How Do Women Get Turned On: Exploring Women’s Sexual Desire
People get turned on in different ways. Why might some people need a little more stimulation to get in the mood than others?
People get turned on in different ways, that is, people have different ways of experiencing desire that generally comes in 1 of 3 forms: spontaneous, responsive, and contextual. Spontaneous desire tends to be the typical way we think people get turned on, and for some, it is. Spontaneous sexual desire is exactly what it sounds like. It shows up instantly, with or without stimulation. Some folx call it “horniness.” Research shows that up to 75% of men experience spontaneous desire, as well as 15% of women. This means 25% of men and the vast majority of women, 85%, do not experience spontaneous desire. So how do 85% of women experience sexual pleasure or “excitement” if they do not experience spontaneous desire? Well, let's look at the two other types of desire that women more often fall into: responsive and contextual.
Responsive sexual desire is when desire shows up in response to stimulation, meaning something sexy happens and the body responds. Research shows that about 5% of men and roughly 30% of women experience responsive desire, meaning these folx need more than a sexy thought to “want” sex. Yet there remains a large percentage of women and a smaller percentage of men who do not fall into the responsive desire category, either.
Contextual sexual desire is when the circumstances and environment impact the ability to feel sexual desire. Think about what it’s like to drum up desire when your kids are in the next room, you feel stressed out by financial burdens, or you just ate a huge dinner. Sex may not be the first thing on your mind. But, you notice when you are on vacation, the kids are with a trusted sitter, you have no work calls or deadlines to attend to, and a lovely fresh set of hotel sheets really gets you in the mood. This is contextual desire!
Other factors that impact desire include medication and stress levels (ie. ability to manage stressors of contextual desire), one or both members of the couple’s experience of individual concerns such as sexual anxiety, pain, or trauma, and chronic negative patterns of interaction also impact differing levels of desire expressed in a relational context. Nearly all couples experience conflict, but it is the way in which the couple manages conflict that makes the difference in the overall quality of the relationship. I’m a firm believer that sex starts way before entering the bedroom, so if a couple is consistently experiencing conflict or negative patterns of interaction, that naturally can break down attachment bonds affecting not only marital satisfaction, but also the trust and safety needed if a couple is to comfortably explore their sexuality. A couple needs to learn how to communicate more assertively about other issues, learning to bring them to one another's attention and talk them through until they are resolved, even if it means acknowledging they sometimes have very different opinions, like how to handle the distribution of labor in the home.
What do many women need to get turned on?
As described above, most women experience desire in the responsive and contextual categories, which means that what most women need to get turned on is something to respond to, and the right context. For most people, the best context for sex is a combination of low stress, high affection, and explicitly erotic conditions. The best way to set this up (when you're not on vacation) is to try to get that vacation feeling, those sexy contexts, at home.
Let's start with stress. Women tend to experience higher rates of burnout due to sociocultural expectations. Women are twice as likely as men to experience physical symptoms of anxiety. This is especially true for women who work full-time and who have a partner and children. Research from a 2020 article by LeanIn.Org showed that among women and men who have full-time jobs, partners, and children, women are spending an average of 7.4 more hours per week than men on childcare (39.8 hours vs. 32.4 hours), and 5.3 more hours caring for elderly or sick relatives (10.4 hours vs. 5.1 hours). Most women are also spending at least 7 more hours than men on housework (57% of women are spending 21 hours or more, while 60% of men are spending 14 hours or less). That adds up to a difference of almost 20 hours per week — the equivalent of a part-time job (leaning.org, 2020). All of this is to say that what women really need to get turned on is support in managing their stress. For their male counterparts, this might mean that you have to do a little choreplay, and trust me, seeing a man volunteer to set up childcare or mop the floor is VERY sexy!
