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Sexual Wellness

A Guide to Learning What Turns You On

| 11/22/2021

Abstract objects representing pleasure and bodies. Illustration by Amber Vittoria

Every couple of months, I’ll have a twinge of anxiety. “I’m a sex writer,” I’ll think. “I’ve written about sex, for a living, for years.” 

And yet, my own desires often feel like little hummingbirds I’m just waiting to alight on my hand. Do I actually want to have sex with that person, or do I just think they’re cute? Do I want to do that thing I imagined in real life, or is it just a fantasy? 

Like most readers of Dame, I consider myself a sex-positive person. But also like most of us, aspiring toward sex positivity doesn’t mean we escape the pressure, shame, and stigma associated with sexuality in dominant American culture. Exploring our unique desires can bring this shame to the surface—but it is possible to learn about and embrace what turns us on.

Examine Sexual Stigma

“We try to adhere, even though not intentionally—in our psyche—to something that’s called settler sexuality, which we in American culture have deemed to be normal and appropriate,” says Anne Mauro, a sex and relationships therapist and sexuality educator

Indigenous scholars and activists, like polyamory expert Kim Tallbear, define settler sexuality as a system of oppressive sexual norms imposed by white settlers on Native people as part of the colonization of North America. More broadly, it ties strict norms of sexuality and family structure to white supremacy, leading to stigma against desires that fall outside of straight, white middle-class norms. As a result, says Mauro, “When we deviate from what we see as normal, a lot of shame comes up.” 

This shame, coupled with harmful experiences like racism, sexual trauma, or sex-negative messaging in school, can make it difficult for us to relax enough to explore. “We’ve been taught we’re not supposed to explore or seek pleasure,” says Mauro. Shame can cause us to judge our desires when they do come up. Meanwhile, white supremacy coupled with patriarchy can make sexual healing particularly difficult to access for women, queer, and trans folks of color. 

Societal scripts of how we “should” be sexual—the idea that masculine people should be dominant, for example, or that “cool girls” should love to please—can also cause us to judge ourselves for being less interested in sex than we’re “supposed” to be. This, too, can prevent us from embracing our authentic desires—including not having genital sex at all. 

According to Mauro, sexual exploration begins with giving ourselves permission to move past that barrier of shame: Permission to be sexual, to fantasize, and to accept what truly turns us on.

Give Yourself Permission

Sexuality is unique to each of us, and it changes over the course of our lives. No two people’s sexualities will be the same—including, often, the past and present version of yourself. Rather than projecting preconceived notions of how we “should” be in bed, genuine exploration begins with accepting that sexuality is a journey. 

“One of the big barriers is permission: not giving themselves permission to explore,” says Mauro of her clients. Giving yourself sexual permission means sitting with your desires as they come up and simply noticing them, without judgement. It means accepting that your desires may be surprising or unexpected, kinky or “vanilla,” and that they may change over time. 

It also means embracing what we don’t want. Accepting our own “no” can be every bit as challenging as celebrating our “yes,” especially when those “no’s” don’t match up with our preconceived notion. But affirming what you don’t want is key to celebrating what you do. “It’s always okay not to be sexual,” Mauro says.

When exploring your turn-ons, your body will be your greatest teacher. Start tuning into your body throughout your day, both in erotic and non-erotic situations.

What does it feel like when your feet touch the sidewalk? What does it feel like to stretch after waking up? How does your body respond when you go on a date with someone you find attractive? How does it feel to wake up from a sexual dream?  

“When you’re excited about something, you get a little bit giddy. You get that butterfly feeling,” says Mauro. If you stumble upon something that is erotic to you, your stomach might flutter; your heart might beat a little bit faster; you might feel a spring in your step or a delicious thrill on your skin. 

On the other hand, if you’re in an erotic situation that’s uncomfortable, your body will respond differently. “If you’re having a negative response, if your body’s reacting—if it’s getting hot, if you can’t take a deep breath, if it’s only shallow breath—then I think that’s telling you something, and you should listen to your body,” Mauro says.

Strengthen Your Foundation

Our erotic selves are naturally connected to all other aspects of our wellbeing. To fully have the freedom to explore, it’s important to check in with yourself: Do you feel empowered to express what you want, and give it to yourself?

