How to Figure Out Exactly What Turns Your Partner On

There are four broad categories of turn-ons, according to research.

Originally Published: 
Man and woman laughing will holding each other in bed

Humankind is not a monolith, and that’s certainly true when it comes to our sexual turn-ons. One person’s kink is another’s vanilla. Spanking might be exciting to one and downright scary to another. Some love a little romance, while others find too much sweet talk hurts the teeth.

What triggers sexual desire, too, can vary tremendously from person to person. If you’ve ever been in a situation where you were in the mood for sex when your partner wasn’t, that’s likely because the cues that trigger desire for you were present in that situation, but the cues that trigger desire for your partner weren’t.

For couples, learning each other’s sexual turn-ons —and how to create more contexts where both people’s triggers are present — is key to a mutually satisfying sex life.

One helpful way to explore the things that do (and don’t) turn each other on is to consider the four types of sexual desire cues identified by clinical psychologists Katie M. McCall, Ph.D., and Cindy Meston, Ph.D. This scientifically validated framework was developed by studying women’s desire cues, but people of any gender can probably resonate with and identify themselves within one or more of these categories.

Try talking through these four types of sexual turn-ons together and see which ones stick out to each of you:

The Four Types Of Sexual Turn-Ons

1. Erotic Cues

This category of turn-on is the most straightforward: You see, hear, talk about, or think about something explicitly sexual, and that makes you want to have sex. For example, you might find yourself automatically turned on after watching two people have sex in a movie, hearing your partner say something dirty, or sensing your partner’s erection or wetness (or your own). Basically, you internalize something directly related to sex, and it makes you want to have sex. You might also have a sexual thought or fantasy pass through your mind, and that in and of itself turns you on.

2. Visual A Proximity Cues

This category has to do with seeing or being close to something attractive. While what’s considered “attractive” is subjective and varies between individuals, the core idea here is that you get turned on by certain visuals and certain behavior. For example, seeing a woman in a bathing suit, watching a guy work out at the gym, seeing a powerful person exert their power and influence in a business meeting, or just talking to a person you find attractive. Depending on what you find attractive, even behaviors like watching your husband be tender and loving with the kids or seeing your wife fully demolish her enemies at Call of Duty could also be a turn-on.

3. Implicit And Romantic Cues

For some people, the things that turn them on are more romantic in nature. A candlelit dinner, dancing close together, watching a romantic movie, or having your partner brush your hair back behind your ear. Even things like smelling your partner’s “date night” cologne can fall under this category. While not inherently sexual, these romantic and pleasurable experiences are what tend to put you in the mood for sex — because they just sort of have that implicitly sensual vibe.

4. Emotional Bonding Cues

Lastly, some people desire sex when they feel particularly emotionally close and connected with their partner. For example, you might feel more in the mood for sex in moments where your partner does something that demonstrates how much they love you (ex. a particularly genuine profession of love), moments where you feel secure in your relationship (ex. right after he asks you to move in together), or moments where you feel like you and your partner are really bonding (ex. after a long, deep conversation about your inner worlds).

Learning Each Other’s Sexual Turn-Ons — And Acting On Them

Categorization can be a useful tool to help you identify the different possibilities and organize your exploration of your sexuality. But don’t worry if you don’t find yourself fitting neatly into any one box. This is just one framework of desire and arousal, and there are plenty of others that exist out there in the world of sexuality sciences. You might also resonate with several of these categories at once, or you might want to create your own fifth or sixth categories, or special category blends, that feel more relevant to you and your partner.

The best way forward is to use these categories as simply a starting point for discussions with your partner. Ask each other:

  • What are some specific situations, activities, or behaviors under each category that typically turn you on?
  • Which of these categories resonate most for you in terms of what makes you feel like having sex?
  • Which categories feel least relevant to turning you on?
  • Is there a category of turn-ons that you feel is missing from this list? What categories would you want to add?
  • Regardless of category, what else turns you on—and turns you off?

Importantly, there are also other factors to consider when it comes to accessing desire — such as what factors turn each of you off, or makes it harder for you to be turned on by your usual turn-ons. (For example, candlelight dinners might be a usual trigger for your partner, but a candlelight dinner when they haven’t had a night with more than three hours of sleep in over a month? Yeah, that’s probably not going to hit quite the same.)

It’s OK if you and your partner’s desire is triggered by different cues, too. The point here is not to try to come to an agreement about what’s hot. In fact, the point is exactly the opposite of that: Recognizing that what turns on one person won’t necessarily turn on the next person, and that’s OK. When you know what cues will reliably turn your partner on when present, you’re able to be better attuned to their desire and how to activate it—instead of just assuming they should automatically be turned on at the same time you are.

In couples who frequently experience a desire discrepancy, this also helps shift the thinking from “why doesn’t my partner want sex as often as I do?” to “how can we create more contexts where both my and my partner’s desire cues are present?” The latter framing offers a clear map of what you as a couple can work on in order to create more situations where the two of you are both excited to jump each other’s bones. That’s the ultimate goal.

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