Now, let’s talk about high affection. How can we increase affection? Well, be more affectionate! Women tend to get turned on more between the ears than between the legs. So how can you do this? Here are some things to try: verbally express your love and admiration, pay her some compliments, initiate a cuddle session, take her out for dinner or cook for her, send a romantic (or racy) text message, surprise her, give her a neck/back massage, run a warm bubble bath, or get her a gift (doesn’t have to be big or expensive, just a little something that says, ‘I was thinking of you’).
Lastly, setting an explicitly erotic setting. These have to do with more obvious sexual cues, like watching, reading, or hearing something sexy happening. You might not be in the mood for sex at all, but then you find yourself in the middle of an intensely hot scene from 365 Days or Bridgerton, and suddenly you're feeling it. According to a 2010 study, some examples of explicit/erotic cues include: Watching a sexy movie, talking about sex or "dirty talk," watching or listening to other people having sex, sensing your own or your partner's wetness or erection, hearing your partner tell you their fantasies about you, asking for or anticipating sexual activity, and having a sexual dream or daydream (McCall & Meston, 2010).
What do most men get wrong about turning women on?
Although I’m sure many have the best intentions of wanting to please their womanly counterparts, there are a few things that they tend to get wrong:
Assume that all women experience pleasure and desire the same. Most people rely on what they know and what has worked for them in the past, naturally. Unfortunately, when it comes to pleasure, not all women are created equal. It's important to treat each partner on a case-by-case basis when it comes to what turns them on.
Focusing on penetration as opposed to clitoral stimulation. Most women need clitoral stimulation to be aroused. In fact, 81.6% of women don’t orgasm from intercourse alone. Studies show that 36% of women need clitoral stimulation in order to orgasm during intercourse and another 36% report that it enhances the experience. Additionally, 66.6% of women prefer being touched directly on the clitoris (Herbenick, et. al, 2018). The clitoris exists for pleasure and pleasure only, and though the most recent clitoral nerve-ending research is still under peer review, newest findings show that the clit may have over 10,000 nerve endings! So, if you don't know where it is, ask for some guidance. Once you figure that out, see if/how she likes to have her clit stimulated: firm or soft touch? Up and down? Left to right? Circular motions? It's important to remember that not all clits are created equal and in fact, some women are more sensitive on one side of the clitoris vs. the other. One other helpful hint, the exposed portion of the clit is just the tip of the iceberg. The clitoris is a wishbone-shaped structure, with the “legs” invisibly submerged in the pelvis but responsive to deeper pressure. Want to get more stimulation to those unexposed parts of the clitoris? Then a vibrator is your best friend. A clitoral vibrator can be used as a tool for intense stimulation of not only the tip of the clitoris (the part you can see) but also the parts of the clitoris that are harder to reach or are not even visible.
Moving too fast - Women’s bodies tend to take a little longer to be ready for penetrative sex, which is why edging (slow arousal to help get the body ready). Stimulating the vulvar and vaginal tissue, and the clitoris, to swell in anticipation helps with arousal, lubrication, and expansion. Here is the biology behind that: 2 things that happen physiologically to better prepare a woman's body for penetration (in mother nature’s eyes: reproduction). First, lubrication. Vaginal tissue is naturally moist. Fluid from the cervix and secretions from the Bartholin glands — two pea-sized glands at the entrance to the vagina — help keep the vagina lubricated. During arousal, the Bartholin glands secrete extra fluid to reduce friction. If the body isn't producing enough lubrication to lessen the friction, you can always use lubricant as a “safety net”, so no need to worry about not getting wet enough naturally. Second, expansion. During arousal, more blood flows to the vagina. This causes the vagina to elongate and the cervix, or tip of the uterus, to lift up slightly, allowing more of a penis, finger, or sex toy to fit in the vagina. Therefore, taking more time in foreplay to stimulate the vulva will help in making penetrative sex more comfortable and enjoyable.
They don't communicate. When it comes to relationships, and certainly sex, communication is key. If you want to know how to turn a woman on, ask her. Simple questions like, "What turns you on?" or "How do you like to experience pleasure?" can yield you a great deal of information. And if she is shy or unsure, try to ask questions like: Do you like this? or that? More to the left or to the right? Do you like a firmer touch or a softer touch? etc. And remember, there’s nothing sexier than a man who listens and expresses interest in a woman's individual desires!
