On September 4, we celebrate World Sexual Health Day. 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!
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 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 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.
Want more? Sign up for our newsletter