Can you change your sexual response?

Written by Emily Nagoski, Ph.D.

A useful way to think about the idea of sexual response is to break it into two concepts: arousal and arousability.

Arousability refers to your trait levels of SIS and SES (dual control model). Our best understanding at this point is that sexual arousability works along the lines of intelligence, height or any of the other plastic traits: you're born with a certain range of potential, and where you fall within that potential depends on life experience. It is "innate," along the lines of Jonathan Haidt's very useful definition: structured in advance of experience.1 That doesn't mean it's set in concrete at birth. It means that you're given a range of potential at birth and your experiences shape how that potential plays out.

In other words, your trait-level arousability is a result neither of nurture nor of nature, but of the interaction between the two.

Arousal, in contrast, is the product of the interaction between your arousability and the environment. And THAT is something you definitely CAN change deliberately.

Because while our capacity to respond to sexually relevant stimuli is organized in advance of experience, what qualifies as "sexually relevant" is NOT. (There may be one or two minor exceptions, but for the purposes of this question we'll cheerfully ignore them.)

Imagine a little girl, maybe four or five years old, lying in her bed at nap time, masturbating as is her habit. And imagine that her adult caregiver walks in on her and feels surprised and then embarrassed and then ashamed, and the parent says to the little girl, "Don't do that! That's bad!"

That little girl's brain creates a little glitch, a little brakes response that is associated with whatever arousal she was experiencing at the moment she was interrupted.

Now accumulate time and repetition. Let the steady drip of life corrode a pathway into the brain. The message doesn't have to be perfectly consistent, some of the learning can be contradictory, as long as the message is consistent ENOUGH, it will build a pathway in the brain deeper than the alternative pathway. And 20 years later, that girl who grew up in a culture that taught her masturbation was bad and her body was not her own to do with as she pleased, now wonders why she feels guilty when she's aroused and it takes her an hour to have an orgasm.

The good news is that this learned association can be unlearned. And that is what we can change about our sexual response.

The best book that I know of is Julia Heiman's Becoming Orgasmic. It walks you through a series of exercises that help you recognize when negative thoughts or feelings emerge when you're experiencing arousal, and then help you let go of those negative thoughts or feelings when they emerge.

It takes time and patience and practice. If changing your sexual response is walking to the center of a maze, I've just described the general route. This is not the same as actually going through the maze. If going through it alone seems daunting, a sex therapist can walk through the maze with you.

It's absolutely possible. The glitches got planted because your brain was working APPROPRIATELY. You're not broken, you just grew up in a culture that built some stuff into your brain. And now that you're a grown up, you can choose whether to keep that stuff or try something different.

It takes time. Practice. Patience. But the same processes that built in the glitches can deconstruct the glitches and build a new and different response to sexual stimuli.

1. Jonathan Haidt. "The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion,"  (2012).

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