“A lot of clients do not feel like they have a voice in the bedroom,” says Mauro. This is the result of our socialization, which tells us—especially those of us who are marginalized in some way—that we shouldn’t assert our desires or boundaries. These messages include the idea that “You’re not supposed to speak up. If it hurts you’re supposed to just get it over with,” says Mauro. 

Of course, those negative messages are the opposite of the truth. Finding out what turns us on means affirming to ourselves that we deserve to speak up—and that if we’re not okay with something sexual, it should stop, right away and at any time. 

You can take stock of your sexual self, and build upon your foundation of self-care and confidence, by connecting with sex-positive people in your life who you feel comfortable talking to. Mauro also suggests reading sex-positive writing, and seeing a sex therapist to better understand your erotic self and journey. 

“Sometimes the lack of sex education is so great there isn’t language around what’s going on for them,” says Mauro. Simply giving yourself permission to look up sexual questions on the internet, and having a therapist or loved one affirm that curiosity, can go a long way. 

If you’re looking to explore with a partner, it’s important to check in on how strong the foundation is between you. Trying something new sexually can be vulnerable, and requires comfort with ourselves and each other. “First step is to make sure your communication is solid with your partner,” says Mauro—meaning everyday communication as well as sexual communication. “It might be a good time to see a sex therapist who can help.” 

Let Your Imagination Guide You

When I asked Mauro about how folks can explore what turns us on, her answer was refreshingly simple. “A really nice safe place is your own head: you can go into fantasy and play around,” she says. 

Find a spot that feels safe and comfortable—dim your bedroom lights, or run a bubble bath. Then, let your mind (and your hands, if you’d like!) wander to different fantasy spaces. “Pick a location and fantasize about what can happen in that space. If you get those tingly feelings, go with that. If you shut down, go to a different location.” The beauty of starting with your own imagination is that you have total control over what happens, where it happens, and with whom—and you can always stop the action. 

Next, you can try engaging with porn or erotica that externalizes some of those fantasies. Again, remember that there’s no pressure; if you ever feel uncomfortable, you can simply shut the material off. It’s totally possible that something you liked fantasizing about in your brain feels different on screen, and that’s alright.

You are the only person who can decide what feels good to you, and there’s absolutely no pressure. 

If you’d like to explore with other people, you can try having a conversation with an existing partner about IRL experimentation, or find someone else interested in the specific activity through a sex-positive dating app. If you’re not quite ready for IRL exploration, or you’ve found that you’re turned on by remote play, you can also specifically look for a sexting buddy to share fantasies with. 

It might be that what you fantasized about is even better in real life. Or it could be that in real life, the fantasy simply doesn’t have the same appeal. Either is totally okay. “What I like to tell people when they’ve done some exploration in fantasy is that sometimes, when we try to enact fantasy in real life, it’s not as good as we have hoped and anticipated, and sometimes it’s awful and we never want to do it again,” says Mauro. 

If you find your fantasy isn’t as fun as you’d hoped, Mauro suggests experimenting with different elements. “Would it be different if it were somewhere else? Would it be different if you were with someone else?” Mauro suggests. “Maybe you don’t throw out the fantasy altogether, maybe it’s the context.” 

Or maybe the fantasy simply doesn’t translate to real life the way you thought it would, and that’s okay! “Sometimes when we have these fantasies, you might try it and find out that it’s not your jam in the end and that ‘s okay, you went out and explored,” Mauro says.

Remember to Breathe

All the things that prevent us from living the fulfilled sex lives we deserve—patriarchy and racism, trauma and sex-negativity—live in our bodies. Giving ourselves the freedom to explore means loving the hurt places inside of us, until those clenched emotional and physical muscles unknot and allow our energy to flow.

“Trauma can give someone a traumatic response in a sexual scenario or freeze them completely,” says Mauro. “If you know you have a trauma history and you want to explore—because it’s okay to not explore—it’s okay to do that slowly,” says Mauro. Simply living in a sex negative culture, as we all do, can be traumatic, so remember that it’s always okay to go slow and check in with yourself. 

When you feel moments of tension, pain, or fear, “Breathe, rather than bracing and holding your breath,” says Mauro. By breathing into the things that are blocking us, we can change the harmful scripts that may have prevented our pleasure in the past. 

Ultimately, you may find that the most difficult and beautiful part of sexual exploration isn’t necessarily learning that you have a new kink—though that can be great, too. It’s affirming to yourself—despite all messages to the contrary—that you always deserve care and tenderness.

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