Sex

Great Sex Begins with Sexual Self-Awareness

Three questions to help you understand what you're bringing into bed with you.

Posted Jan 24, 2020

A happy and healthy intimate relationship requires partners to be committed to practicing relational self-awareness—a compassionate and curious understanding of your relationship to relationships. Relational self-awareness is about paying attention to your patterns, pain points, strengths, and blind spots; and it’s the essential foundation of a healthy intimate relationship. Being curious about why you do what you do, feel what you feel, and think the way you think helps you choose a partner who is a good fit, practice healthy boundaries, and navigate the inevitable bumps in the road. But did you know that your self-awareness needs to follow you in the bedroom? That’s because sex* is far more than just an act. It is also a gateway to the deepest longings we can experience as human beings—for specialness, for connection, for power, for pleasure, for comfort, for validation, for growth, for healing. 

From my many years as a couples therapist, professor, and intimate partner, here’s what I know for sure about our deep longings. They matter. They give color, richness, and meaning to what it is to be alive. Deep longings can also feel overwhelming, which is why I want people to have tools to access, understand, and deal with all of what sex stirs in us. When we understand what’s happening inside of us, we are able to make choices that are respectful (of ourselves and others) and that feel good (physically and emotionally). Being able to understand what is getting stirred up inside of you vis a vis sex is called sexual self-awareness

Being curious about your thoughts, feelings, and beliefs about sex will help you create sexual experiences for yourself and your partner that are healing and connecting. As you expand your sexual self-awareness, please keep the following in mind. If you grew up in a house where sex was a taboo topic, or in a community where sex is talked about as sinful or dirty, sex might be something you have but not something you have much permission to learn about or think about. Be gentle with yourself. You have your whole lifetime to become more and more sexually self-aware. Because you are always growing and changing as a person, you will need to figure out again and again who you are as a sexual person. 

Sexual self-awareness is a big topic, so big in fact that I wrote a book about it. I’ve chosen three questions for you to explore. I recommend writing in a journal in response to these questions because writing helps us understand ourselves more deeply. You also could use these questions to spark conversation with a trusted friend or intimate partner.

Question #1: Why am I having sex? 

The topic of sexual desire is huge and there’s a lot to say. For our purposes here, I encourage you to think about your why. What is motivating you to enter into a sexual space with a partner? Sexual desire can be broadly categorized into two types: spontaneous desire and responsive desire. Spontaneous desire comes in the form of sexual thoughts and urges or physiological cues.

  • Spontaneous desire sounds like this: Damn, sex would feel really good right now!
  • Responsive desire sounds more like this: My partner and I are watching a show on the couch. They lean over and kiss my neck. Even though it's late and I have a little headache, that does feel kind of good, and I know I’ll feel glad that we’ve done it. Responsive desire is about being motivated less by an internal sensation of "horniness" and more by relational experiences, environmental cues, and/or the knowledge that your horniness tends to catch up with you if and when you lean into it.

By recognizing that desire can be spontaneous or responsive, we are acknowledging that people have varied motivations for wanting to have sex. Spontaneous desire may be more likely in the context of a new relationship, but may wane with time. Early research found that responsive desire was common for women, especially those who are in well-established intimate relationships (Basson, 2002), but new research indicates that sexual desire in men is similarly responsive to relational and contextual cues (Murray et al, 2017).

Arousal may precede desire, meaning that you may enter a sexual space with your partner feeling sexually neutral but emotionally willing. Then, as you seek and/or receive sexual stimuli, you move from neutrality to sexual arousal. Think about responsive desire as a feedback loop: the better it feels (physically and emotionally) for you to be in this sexual space with your partner, the more desire you have to continue the experience, and the more you continue, the more aroused you feel. While we should never endure sexual experiences that we don’t want to have, learning what sparks your desire (or shuts it down) is helpful. 

Research has found that sexual desire is fueled by a dual-control model: an accelerator and a brake. Learn what sets the stage for the activation of your accelerator. What are the things that happen around you, and within you, that help you feel excited about being sexual? Learn what triggers your brake. What are the things that happen around you, and within you, that inhibit your ability to feel excited about being sexual? Think about your 5 senses. Think about the vibe between you and your partner. Think about your emotions and your stress level. When you understand how your unique dual control model works, you can be proactive about cultivating the conditions for erotic connection.

Question #2: What turns me on?

The second self-awareness-expanding question is designed to help you understand how you experience sexual desire and arousal. The first step toward knowing what turns you on is knowing when you’re turned on.

  • What does “turned on” feel like in your body?
  • How OK do you feel about being turned on?

Keep in mind that turned on isn’t just an erection if you have a penis or feeling wet if you have a vulva. That’s part of it certainly. Being turned on is also about what’s happening for you emotionally and psychologically. 

When your body is aroused, your mind is aroused, and you want to be sexual, you are experiencing desire concordance. Inversely, when your body is aroused, but it isn’t safe or wise to act on your arousal, you are experiencing desire non-concordance. Desire non-concordance can also happen when you feel emotionally and psychologically turned on, but your body isn’t meeting you in that space-- because you’re stressed, because you’re anxious, or because you need a bit more time to warm up.

One way to learn what it feels like to be turned on is by practicing mindfulness-- bringing your attention to the present moment and dropping judgement. It is a practice of noticing, of paying attention on purpose. The research is clear that mindfulness helps with all kinds of physical, emotional, and relational challenges (Davis & Hayes, 2012). It also helps us transform sexual challenges. In fact, research by Dr. Lori Brotto and her team found that mindfulness practices significantly improve sexual desire for women (Brotto & Basson, 2014). One simple mindfulness practice is grounding yourself. Take some deep breaths and go through each of your 5 senses-- what do you see, hear, feel, taste, smell. Practice this each day so that you can learn to tune into your body.

