“…[T]he sexual norms we inherit bear little resemblance to what people actually do. I think it would be great if everyone told the truth—for one moment—about their actual sexual practices and relationships, affairs, and arrangements, fantasies and desires. The diversity would amaze us all.” Staci Haines, “Healing Sex: A Mind-Body Approach to Healing Sexual Trauma.”
In my workshop on Empowered Sexuality for Women, I give my class participants a list of sexual activities to begin to explore the edges of their desires. A list is a great—and very safe way—to begin to explore desire. And it is just a starting point. Below, I’ll share additional ideas for moving beyond the list to explore sexual desire further.
Exploring the edges of sexual desire can be scary—evoking all sorts of complex feelings, especially if sex has involved abuse or shame. But when we are in charge of this exploration, we’re in the driver’s seat—meaning, we are fully at choice. As such, we can quit if something doesn’t feel right, or we can choose to continue and allow the full range of feelings we experience. As long as we are not re-experiencing shame as we explore, finding out what turns us on can be richly pleasurable and highly empowering.
Something we must have before we explore is a solid grounding in self-acceptance, particularly of our bodies and our sexuality. These days, so many women struggle with body image because we live in a culture that trains women that their value comes from being pleasing to others—and the range of what culture defines as pleasing is shockingly narrow, defined by the fashion and porn industries. Thus, it can be hard for a woman to feel excited about exploring desire and turn-ons, if she does not feel as if she fits culture’s image of what’s pleasing. What can help a woman break free of culturally imposed limitations is accepting that beauty comes in all sizes, shapes and colors, and that includes breasts and genitals. If you struggle with accepting that your labia is perfect as it is, look through the Labia Library and take in the range of sizes, colors, and shapes of labia. You’ll be amazed—and hopefully will recognize how absurd it is to measure yourself against the unreality of fashion and porn, both of which promote the most narrow vision possible of “beauty.”
The following are three additional ways I have encouraged client and class participants to explore the realm of their desires:
First, I encourage people to ask friends what turns them on. The truth is, a lot of people are relieved to talk about sex once someone else raises the subject. You both might learn something—and open your friendship in a way that fosters greater connection. From attending workshops through The Human Awareness Institute, I’ve developed a group of friends who are comfortable talking about sex. It is incredible—normalizing—positive—and really fun to be able to talk openly with friends about something we usually keep hidden.
Second, I encourage people–especially women–to read erotica. Many women find erotica to be a fabulous way to stoke desire and to evoke the imagination, a powerful source of desire for women. A few good starters include three annual series: Best Women’s Erotica, Best American Erotica and Best Lesbian Erotica. The website, literotica.com is also a good site, with offerings far beyond erotica.
Finally, some erotic DVDs can be both instructive and a turn-on. In particular, the Alexander Institute produces DVDs that are both erotic and educational. The videos are explicit—and—are far more satisfying than pornography, especially for women. Specific DVDs I can recommend include:
- The Modern Kama Sutra, An Erotic Workshop for Lovers
- Vol. I: Sensual Secrets to Amazing Sex
- Vol. II: Pleasuring Her First
- Vol. III: Sexual Positions for Great Sex
- Woman to Woman Erotic Touch for Great Sex
- The Art of Advanced Oral Sex
- Advanced Sex Toys for Great Sex
Watched alone or with a partner, erotic videos can be a great way to open your desire and spice up your sex life!
Knowing what turns us on doesn’t mean we have to do everything that sparks our desire—that’s an entirely different conversation. But knowing allows us to choose—and to normalize feeling turned on. For anyone who has experienced shame around pleasure as a result of sex abuse, religious or family messaging, allowing desire without shame is fabulous. Happy explorations!
Jane Steckbeck, Clinical Sexologist and Certified Sex Coach