How To Get Turned On: A Conversation With Shadeen Francis, LMFT

Sexual health is a state of physical, emotional, mental and social well-being related to sexuality. It's a pretty big subject, so we decided to start with a key aspect of intimate well-being – arousal.

"Getting horny". "Getting turned on." We're familiar with these expressions – but are we, really? What does "aroused" even mean, and how can we learn to get turned on when the spirit is willing but the flesh might be a little reluctant?

For some thought-provoking answers, we spoke to Shadeen Francis, LMFT – one of our favorite sex and relationships therapists. She’s sought internationally to speak on topics such as sexual self-esteem, building intimacy, and boundary negotiation, and all of her work is inspired by her commitment to helping people live lives full of peace and pleasure. 

Follow her on Instagram for more!

Shadeen Francis

What do we really mean when we say someone is “turned on”? 

“Turned on” is our cultural shorthand for describing arousal. Generally speaking, arousal refers to a waking up of the body in response to or in anticipation of an event. When people talk about getting turned on, they are referring to a particular kind of arousal that happens in response to or in anticipation of sexual stimuli, whether that is sex itself, something sexually exciting, or sometimes, novelty. 

What is happening in the body and mind?

Arousal is an important part of our wellbeing. As we move through the world, arousal prepares us to be able to react and respond to the ever-changing social and environmental cues we pick up. Without arousal we would feel flat, lethargic, under-stimulated, and underprepared.

When we are aroused, various parts of the brain, the nervous system, and the endocrine system (the part of our bodies responsible for our hormone function) are activated. This increases our attention, alertness, and our readiness to respond.

This increased activation can be felt in a number of ways: increased heart rate, pupil dilation, sweating, shortness of breath, focused attention. As blood flow increases throughout the body, you might notice erections of sensitive nerve-dense areas like the nipples, clitoris, and penis, as well as swelling to the vulva and vaginal walls.

Sometimes people with vulvas may also notice vaginal lubrication (“wetness”) as their arousal increases. Emotionally, being turned on can feel like interest, excitement, motivation, surprise, or curiosity.

What are some of the reasons why someone might have difficulty getting aroused? 

More often than not, when we face difficulties with sexual arousal the issue isn’t that we aren’t getting aroused. On the contrary, the root of most arousal problems is that we are aroused but don’t feel sexual. Our bodies may be responding, however not in ways that make us feel interested in sex or able to perform.

We are meaning-making creatures. The state of being aroused alone isn’t quite enough to be ready of sex. Arousal itself is neutral, even if it is in response to sexual stimuli. Arousal doesn’t tell us what we are getting prepared for, it just wakes our body up to be ready to respond if needed.

So, we could be responding to something pleasurable and getting ready to approach, or we can be responding to something threatening and be getting ready to escape or fight. The difference is all in the meaning made, and the meanings we make are context-dependent.

Notice that what our bodies do when we are turned on are the exact same things that it does when we are anxious or afraid: increased heart rate, increased blood flow, sweating, shortness of breath, focused attention. We are always scanning for positive and negative cues and trying to make sense of our experiences as we have them.

To feel turned on requires there to be more positive cues for sex (such as safety, openness, believing this is an appropriate time or place to feel sexual) than negative cues (shame, pain, disgust, fear). When the sum of the things that make us say yes is greater than the no, we can make a meaning of our situation as erotic rather than dangerous or anxiety-provoking. But too many nos will shut us down, or effectively turn us off to a point where we might not even notice our arousal at all. 

If your own body is not getting aroused at all, meaning there is no change in state, this can be a result of injury (particularly a nerve-related injury or trauma to the spinal chord), a response to medications that modulate hormones like estrogen and progesterone (like birth control or thyroid medications) or neurotransmitters (like SSRIs), responses to state-altering drugs (especially opiates, benzodiazepines, and alcohol which are all chemical sedatives), or difficulties with attention (such as when we are under stress, distracted, or have attention-related neurodivergences like ADHD or OCD).

If you used to get turned on easily, but now it’s a lot harder, what may have happened?

If you’re finding it much harder now to get turned on than before, it is likely that either you have experienced physical changes that are impacting your body’s ability to get aroused (injuries, hormone changes, surgeries, decline in physical or mental health), or your turnoffs outweigh your turn-ons.

How can you turn yourself on if you have a hard time getting there?

Folks are often given the advice to focus on getting turned on, but I’m going to invite a consideration of the opposite: try getting less turned off. By default, we pay more attention to negative stimuli, and it isn’t always possible to just pretend it isn’t happening.

Instead, take some time to think about what obstacles or challenges you might need to face to make it easier to be present, open, and able to attend to your sexual pleasure. Are you anxious? Are you distracted? Are you in pain? Are you criticizing or judging yourself? Are you feeling rushed? Are you unsatisfied? Are you being triggered?

Once you are clear with the kind of turn-offs you’re facing, seek some support in turning down the intensity of the things that pull you out of arousal so that you can lean into the things that feel good. 

Support can look like journaling, sharing your thoughts and feelings with a compassionate friend or your partner(s), advocating for your needs and desires, getting help completing tasks or chores, scheduling an appointment to discuss your concerns with your doctor, or working with a therapist.

Addressing your concerns is one important way to show yourself care and allow you to feel more connected to yourself so that you can reconnect to pleasure. Feeling good is the goal; these are steps that can help you feel a little better.

