs.

Alrighty, how do we do that? What hits the accelerator or the brakes? It varies from person to person of course, but there are some things that, according to science, most women will experience as a highly, er, “revving” combination of more accelerator and less brakes. Here are two:

Accelerator No. 1: Explicitly Erotic Stimuli

This might sound like a no-brainer — and to some extent, it is. Stimuli include erotic stories, erotic videos, sounds of other people having sex, and being touched by your partner when you’re already in a ready-to-go mood.

But some of the things that people’s brains code as “erotic” are not so obvious.

I was talking about turn-ons with a friend of mine — a professional musician married to another professional musician — and you know what she said her turn-on is? Watching her partner play the piano.

Another friend of mine told me she’s really turned on by fantasies of being dominated by multiple men — but, she told me, puzzled, that she had zero interest in actually trying this in real life.

“Is that a thing?” she asked me. “Loving the fantasy but not wanting it in reality?” Heck yes, that’s a thing. In a fantasy, it’s all accelerator. In real life, there’s the potentially threatening presence of five strangers to hit the brakes!

Different context, different arousal response. Yup.

Which brings me to the most important point about what counts as “erotic” to your brain: It is dependent on context.

The go-to example of this is tickling: Imagine you’re feeling flirty and playful and your Certain Special Someone starts tickling you. You can imagine a situation where that might feel good and even lead to some nooky, right? But if you’re feeling frustrated or annoyed and that same Certain Special Someone tried to tickle you, would that put you in the mood? Or would you want to punch that person in the face?

I always suggest that people think about the best sex they’ve had, and consider what it was about that situation (or situations) that made it amazing. What was it about the context — where you were, what was happening in your relationship, what you did, how you felt about what you did — that got the engine revving? If you write down, say, three such occasions, you may start to see patterns in what your individual turn-ons are. You can share these with your partner and try out creating these contexts on purpose.

Related: Think You Had The Best Sex Of Your Life? Here’s What People Say Make It The Best Ever

Conclusion: More erotic stimuli equals more arousal — and while some of the things our brains perceive as “erotic” are obvious, others are more unique and individual, and still others are erotic only in the right context. The more you notice how your brain responds to different stimuli in different contexts, the better you’ll get at managing the context and maximizing your sexual desire.

Accelerator No. 2: Special Attention

One of the contexts that can turn pretty much anything into a turn-on is special attention.

I was having lunch at a conference, talking with my tablemates about sex (it happens pretty much everywhere I go; it’s just part of being a sex educator). I mentioned something about the importance of context. The woman sitting next to me said, “Can you say that to my husband, so that he’ll stop asking me, ‘Hey, do you wanna have sex tonight?’ while I’m changing diapers?”

All the women at the table laughed. They all knew that when you ask a woman who’s changing diapers whether or not she wants sex tonight, the answer will probably be not just “No,” but “You have got to be kidding me.”

But this woman’s husband really, genuinely, seriously didn’t get that. He needs help understanding how to create a great context.

So here’s an approach that might have been more successful: First, he could say, “Hello beautiful, let me help with that.”

Then, “How are you feeling this morning?”

Then he could listen to her answer. Listen for realsy real. And follow up with something like, “It sounds like you’re feeling __________. What can I do to help with that?”

Then listen to that answer, too.

And then do the thing to help.

And then after he did that thing, he could say, “Hey there sweetheart, if I suggested we make love tonight, what would you like to happen between now and then, to get you in a place where you could really enjoy it?”

Related: 9 Traits That Attract Women

This is not a resource exchange or a negotiation, it’s not about finding a way to make her “willing” to have sex, like, “If you do these things for me, then fine, we can have sex.” It’s about paying special attention to her, as the special, important person she is. It’s about showing her affection in non-sexual ways… which creates space for the sexual ways.

It’s about creating a context that hits the accelerator and turns off the brakes, by making her feel special, cared for, attended to.

The research on what turns us on is clear: special attention and things that are explicitly erotic. And what counts as “special attention” or “erotic” varies from person to person.

Of course both of these things will be more effective when the “brakes” are turned off — and the brakes can be hit by stress, body image issues, risk of unwanted pregnancy or STI transmission, relationship and trust issues… the list of turn-offs is as long and varied as the list of turn-ons.

But figuring out your individual turn-ons and communicating them to your partner — and paying attention to what turns your partner on and creating contexts that maximize those turn-ons — is a great start to maximizing your sexual potential.

Emily Nagoski, PhD, author of “Come As You Are,” is Wellness Education Director and Lecturer at Smith College, where she teaches Women’s Sexuality. She has a PhD in Health Behavior with a doctoral concentration in human sexuality from Indiana University, and a master’s degree (also from IU) in counseling, with a clinical internship at the Kinsey Institute Sexual Health Clinic. She has taught graduate and undergraduate classes in human sexuality, relationships and communication, stress management, and sex education. She is the author of three guides for Ian Kerner’s, including the Guide to Female Orgasm, and she writes the popular sex blog,

Up Next: 8 Ways A Heavy Hookup Affects Your Brain