It is the wish of many couples to have a great sexual life be it in vitality, intimacy or quality time. However, every great sex begins with the individuals being sexually self-aware.

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 can 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 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 life 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 an entire book about it. I’ve chosen 3 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 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.

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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 judgment. 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. 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. 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.

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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 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 allowed 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 continue 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 to 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 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 article, 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.