Understanding more deeply when you are turned on helps you explore what turns you on. A great way to learn more about what turns you on is to pay attention to your sexual fantasies. Sexual fantasies are just sexually charged thoughts, and research by Dr. Justin Lehmiller (2018) shows that about 95% of us have them. If you relate to your sexual fantasies as if they are a text of sorts, you can look for themes that relate to what you are wanting, needing, yearning for in sex. 

Another way to understand what turns you on is to learn about your erotic blueprint. Check out the work of Jaiya Ma. She has assessment tools on her website that you can use to learn which of the 5 types of erotic blueprint most fits your sexual self. If you are in an intimate relationship, learning about your partner’s blueprint can help you both shed sexual shame and create experiences that feel wonderful and nourishing to you both.

Question #3: How did I learn about sex?

Every generation has to figure out how to talk to the next generation about sex. When you were young, grown ups made choices on your behalf about when, how, and what you should be taught about sex. If those grown ups were sexually self-aware, your sex education set you up to feel positive about sex, relating to it as a natural part of being human. How wonderful! But based on research findings, it’s a safe bet that you were not given the information and support you needed and deserved. 

  • A study conducted by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) found that less than 50 percent of the high schools and fewer than 20 percent of the middle schools in America covered all sixteen topics that the they have determined constitute an adequate sex education (CDC, 2015).
  • Data from 2011 to 2013 indicates that “43 percent of adolescent females and 57 percent of adolescent males did not receive information about birth control before they had sex for the first time” (Guttmacher Institute, 2016).
  • Only 6.7 percent of LGBTQ+ students received sex education that included positive representations of LGBTQ+ topics (GLSEN, 2017) even though 85 percent of parents of high schoolers (and 78 percent of parents of middle schoolers) support including discussions of sexual orientation in sex ed.

When represented, students who identify as LGBTQ+ feel seen, valued, and prepared to make healthy choices, and students who identify as straight are given an opportunity to normalize differences, inviting them to be more compassionate with the myriad ways that we all exist outside of the dominant paradigms.

Sex education that is fear-based or absent yields shame, and when shame is in the driver’s seat, it is hard or impossible to talk about sex and to feel entitled to co-create experiences that feel pleasurable. Most of us need to commit ourselves to continuing sex education as adults. Use the following questions to get clear on the messages you’ve internalized about sex-- your sexual inheritance. Think about both your formal sex education (from school or your religious institution) as well as your informal sex education (from family, friends, media, and pornography). 

  • What memories do you have of learning about sex? How were you told? What were you told? 
  • What do you remember thinking and feeling? 
  • What questions did you have? Were you able to ask them? What was left unsaid?

Notice how you feel as you reflect on these memories. What I have found from talking with people about their early memories is that reflecting on this can stir up feelings of anger, sadness, and shame. If that happens for you, I have two suggestions: 

  • Give yourself now what you didn’t get then. Write a letter to your younger self, saying all of the things you wish someone had said. Alternatively, close your eyes and imagine yourself as a kid or a teen and talk with that young you in a way that nobody did then.
  • Ensure that your legacy is different from your inheritance. Be willing to talk about love and sex with the young people in your life. Offering someone else what you were never given is a powerful path for healing.

I hope you will take some time to reflect on these three questions. When you do the work of deepening your sexual self-awareness, you create new possibilities for sexual healing. You gift yourself the opportunity to experience sex that is both pleasurable and intimacy-promoting.

* Throughout this post, when I use the word sex, I am referring not just to penetrative sex. I am referring to a full menu of erotically-charged touch.

Facebook image: Olena Yakobchuk/Shutterstock

References

Bancroft, J. and Janssen, E. (2000). The Dual Control Model of Male Sexual Response: A Theoretical Approach to Centrally Mediated Erectile Dysfunction. Neuroscience Biobehavioral Reviews, 24, 571–579.

Basson, R. (2002). Rethinking Low Sexual Desire in Women. BJOG: An International Journal of Obstetrics & Gynecology, 109, 357–363.

Brotto, L.A. and Basson, R. (2014). Group Mindfulness-Based Therapy Significantly Improves Sexual Desire in Women. Behaviour Research and Therapy, 57, 43–54. 

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, School Health Profiles 2014, 2015, https://www.cdc.gov/healthyyouth/data/profiles/pdf/2014/2014_profiles_report.pdf.

Davis, D.M. and Hayes, J.A. (2012). What Are the Benefits of Mindfulness? Monitor on Psychology, 43, 64, https://www.apa.org/monitor/2012/07-08/ce-corner.

Guttmacher Institute (April 14, 2016). Fewer US Teens Are Getting Formal Sex Education Than in the Past. https://www.guttmacher.org/news-release/2016/fewer-us-teens-are-receiving-formal-sex-education-now-past.

Lehmiller, J.J. (2018). Tell Me What You Want: The Science of Sexual Desire and How It Can Help You Improve Your Sex Life. New York: Da Capo Press. 

“Let’s Talk Poll.” (2015). New York: Planned Parenthood Federation of America and Center for Latino Adolescent and Family Health. 

The 2017 National School Climate Survey: The Experiences of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer Youth in Our Nation’s Schools, https://www.glsen.org/sites/default/files/GLSEN%202017%20National%20School%20Climate%20Survey%20%28NSCS%29%20-%20Executive%20Summary%20%28English%29.pdf. 

Murray, S.H. et al. (2017). A Qualitative Exploration of Factors That Affect Sexual Desire among Men Aged 30 to 65 in Long-Term Relationships. The Journal of Sex Research, 54, 319–330.