You come home and your partner is standing in the kitchen, wearing a police officer’s uniform. He or she is holding handcuffs. And they want to cuff YOU. Damn, they look fine.
But, it’s been a long day. You’re worn out from work. You aren’t into it. And you cannot just make yourself be into it, right?
What is it that gets you turned on (or not)? Why is it that you can be in a super sexual situation that is objectively hot, but you just aren’t feeling it? Why is that you can be at yoga class and suddenly the only thing you want is some action? How come your partner is doing that one thing with her tongue, but orgasm eludes you?
Seriously, what gives? Well, sexual science has some answers and we are here for it.
Eagerness, enjoying, expecting: These are the three main components that lead to sexual wanting and enjoyment. These are the primary things we need to understand when learning how desire and sexual arousal work.
To properly map out the way we respond to sexual stimuli and the complicated factors therein, Brides spoke to Dr. Emily Nagoski, world-famous sex educator and author of Come As You Are.
Here is what we learned about why some things turn us on, while others don't.
The body and the brain
A lot happens in the body and brain when we get turned on (or when we don’t). It’s not some simple black and white chart one can follow. It’s certainly not: Sees sexy thing or has sexy thought, vag is wet, sex happens.
It’s a lot more complex than that.
The ways our bodies and brains get in on being sexually aroused is part of an overlapping complex system. We have a series of brakes and accelerators in our brains. The brakes say: Nope. No sex for me. This is not a safe time to be getting randy!
Whereas the accelerators say: Oooo yeah, mama! It’s time for the SEX! They propel you forward. This line of thinking is called the Dual Control Model and it explains some of the more confusing aspects of human sexuality. (Read more about it here.)
Our brakes and accelerators can, more often than not, result in arousal non-concordance. What is arousal non-concordance? It’s where the brain is turned on, but the body doesn’t respond accordingly, or visce versa. To read more about this perfectly healthy thing that happens to MOST women, click here.
Eagerness, Enjoying, Expecting
When you get turned on (or don’t get turned on), three big things are taking place in your brain. They sometimes overlap, and sometimes they don’t.
Keep in mind, one thing doesn’t always follow the other. These are intersecting, winding emotions and feelings that happen in unique ways for each person and are highly context dependent.
You’re unique, girl. You're a damn unicorn.
Eagerness is wanting. Wanting something is not liking, but they are related. Eagerness is the desire for something that has not yet transpired. It is step one in horniness, if you will. When you want something or are eager for it, Nagoski tells us, your brain’s motivation center lights up. You’re flooded with dopamine.
Nagoski gives Brides this tasty treat example to outline what we mean here: You want ice cream. You crave it. You then put the ice cream in your mouth. After tasting it’s creamy goodness, you decide you “like it.” So, you eat some more. The more you eat, the more your wanting decreases. Your craving for ice cream begins to subside. When this happens, your “liking” can stay the same or it can decrease.
Ice cream is just like sexual stimulation. You want it. Once you get it, you might like it or you might not. Getting it might increase how much you like it, or it might not. Suffice to say, everyone is different.
Enjoying is pretty straightforward: it's experiencing pleasure. Enjoying is liking the thing you’re doing. When you enjoy something, the opioid center of the brain lights up. You feel the enjoyment. You feel GOOD. It isn’t just desire for the thing you want, it is actually enjoying the thing.
You eat the ice cream and it tastes good. You’re happy you are eating the ice cream. You like the ice cream. It’s the same with sex: You are experiencing sexual pleasure and it feels good. You are enjoying what you or your partner is doing to your body.
Expecting is codifying the relevance of any given situation. It is learning. Is this a sexual situation? Do I like this sexual situation?
You know a given situation is going to be related to a set of feelings or emotions based on past experience.
Nagoski uses Pavlov’s dog as a metaphor for how expecting works in the brain: If you give a dog food whenever he hears a bell, he equates the bell with receiving food. When the dog hears the bell, he will salivate. Does the salivation mean the dog wants to eat the bell? No, it means he wants the food, but he associates the bell with food. The dog has learned that the bell means food.
With sex, expecting is the physiological reaction to a sex-related experience. You associate a certain experience with a sexual situation, and so your vagina gets wet, your clitoris becomes engorged, your nipples get hard.
See more: How Orgasms Actually Happen
This may be related to wanting and liking, but also maybe not. Again, this stuff is not simple. All three Es work in tandem with each other, but they don’t always.
Wow, sexuality sure isn’t straightforward, huh? But, hey, it’s good we’re finally recognizing that. If you’re ever feeling down on yourself for low desire, desire that feels out of control, or anything in between, remember that you are normal.
The only thing normal about human sexuality is how atypical it is.