At face value, the increasing accessibility and acceptability of all things erotic seems like progress. After all, people with specific fetishes like “pedal pumping” (fixating on the masturbatory rhythm of someone’s foot pushing the gas), “cake farting” (exactly what it sounds like), or yiffing (sex with someone in a furry suit) can now find each other online.
But a lot of provocative material can be intimidating or misleading. And for the over porn exposed, desensitization is a concern. All you have to do is Google “hookup culture” to understand that, whether or not young people are more promiscuous than previous generations, many are numb to graphic sexual imagery and discourse.
According to some scientists, however, the main problem with the ubiquity of X-rated content isn’t that it fosters sexual numbness, but that it can interfere with the process of deciphering sexual tastes. And if we don’t know what gets us going in the sack, we’re unlikely to reach full orgasmic potential.
To assess how well I know my own libido, I visited the Kinsey Institute for Research in Sex, Gender, and Reproduction at Indiana University recently, where I lent my vagina to science. At the direction of a world-renowned arousal expert, I participated in a series of experiments involving a vaginal probe shaped like a glass tampon. Basically, I watched a bunch of porn and answered questions about my level of attraction to each video while a scientist measured my vagina’s “pulse” with his special high-tech instrument. Then he compared my subjective ideas about what’s sexy to the objective data collected.
Though we’re trained to think of pleasure purely in terms of what excites us, at Kinsey I learned that arousal is a function of balance between two opposing forces: excitation and inhibition. In other words, turn-offs are just as important as turn-ons.
(Since we can’t all play scientific guinea pig, consider taking the Turning On, Turning Off questionnaire on Kinsey’s website to get some insight into your individual sensual profile.)
Once you have a sense as to what gets you going and what holds you back, the next step to having the best sex possible is knowing how to push your pleasure gas pedal and how to slam on your inhibition breaks. Below I’ve listed four common turn-ons and turn-offs, along with some pointers on how to activate the former while stifling the latter.
How to trigger common turn-ons:
1. Sexy sounds
Feeling visually oversaturated from watching too much porn? Not to worry. There’s another sense you can tap. But while the orgasmic potential of auditory stimulation is great, it can be embarrassing to go vocal cord crazy in front of a partner. To put yourself at ease, rehearse your When Harry Met Sally moaning and groaning routine while masturbating.
2. Your partner’s pleasure
First, pat yourself on the back for being a generous person invested in the pleasure of others. Next, figure out how to get to the bottom of what gets your partner—and, by extension, you—excited by asking specific questions. If you find yourself naked with someone who’s into humiliation, for instance, find out what that means, exactly. Gentle spanking? Derogatory name-calling? Restraints?
So you’ve got a soft spot for the PG stuff. Kissing and cuddling make you feel safe, loved, wanted. The key here is to embrace your inner tease by prolonging the foreplay portion of a romp. When strict guidelines are set about what’s allowed and what’s not in a given timeframe, benign sex acts can take on titillating new meaning.
4. The threat of detection
For those who are into the possibility of getting caught, everyday objects (the dinner table, the divider between taxi cab driver and passenger, closet doors) can start to look like thin shields. If you’re too timid to let loose in public, however, simple measures like leaving the curtains open and the door unlocked back at home can be effective. Why not be your voyeuristic neighbor’s dream?
How to throttle standard turn-offs:
1. Fear of inadequacy
Scared of getting schooled in bed? Take some time to educate yourself by engaging your most sexually experienced friends in some earnest how-to chats. Alternatively, surf the Internet for adult videos with an eye towards picking up some new techniques.
2. Trust issues
Stripped of clothing, it’s easy to feel vulnerable. To remind yourself you’re not alone, check in with your partner regularly during sex. The simplest, most powerful way to do this is by making eye contact to establish a sense of comfort and connection. So whether you’re mid- foot rub or mid-blowjob, don’t forget to look up once in a while.
Your partner might not meet your hygiene standards, but there’s a fix for that. On top of being sensual, a joint shower lets you rinse away your body odor concerns so you can get down and dirty together. If you don’t cohabit with anyone, always suggest heading back to your place, where you know the sheets are clean.
4. Reputational risk
Except for me, maybe, no one likes being called a “slut” or a “whore.” The very possibility can preoccupy our minds, robbing us of the ability to climax. Luckily, when it comes to dodging labels, there’s a choice besides abstinence. You just have to trust in the power of denial.