What Really Happens When You're Turned On

Illustrated by Anna Sudit.
This story was originally published on November 16, 2014.

Without the heart-racing, heavy-breathing prequel that encompasses foreplay and arousal, your chances of orgasm from penetrative sex are pretty slim. (Seriously, it’s science.) According to a study in the Journal of Sexual Research, both men and women hope to engage in foreplay for about 20 minutes before beginning intercourse — and yet, most report that actual foreplay only lasts about half that time.
Sure, there are some great hookups that go from zero to 60 in about as many seconds. It’s all good as long as you’re really, truly turned-on before going all the way. Why is that? And, what does it take to get there? And, what’s actually happening — between your legs as well as between your ears — during arousal? We combed through the research to figure out the science behind getting turned on. Because, although there are a lot of things we cut corners on to save time (hi, teeth-brushing for only 30 seconds) foreplay shouldn’t be one of them.
Advertisement
1 of 4
Illustrated by Anna Sudit.
What’s Happening In Your Body?
The lion’s share of research on arousal involves physiology, since although we’re all turned on by different things, most of our bodies have the same textbook responses to arousal. The first researchers to really look at what was happening were William Masters and Virginia Johnson (à la Masters of Sex), who mapped out the stages of sexual response onto the now-famous Human Sexual Response Cycle.

Although the model has been disputed by other sexologists, there isn’t much disagreement about what happens during the stage of “arousal” (or as Masters and Johnson called it, the “excitement” phase, for good reason). Your heart speeds up, your breathing quickens, your blood pressure spikes. Muscles begin to tense, your pupils dilate, and your pain threshold goes up. There’s an increase in vasocongestion, or swelling of tissue caused by extra blood flow, which causes the hallmarks of arousal: nipple stiffening, skin flushing, and (of course) erections.

A woman’s clitoris becomes erect, too, and her vaginal walls begin to “sweat,” causing lubrication. These physiological changes are all essential for whatever will come next, says clinical sexologist Kat Van Kirk, PhD. During arousal, a woman’s uterus will actually “lift,” which lengthens the vaginal canal. If you launch into penetrative sex before this happens, Dr. Van Kirk warns that it “can be more uncomfortable.”

Any kind of vaginal penetration before you’re properly lubricated can also be painful, as “micro-tears can actually occur in the vagina due to the increase in friction.”
2 of 4
Illustrated by Anna Sudit.
What’s Happening In Your Brain?
At the same time, your brain is welling up with powerful hormones: dopamine and oxytocin, in particular. Dopamine, which comes first, triggers feelings of motivation — like, I really want to get this person naked. Oxytocin, which comes later, makes you feel bonded (which is why it’s called the “cuddle hormone”).

As a pair, the two neurotransmitters explain why we feel instantly — if momentarily — bonded to our partner when we start to feel turned on. According to Barry Komisaruk, PhD, who has studied orgasms in a neurology lab at Rutgers University, the geography of the brain lights up like fireworks during arousal: Half a dozen parts of the brain become activated, including the amygdala (associated with emotions), the hippocampus (associated with memory management), and the anterior insula (helps process physical feelings).

Men and women’s brains don’t always respond the same way to arousing stimuli. In a study published last year, men and women watched a series of erotic videos while researchers examined their brains using an fMRI. Both men and women reported feelings of arousal while watching the videos, but researchers noticed that men showed more brain activity in the amygdala while women showed hardly any. And, research has noticed that in women, the vagina, clitoris, and nipples all correspond to the same precise area of the sensory cortex — meaning that all of those areas register as erogenous — not that you needed a scientific study to tell you that.
3 of 4
Illustrated by Anna Sudit.
What About Our Thoughts & Fantasies?
Part of the reason that arousal has been difficult to measure is that there’s often a disconnect between what’s happening in your genitals, your brain, and your consciousness. John Bancroft, PhD, senior researcher and former director of the Kinsey Institute, has studied how arousal develops, and his research pinpoints something important: We need to be aware of our own arousal before we can really feel aroused.

“In the male, sexual arousal is typically associated with some degree of penile erection. The man will become aware of this, and focus his attention on the idea of his penis being stimulated,” explains Dr. Bancroft. But, in women, the equivalent — the stiffening of the clitoris — isn’t nearly as noticeable, and “typically the woman is less aware of her genital response unless her genitals are touched.” In other words, it takes more for women to even realize that they’re becoming sexually aroused than for men.

For this reason, the cognitive components of arousal are especially important for women. Just like sensual touching can jumpstart arousal, so too can sensual thought. Reading erotica, watching pornography, fantasizing about an erotic scenario, or even just thinking about sex all trigger a response in the brain — which, in turn, contributes to feelings of arousal. “The biggest sex organ in the body is the brain,” says Dr. Sadie Allison, Ph.D., author of Mystery of the Undercover Clitoris. “Simply talking with a lover in a loving, sexy way can cause a man to become erect, or a woman to become moist.”

But, even the mental triggers for arousal aren’t (typically) the same for men and women. More so than men, women tend to be aroused by stimuli that they can “imagine themselves into” — like an erotic story, or an imagined fantasy. One study, which tracked eye movement as people watched pornography, found that both men and women’s eyes were locked on the woman in the film — regardless of their sexual orientation. The theory? Women need to imagine their way “into” the scenario, while men are satisfied by focusing on the visual imagery alone.
4 of 4
Illustrated by Anna Sudit.
Are There Arousal-Enhancing Tricks?
The mechanics of sexual arousal are well-known, but are there things that can take our arousal to the next level? Certainly, there are troves of herbs, supplements, and exercise methods that claim to improve libido — from eating oysters to taking ginseng to using THC lube — but Dr. Van Kirk is skeptical. There’s no conclusive evidence that these things don’t work, but there isn’t really good evidence that they do.

Instead, Dr. Allison advocates for something much simpler: good, old fashioned communication. “Deep connection, eye-to-eye contact, and open, honest sharing of one’s desires are great arousal jump-starters,” she says. The idea is that shedding inhibitions and opening yourself emotionally can help you get into the right headspace to feel turned on. And, if you’re having trouble with the idea of spending a half hour on foreplay, don’t: “I promote more ‘sex play’ than ‘foreplay,’” says Dr. Van Kirk, adding that "foreplay" makes it seem like it’s leading up to a main event (penetration and/or orgasm), when in reality all kinds of sex play can be immensely satisfying for both (or many) partners. Instead of thinking of foreplay as the appetizer, think about sex like a meal made entirely of tapas — delicious and satisfying, every step of the way.
Advertisement