The Center for Erotic Intelligence defines eroticism as “the interplay of desire and arousal with the daily challenges of living and loving,” and describes the five main elements of erotic intelligence as body attunement, social intelligence, emotional intelligence, self-awareness on steroids, and creative imagination. Erotic intelligence thus combines body, mind, heart, and soul and is essential for us to feel connected to our sense of full aliveness and potential.
World-renowned Belgian psychotherapist Esther Perel promoted this concept in her 2005 bestseller Mating in Captivity: Unlocking Erotic Intelligence in which she described the tension in modern intimate relationships between domesticity (the need for security, belonging, closeness), and sensuality (the need for freedom, erotic desire, and adventure). She stresses that by learning to create some psychological distance or mystery within the comfort of the familiar, erotic intelligence can help us sustain desire and vitality in long-term relationships.
And yet, as I see so often in my office, many women feel disconnected from their desire, shut off from their erotic selves. We know that a woman’s relationship with her sexual desire is complex, “often inextricably linked to her sense of identity, self-esteem, personal agency, energy levels, self-care habits and interpersonal relationships,” as psychotherapist Alicia Muñoz describes.
To begin to develop their erotic intelligence, women first have to connect or reconnect to their sexual and erotic selves—which can be a challenge that requires patience and intentionality in several of the following ways.
Heal trauma around sexuality
We can’t talk about erotic and sexual health without first addressing possible physical and psychological wounds in this area. For women who have been sexually abused or harassed in the past or even touched inappropriately without consent, experiencing pleasure and developing trust with a partner can be difficult. The hypervigilance, stress, and anxiety that can come with being a trauma survivor inhibit relaxation and presence in the moment, which are necessary for the experience of sexual arousal.
If you are suffering from past sexual trauma, get professional support. Know that you can heal and recover in your body, mind, and spirit and journey towards more emotional freedom and fulfilling relationships.
Identify the messages you have internalized about your body, pleasure, and sex
To become more erotically intelligent, women need to become aware of the messages they have received growing up about sex and the body from family, peers, and the media. These messages shape the way they view themselves and how they internalize patriarchal sexual legacies. From a young age, girls are bombarded with objectifying, hypersexualized images and are pressured to conform to unrealistic standards of beauty and “sexiness.”
As a result, some women may learn to repress the sexual part of themselves and see their desire and physical pleasure as a source of guilt, shame, and confusion. Others may abdicate their own power and agency in this area and expect partners by intuiting their sexual needs and wants. As Alicia Muñoz explains, “when girls suppress aspects of their deepest erotic impulses and experiences, layers of judgment and shame encase not only what and how they feel, but also who they are. Like a seed trapped in amber, a woman’s erotic potential can remain untapped even as she develops and grows in other areas.”
Healing can happen when we learn to shift from self-judgment to self-acceptance, particularly around body image. When we can replace old negative messages about our worth and our bodies with more affirming and sex-positive ones, we can begin to reconnect with our own pleasure. Many women are so programmed to be responsible caregivers that giving themselves permission to own their desire and to take responsibility for their sexual fulfillment is a huge stretch.
Learn about your unique sexual response
The journey to greater erotic aliveness includes being curious about the unique ways in which we have learned to respond, or not respond, sexually. In her science-based book Come as You Are, researcher and sex educator Dr. Emily Nagoski helps women understand and normalize how their desire works. The sexual response mechanism in the brain has both an accelerator — which responds to sexy things — and a brake — which responds to potential threats, like social reputation, sexual shame, fear of performance failure, and body self-criticism. The process of becoming aroused involves turning on all the ons and turning off all the offs. An erotically intelligent woman knows what turns her on and feeds her desire, and what turns her off.
Another normalizing concept for women, based on Dr. Rosemary Basson’s work, is that of a circular sexual response cycle, in contrast to the more linear one that describes male sexuality, in which desire leads to arousal, as a prelude to sex. It is more typical for women to experience “responsive desire,” which is contextual and relational, rather than “spontaneous desire” (innate drive). Women often don’t feel aroused until after having begun engaging in sex, which they may have agreed to or initiated because of a desire to feel close or connected rather than because they have experienced physical desire or arousal.
DISCOVER YOUR EROTIC LANGUAGE OR BLUEPRINT
Not only does each of us have a unique sexual response (accelerator and brake), but we also have a unique erotic language. Many people recognize the concept of love languages, popularized in Dr. Gary Chapman’s book The Five Love Languages. According to this paradigm, each of us expresses and interprets love in a special way, and we have preferences about how we want to receive love, generally in one of five categories: physical touch, words of affirmation, quality time, gifts, or acts of service.
But people may not be as familiar with sexual or erotic languages. Jaiya Ma, somatic sexologist and founder of New World Sex Education, created the Core Erotic Blueprint, which refers to the fundamental way that one is erotically wired and reveals the best paths for sexual arousal. Through an online quiz, she helps people distinguish among five categories of erotic types or cores: energetic, sensual, sexual, kinky, and shapeshifter. Each type has a positive and a shadow.
- The Energetic types are turned on by anticipation, yearning, and partner’s arousal. They tend to be highly sensitive to emotion, need safe boundaries, and prefer gentle, hovering touch as foreplay.
- The Sensual types experience arousal through all their five senses being engaged. The physical environment, romance, and ambiance are essential. They are often stuck in their heads and need to relax before sex.
- The Sexual types are turned on by straightforward sex, visual or touch stimulus, nudity, and erotica, often very quickly. They use sex to relax. The sexual stereotype, they are the most accepted in our culture.
- The Kinky types experience arousal through anything that they perceive as taboo or “out-of-the-box,” whether psychological (like power dynamics) or physical. They often have a rich fantasy life and may have felt shut down by shame or judgment about their desires.
- The Shapeshifter types are turned on by and can shift between all the other four types with ease. They desire variety and tend to be highly erotically intelligent.
Learn to communicate your desires in your relationship
As part of increasing her erotic intelligence, a woman can learn how to talk about her desires around intimacy with her partner. However, this involves more than just developing good sexual communication skills and establishing a sexual vocabulary. It’s first and foremost about building a relationship characterized by emotional connection, safety, trust, and empathy.
Talking about our sexual needs, fears, and fantasies can be scary. One of the best ways for a couple to share about sexual intimacy and to create a strong emotional and erotic connection is to use the Imago Dialogue, created by Harville Hendrix and Helen Hunt. With this unique structure, partners can practice really listening to each other and asking for what they need in the relationship. The dialogue builds empathic connection and allows intimacy to grow, as each partner feels heard, seen, validated, and held by the other. At its best, this Imago process can be deeply healing and invite growth into more sexual openness, curiosity, acceptance, creativity, and playfulness. Tammy Nelson’s Getting the Sex You Want is a helpful guide for couples who want to transform their sex lives into more passionate and erotic partnerships.
If you’re ready to grow your erotic intelligence, improve the intimacy in your relationship, and connect to your full aliveness and potential, talk to one of our therapists on staff or join one of our groups at the Imago Center today.