As you explore what is possible for yourself, be compassionate and patient with yourself. Your body is not against you, it is responding to your environment to try and protect you from danger. The more you can create contexts that feel safe enough for you to be vulnerable, the more able you will be to feel the positive anticipation and erotic energy that can come from sexual arousal.

Post-Interview Thoughts To Consider

After our interview with Dr. Shadeen Francis, we were inspired to dig deeper. The first thing to remember when thinking about anything to do with sex and sexual performance is that there’s no such thing as normal. There’s a wide range of acts and fantasies, people, and erogenous zones that may turn you on — and there’s no shame in not knowing all the answers. 

It might be helpful to think of your sex life and sexual wellness as a journey. Of course, it’ll have its highs and lows, but the important thing is that you’re having fun and discovering new things along the way.

So struggling with arousal or feeling turned on is nothing to be ashamed of. It’s just a different road to travel along on your journey to sexual fulfillment and satisfaction. And the one thing that never helps anybody arrive is associating sex with pressure and shame.

Still, it’s not unusual to have further questions of arousal, and getting turned on isn’t happening. So let’s break it all down a little further.

How Can You Turn Your Partner On?

Sexual communication with your partner is essential to a fulfilling sex life. Not only can it make sex with your partner more satisfying in general, but it can also make it less likely your sex life will fade and suffer in a long-term relationship, where it’s not uncommon for couples to stop having or prioritizing sex over time.

This brings us to our main point: the best way to learn how to turn your partner on is simple: communicate! Research has shown that couples who struggle in their sex lives lack sexual communication.

So start by asking your partner what they need to feel turned on. It may differ from what you need or what your previous partners have needed. There may be a kink or two you or your partner have been too shy to bring up or won’t discover until you start experimenting a little bit. But you won’t know unless you ask!

While talking about sex before you reach the point of no return is always advisable for couples at any stage, sometimes you may get well into doing the deed before you realize something isn’t connecting. So let’s talk about how to increase arousal.

What Can Help With Arousal In the Moment?

If you’reinterested in having sex but aren’t feeling those physical signs of arousal, it might just be a case of how your body’s sexual response works. Understanding the nuances of arousal can help you create a scenario that works for everybody involved. In mixed-sex couples, there can sometimes be a disconnect in how your sexual desire is activated.

Often, penis-owners experience spontaneous desire — which is to say that they can desire sexual activity and experience arousal spontaneously, without a direct stimulus. 

On the flip side, people with vulvas often experience responsive desire. This has sometimes been misinterpreted as a lack of sex drive when really it’s just that some people’s sex drives need something to trigger them before they feel turned on. 

Of course, these aren’t the only genders; in general, arousal is a spectrum like everything else. There are plenty of cisgender men or women whose sex drives work differently. It’s just good to know that there are different ways that arousal responses can work so that you can find the best way to turn yourself on.

In addition to working on communication with your partner and understanding your own sex drive, there are some simple steps you can take to ensure that everybody is turned on and in the mood when the time comes.

Lube Up

One of the main physical signs of arousal for people with vaginas is wetness around your vulva or even extra sensitivity in your clitoris. If you want to have sex but you’re not feeling those signs, that dryness could be a major roadblock when it comes to getting in the mood for sex.

All you need is some additional lubrication — lubes like our Intimacy Sex Oil with CBD can help smooth things over when you’re not as physically turned on as you might hope. 

Bring on the Foreplay

Whether it’s about checking out some written erotica, audio porn, or just taking some time to fantasize before masturbation, foreplay can help you get turned on by building anticipation. Sending a saucy sext to your partner ahead of some alone time can also help by helping your body to anticipate what’s to come.

Keep the foreplay up once you’re in bed, too. Take your time with oral sex. Bring sex toys like a vibrator into the bedroom. Making sure you’re not just having sex but enjoying the whole experience can help turn you and your partner on.

Set the Mood

There’s evidence that emotional intimacy between partners can affect sexual desire. By ensuring that your emotional connection to your partner is strong, you can potentially boost the sexual desire between you — which in turn can make it more likely that physical contact or sexual overtures will turn you and your partner on.

Devote extra effort to your emotional connection, or set the mood with a romantic ambiance or playlist when you’re hoping to get down and dirty. Wearing lingerie under otherwise unremarkable clothes and ensuring your partner knows it is another surefire way to build that feeling of anticipation.

Can You Have Good Sex Without Being Aroused?

It is possible to have good sex without being aroused, as long as you choose to have sex of your own volition and not due to pressure. It’s always important to remember that penetrative, partnered sex building up to orgasm isn’t the be all, end all. 

As with exploring your sexuality, sometimes it’s just about the journey! You can experience pleasure without being fully aroused and up for full sex. You can enjoy getting a partner off because of the emotional intimacy it creates. You may assume that the “best” sex looks a certain way, but it can vary from person to person and depend on the situation and context as much as anything else.

The Bottom Line

Getting turned on isn’t always as easy as just wanting to, and there’s no shame in sometimes struggling with arousal on your own or with a partner. But if it is important to you, a deeper understanding of sexuality and improved communication with your partner can go a long way toward flipping your switch from ‘off’ to ‘on.’


The Associations of Intimacy and Sexuality in Daily Life | National Library of Medicine

Couples’ Sexual Communication and Dimensions of Sexual Function: A Meta-Analysis | National Library of Medicine

Women’s Sexual Desire – Disordered or Misunderstood? | National Library of Medicine


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