The Science Behind 6 Different Turn-Ons

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Arousal is complicated: Female tears can turn men off; guys may feel frisky when they’re anxious; women may be more attracted to dudes in red.

“Arousal is driven by both psychological and physiological elements that converge,” Ian Kerner, PhD, a sex expert and author of She Comes Firsttells Yahoo Health. And our senses — sight, touch, taste, smell, and sound — are different doorways to accessing those elements. “They’re all different ways to initiate and encourage arousal,” he says. 

But why do certain turn-ons — from porn to dirty talk to aphrodisiac foods — turn us on (and how do they have the power to do so)? Here, the reasoning behind common pleasure-inducers.

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The very concept of pornography is designed to kick our sex drive into gear, says Kerner. Of course, different people respond to different types of porn and different ways of viewing it (some people prefer to watch alone; others watch as a couple).

Why does it work? Simple: “Looking at naked bodies and sex acts is sexually stimulating and sets off the arousal platform in both women and men,” says Kerner. Research suggests porn activates your brain’s reward regions, which can keep you going back for more. Some science involving people who are addicted to porn even suggests that watching the sultry films lights up the same regions as drugs and alcohol do.

It’s effective in two ways: physically, by increasing blood flow to your genitals; and psychologically by triggering neurochemicals that trigger arousal, Kerner explains.

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The core of BDSM — erotic sexual experiences involving roleplaying, bondage, or dominance and submission, or sadism and masochism — comes down to power dynamics, which can be incredibly erotically charged, says Kerner.

Why? For one, we engage in power dynamics all day long, he says. And changing them in the bedroom can be freeing and satisfying.

“Sometimes, BDSM is a way to enjoy a power dynamic that speaks to us on a deeper level that we may not be able to enjoy in our life,” Kerner explains. 

For example, if you’re a high-powered female executive, you may not find yourself submitting to others much in your day-to-day, he says. “But in the bedroom, the idea of submitting may be arousing and compelling.”

On the other hand, power dynamics can be rooted in childhood themes or psychological needs. Say you’re a middle child who’s always been sandwiched in the middle, succumbing to others’ ways — “the idea of submitting to someone’s touch and gaze could be very sexy and fulfill a need based on how you were raised,” Kerner says.

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If you feel your best in your sexiest lingerie (or notice your partner gets super turned on when you sex up your bra and underwear), you’re not alone. “Sight is a very strong sexual pathway in men and women,” says Kerner.

For one, lingerie is a way to bring novelty into your sex life — something that research suggests is a key part of sexual desire. 

“It’s a way to stimulate your imagination,” Kerner says. For example, you can wear lingerie that’s in line with your sex type (maybe the “girl next door” vibe) or you can wear something that allows you to inhabit another sex type (something that makes you feel like a dominatrix, for instance).

Another huge turn-on relating to lingerie: feeling confident in your own skin. If you’re wearing lingerie you love and feel sexy in, that can “make nakedness more sexy,” says Kerner. You’ll feel a bigger sense of sexual self-empowerment and sexual self-esteem — which can help you relax, enjoy the moment, and find more pleasure, he notes.

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Sex toys are another way to boost confidence and introduce novelty in the bedroom. For one, toys like vibrators can help you figure out what you like (and don’t like) on your own so that you can have better sex with your partner. 

Even more? “Sex toys can certainly enhance orgasms, produce orgasms, and, when used by a couple, can change the quality of arousal allowing you to introduce a new type of arousal,” says Kerner.

In fact, research in The Journal of Sexual Medicine suggests that compared with ladies who have never used a vibrator, those who have in the past month reported more sexual desire, arousal, and lubrication.

“Any time you’re introducing novelty, you’re encouraging dopamine transmission in the brain which plays big role in sexual arousal,” Kerner notes. 

Start with toys that work with your level of comfortability — whether that’s a simple of vibrator or something more in the BDSM realm, like leather toys.

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Sexy sights and touch aren’t the only turn-ons out there — and those who like to talk in bed know this well. In fact, hearing and aural cues are powerful sensual pathways when it comes to sex, notes Kerner.

In part, this could be because communication is a key aspect of a good sex life. Research even suggests that being comfortable with sexual communication is directly linked to how satisfied you are with your life inside the bedroom.

But in particular, talking dirty and sharing fantasies can also be considered “psychological stimulants,” says Kerner. And since the brain — and having your mind in the right place during sex — is such a key part of arousal, thinking about and saying aloud our desires works to get us in the mood, he notes.

Of course, some people are less comfortable expressing the details of their deepest fantasies — and in this case, even sexual noises such as moaning can be turn-ons, says Kerner. The language of fantasy is different for everyone, so finding what works for you — whether it’s swapping fantasies, talking dirty, or making sounds that show you’re enjoying yourself — is the key.

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Turn-ons don’t stop once you leave the bedroom — many can be found in the kitchen, too. The idea behind aphrodisiac foods likely comes down to two main reasons: their associations with sex (i.e. we think certain foods turn us on) and their ingredients (vitamins and minerals that really do have some relationship to arousal).

Take chocolate: We may think of it as a sensual food because of its creamy texture spooned over strawberries, Keri Glassman, RD, founder of Nutritious Life, tells Yahoo Health. But she says that when scientists examined a slew of research on supposed aphrodisiacs, they found that even though we think chocolate turns us on, it’s all in our heads: Chocolate didn’t actually increase people’s sexual arousal.

As for foods that really could turn you on? Look out for zinc, Glassman says. The mineral is linked to increased libido, sexual performance, and, in men, better sperm production, she says. Oysters, beef, spinach, and pumpkin seeds are all high in the mineral.

Polyphenols — antioxidants that allow blood to flow through your veins — have been linked to increased arousal, too, she says. Foods like pomegranates, figs, and blueberries and spices and herbs like cloves, peppermint, and oregano are all high in them.

Watermelon — which is packed with an amino acid called citrulline — has also been shown to relax blood vessels, which can lead to a higher female libido and healthier erections for him, Glassman says.

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