Ways to emotionally and physically connect with your partner
Referring back to that 2010 study, psychologists Katie McCall, Ph.D., and Cindy Meston, Ph.D., identified four categories of sexual cues that are shown to support women's sexual desire. Let’s take a look at these 4 categories and some strategies shown to work:
1. Love/emotional bonding cues
For some, feeling closely connected and emotionally intimate with your partner in a given moment is part of what makes you feel like having sex. Some examples of this type of cue include: doing things that show there is security and commitment in the relationship, talking about the future with your partner, expressing interest in hearing about them, doing things to support your partner (like helping them prep for an interview or showing up to difficult family events), doing "special" or "loving" things for your partner (like a homemade valentine, cooking their favorite dish, or creating a playlist of their favorite songs).
2. Visual/proximity cues
Do you ever notice getting turned on just by seeing certain types of behaviors, body types, or body parts when you see them? This is what we call visual or proximity cues that turn us on. For some women, visual cues include: seeing a guy take his shirt off to reveal a toned body, seeing someone who is well-dressed (like in a nice suit), watching someone engage in physical activities, seeing someone engage positively with their family, seeing a man being a great dad, seeing someone act confidently or intelligently, and flirting. So guys, put some effort into your attire, be active with your loved ones, and talk about the book you just read to flex your fashion, social, and brain muscles to get her going.
3. Romantic/implicit cues
These are intimate situations that just have more of a romantic vibe to them. Some examples of this type of cue from the research include: Having a romantic dinner, Watching a romantic movie, long romantic walks down the beach (I know! but seriously), watching a sunset, dancing closely, giving a massage, whispering something sweet into your partner’s ear, and taking a bath together. Each of these activities is sure to increase the romance and closeness by increasing vulnerability and connection between you and your partner.
4. Explicit/erotic cues
Again, these are more explicit sexual cues. Examples of explicit/erotic cues include: Watching a sexy movie, talking about sex or "dirty talk," watching or listening to other people having sex, sensing your own or your partner's wetness or erection, hearing your partner tell you their fantasies about you, asking for or anticipating sexual activity, and having a sexual dream or daydream.
Above all else, what's most important is learning what turns YOU on so that you can better communicate that to a partner!
So… how do you turn yourself on?
Finding a Sexologist or Sex Therapist
Are you struggling with any of these concerns or another sex-related matter? If you are in search of someone who is certified, you can check the listing at the American Association of Sexuality Educators, Counselors, and Therapists (AASECT) online directory. Lastly, if you are interested in working with a sexologist, I encourage you to ask about their area of focus and their background or credentials. That way, you can make the most informed decision about who to trust with your sexual health.
Who am I? A message from Holly…
My name is Holly and I am a Trauma-Informed and Board Certified Clinical Sexologist. I provide sex therapy and coaching to individuals and couples that are struggling with reaching their full potential. As a clinician, I am passionate about helping people achieve their goals and live happy, healthy, rewarding lives. I truly believe that trauma is the source of pathology, and that everyone has within them the capacity to heal. Furthermore, I am dedicated to fostering a safe environment, working with each individual to develop the necessary skills to achieve lifelong change to improve their quality of life. As your therapist, I can’t guarantee that I will be able to fully understand what it is like to walk in your shoes, but I can guarantee that I can help you to sort things out, let go of what does not serve you, and create the life you truly want. Peaceful. Connected. Powerful. And Pleasurable.
I offer a judgment-free zone, hold space for healing, and offer straight forward, no-nonsense feedback (if that’s what you need). Overall, I offer you the tools and guidance to get past your past and develop the necessary skills to achieve lifelong change and truly start living. - Holly Wood, MS., PhD(c), LMFT
Visit www.thehollywoodsexologist.com to learn more and request a consultation.