I’ve been thinking a lot lately about sexual attraction and arousal.
As I come to the end of my two year clinical sexology program, I’ve been reflecting on how much I learned, and how different my understanding of sex (both personally and as a coach) are now versus when I began.
One of the biggest changes to my view of sex is how differently I see the process of sexual attraction and arousal.
A few things I used to believe, and no longer do:
You can’t change who you’re attracted to, it’s just biology.
Attraction is mostly a visual thing, based on the person being “hot enough” to spark attraction, and it doesn’t change much unless the person changes visually.
Whethor or not you want to have sex with someone is based on how attractive you find them.
Arousal is a linear process, so if you’re attracted to the person and “in the mood,” once you start getting turned on, it should just escalate naturally to wanting to have “real sex.”
“Real sex” = Penis-In-Vagina penetration. With a man, everything else is just “foreplay” to be done as a warmup for the main event. (This belief was paired, as it often is, with the idea that sex is “done” when he finishes.)
Arousal is like a light switch– once you decide to have sex, you should basically stay completely turned on until the sex is “done.”
I could write so much on each of these myths, but today I want to talk about the problematic way many of us think the escalation from attraction → arousal → sex should go, based on what we see in tv, movies, media, and porn, as well as common (heteronormative) “wisdom.”
The short version is this:
Two people meet and feel attraction, based on how the other person looks. That attraction is a fixed point, so as these two people start to talk and get to know each other, the attraction more or less stays the same; the point of their flirting and interaction is to figure out if the other person is “interested.” Once mutual attraction is established, they spend time together and eventually decide to have sex. They get “warmed up” with foreplay until they hit a level of “turned on and ready” (aka he’s hard/she’s wet) that should basically remain fixed until they’re done having sex.
I have about a million issues with this narrative.
First of all, attraction is not a fixed point, and it has very little to do with how a person looks, in my experience.
I’ve met people I would have ranked a 10/10 on the hotness scale until I had a conversation with them and suddenly realized they were a 1, and vice versa. Many people I’ve been most wildly attracted to only became attractive after we’d had positive interactions. Maybe I would have swiped left if I’d seen them on Tinder, but after laughing and connecting, they might become suuuper sexy to me. (Likewise, not clicking with a person intellectually or emotionally will make them very unattractive to me, no matter how good looking I might have initially thought they were.)
From what I’ve learned, this is an extremely common experience reported among women, and common (but a bit less so) among men.
Also, we often mistakenly think that arousal (desire and physical readiness for sex) is like an on-and-off switch. Since one can either be turned ON, or turned OFF, we never discuss sexual arousal as the gradual and non-linear process that it is, which is a damn shame.
In my experience, arousal is more like a slow turning of a dimmer switch, in which a thousand linked and escalating micro-moments lead to either more arousal, or less arousal.
If I’m attracted to someone, I might experience the urge to get closer to them– to stand closer, make more eye contact, touch them, kiss them. This doesn’t mean I want to have sex, it just means I’m interested enough to get closer.
Once we start kissing, there is a ton of new information to take in, which often changes my level of arousal, turning it either up or down. If the person is a great kisser who tastes, smells, and feels amazing, the arousal dial will keep turning up (yay!).
If, however, there’s something about the kiss I don’t love, the arousal dial will turn down, and I might feel less attracted to them. Maybe it’s something beyond their control, like the smell of their body, or feel of their mouth. Maybe it’s the way they kiss, signaling incompatibility. Maybe I just don’t feel any sparks.
Either way, this information impacts my arousal and attraction. Sometimes with a really good kiss the person suddenly becomes sexier to me and I start wanting to jump their bones. Other times attraction and arousal drop way down, even going so far as to lose all interest in kissing or touching them at all.
Let’s say things escalate though. Again, every step of the way impacts arousal and attraction, either dialing it up or down.
If my partner does things I like, arousal increases. If they do something I don’t like (like a guy suddenly being all “yeah you like that, baby??”) arousal might dial all the way back to zero, and then I’ll have to decide if I want to have a discussion about what bothered me, or just bail on the whole thing.
A common “dial-down” move in my experience is if someone rushes to touch my genitals before I’m ready and asking for it. (Do I stop and ask them to have a conversation about consent, pleasure, and pacing? Or do I just leave, because I’m not in the mood to teach someone how to have good sex?)
Anyway, even if we get to the point of arousal where I want genital touch, I still can’t say I want to “have sex.” This is less of an issue if my partner is female, because at this point we can just play and enjoy mutual genital touch, but if my partner is male he generally thinks at this point that we are “preparing for sex.”
Note: Why do we have to be preparing for anything??
That narrative about PIV sex being “real sex” is outdated and dangerous, and makes women feel unsafe saying ‘no’ after things have “been put in motion,” even if she doesn’t want it. It also skips right past all kinds of juicy and wonderful options for sensual and sexual pleasure, which is a loss for everyone involved.
The arousal process is still being dialed up and down moment to moment, not moving linearly. Maybe I get more aroused during one kind of touching, and less aroused during another. (An important reason to validate this as normal is to remove shame from people whose genitals get less hard or wet during certain sex acts!)
Maybe my partner’s intense eye contact or words of affirmation make me desire penetration. Maybe their energy or body language feels disconnected or impersonal, and I no longer want to play at all. All of those experiences are valid.
It’s important that we talk about this.
I have sometimes stopped at this point– fully naked with a new partner– and let them know that this is as far as I would be going, or that I wanted to get dressed again because I didn’t feel like being sexual with them anymore.
At best, my male partners have been confused and annoyed, and at worse they’ve been very angry and feel like victims. Either way, they tend to spend a ton of energy trying to convince me not to stop, and often demand an explanation for why I “changed my mind.”
(Notably, no female partner has ever demanded an explanation or tried to convince me of anything.)
Can you see why it’s SO important that we bust these dangerous and damaging myths?
When I was younger, thinking that attraction is fixed, and arousal functions as an on/off switch, made me feel like there was something wrong with me for being so “hot and cold.” I felt like a “tease” for getting things started (and then deciding I no longer wanted to have sex) at best, and like my body was broken at worst. I felt guilty for “leaving them stranded,” and ended up having a lot of sex I didn’t want because I felt like it wasn’t “fair” to stop.
We can do better.
Attraction is not about finding someone hot enough to want to sleep with them.
How attracted you are to someone can change moment to moment.
How aroused you are can change moment to moment.
PIV sex is not more “real” than other sex, nor should it be the goal or assumed destination of sex.
I firmly believe that if we all properly understood these things, the world would be filled with better, safer, more fun, and far more satisfying sex for everyone.
PS If you’re looking for more information on the process of sexual arousal in women, I highly recommend the book Come As You Are by Emily Nagoski.