The Anatomy of Eroticism

When we talk about sexual desires and preferences (which we don’t do often enough!), we typically talk about who we are attracted to (our sexual orientation) and what kinds of activities we like, but this isn’t the full story. In my view, these things aren’t even the most important parts of the story! You may have noticed a proliferation of sexual orientations over the last few years… no longer are we only straight or gay– now we recognize bi, pan, sapio, demi, asexual, and even more as valid sexual orientations. Some of these have to do with the gender of the people we are attracted to in relation to ourselves (gay, straight, bi, pan, etc.) while demisexual refers to people who only develop sexual attraction after an emotional connection is formed, and sapiosexual refers to people who are sexually attracted to the intelligence of others. We’ve also started to recognize that who we are sexually attracted to might be different than those we are sensually or romantically attracted to. 

Eroticism requires unresolved tension and so inherently embodies paradox. As sex researcher Jack Morin explains, the “erotic equation” is attraction plus obstacle equals eroticism. The obstacle to the object of one’s desire makes it more enticing and exciting–that much more erotic. Esther Perel similarly argues that erotic desire requires space–a distance from which to desire the other. Of course this has implications for romantic love relationships that cultivate closeness and thus can end up squashing erotic desire–a big problem, especially for monogamous relationships. But we can all take this into account–whether dating, single, or partnered. Our erotic desire hinges on some degree of tension. 

I love that as a society we are beginning to recognize the diversity of sexualities that we as humans are capable of experiencing. It can also get confusing and even limiting to slap a few labels on ourselves in an effort to describe the dynamic, fluid, and evolving part of ourselves that is our sexual attraction and desire. In my experience, we can come to a deeper connection with ourselves by exploring what Jack Morin calls our core erotic theme.

Our core erotic theme pulsates at the junction of fear and desire. Morin argues that our early experiences as children shape our core erotic theme, which is often connected to fears we experienced and eroticized in a subconscious effort to cope with the fear. Fear and desire are closely linked, and we often end up eroticizing things we are afraid of. Think about the thrill of scary movies or roller coasters: we at once fear and desire these intense experiences–they tow the erotic line. Whether or not the fears we experienced were of real or imagined threats almost doesn’t matter–they can still shape our core erotic theme. 

As children, our family dynamics and early experiences have profound impacts on our being, especially when we have needs that aren’t met. No caregivers can meet all of their children’s needs. Even children who grow up in the most loving and well-intentioned families experience the pain and wounding of unmet needs. These experiences form our core wounds. While our experiences are varied, there are a few primary core wounds that are central to the human experience: For example, “I am not enough,” “I am defective,” “I am helpless/powerless,” “I am unworthy,” “I am unloved,” “I am undesirable,” or “I am not heard.” The erotic fears and desires that emanate from our core wounding are perhaps the keys to the deepest parts of our psyche.

Arguably, our core wounding influences all aspects of our lives, not only our main erotic themes. Sex is a potent way to play out and heal our core wounding because it is so charged. In sex, we are physically and emotional vulnerable, navigating interpersonal dynamics, intimately exchanging energy, and putting our nervous systems into a heightened state–the perfect conditions for powerful experiences and deep transformation. 

Your core erotic desires are the things you want to feel during sex–the feelings that really turn you on and rev you up. If we fear not being good enough, we might want to be praised and adored as a way to soothe that fear and feel that we are good enough. Or we might want the exact opposite! It could feel empowering to enact a humiliating scene so that we can feel the pain of not being good enough in a way that is consensual and conscious.

Consider the classic archetype of the high powered business man who spends his days making decisions and leading the actions of others. He is expected to be in control of himself and others, and is, at least outwardly, often revered and respected by his employees. To balance, he longs to feel submissive, controlled, debased, even humiliated. Perhaps his fear of being powerless creates both his ambitious drive to succeed in business and his erotic desire to experience powerlessness in the bedroom–or the dungeon. 

I love this concept of the core erotic theme and find it very useful in understanding and getting to know our turn ons in all their paradoxical glory. And then I consider the multidimensionality of our core erotic theme, the ways they can express in both dark and light aspects. If your core erotic desire is to feel special, for example, you might enjoy the light expression of being worshipped, praised, and adored by a tender lover. Or, you might feel special via a dark expression, like being tied up and spanked in a kinky dungeon scene. I believe all themes hold both light and dark expressions, and that in exploring both, we come even more into wholeness.

While the types of activities we might want to experience may be influenced by our core erotic theme, it more so speaks to the energy with which we want to experience them. The same activity can induce many different feelings that might fulfill a variety of core erotic desires. For example, rope bondage might cause someone to feel controlled, confined, chosen, or cared for depending on the individual’s personal associations with being tied up, the broader society’s messages about what being tied up means, and media depictions.