When we talk about a sexual awakening, two things quickly become apparent: There’s the first kind of sexual awakening, which is generally when, as a child or teen, you realize you’re turned on by someone or something for the first time and it’s a mystifying, exciting or even bewildering experience. This could be your first crush, first boner, first arousal, first kiss — whatever first person or object that jolts you awake with awareness that you’re a sexual being.
Like when actor Eddie Redmayne admitted his sexual awakening happened during The Lion King. Or all these confessions:
But then there’s the other kind we don’t really talk about as much, which can occur at any point in life and often at multiple points, even: when adults start having the right kind of sexual experience — or new and different sex with the right actual person or people — and it opens up an entirely new understanding of their desire.
These sexual awakenings can come after divorce or breakup, if you come out later in life, in old age, or simply because you finally meet someone you can do a bunch of new, insane sex things with in a way you never could or would before. It can be super wonderful, super consuming, and super preoccupying. And with it often comes a practical challenge: How long is this thing gonna last before you get a handle on it and get back to your life?
This whole business came up in a recent advice column from author and porn producer Stoya, who fields sex questions at Slate. In it, a self-described “fairly inexperienced woman in her mid-20s” explains that she didn’t like sex that much until she met a new partner, and now she’s consumed by thoughts of the person, wants sex all the time with them and doesn’t know what to do about it. Signed “Awakened,” the writer wants to know what to do with all this intense heat: It’s controlling her every waking thought, and she doesn’t want to overly objectify her partner in the process.
It’s an exciting moment in a relationship. In my view, sexual awakenings can occur with a new partner or at a new point with an old one. It’s when you simply learn that you can feel open enough with someone for whatever reason to communicate your desire, ask for what you want, try new things or shed the inhibitions that would’ve prevented you from doing so previously. If you can do all that with the same person you thought you couldn’t, even better.
But rarely do we talk about what it means to experience the awakening. How caught up in it people get. How totally immersive it can be, and why it can derail your otherwise sane, stable life. It’s why people often argue that affair sex is the most exciting, because for all its risk and damage, it’s a sexual awakening for many people who felt utterly shut down or physically dormant. It can be so intense that it’s sometimes in part referred to as an “affair fog,” because the novelty of suddenly being lit up and turned on by desire is so powerful that you often can’t even make sense of the choices or perceptions of the partner versus the sidepiece. In a way, it’s like limerence: typically a short-term emotional obsession, only the sexual kind.
It’s noteworthy that in searches for sexual awakenings, you’ll find it’s largely a term that comes up with women. That’s likely due to the fact that male lust and sexuality are treated as inevitable and uncomplicated and something to pursue with excitement and pride, while women’s sexuality has long been viewed more dangerously and tentatively, suppressed by cultural and religious forces bent on limiting it. For most of history, female arousal was treated like a disease, and reclaiming sexual desire for a woman is part of the standard-issue woman’s journey on earth, which is how we get so many female-led sexual awakenings in pop culture: from Erica Jong’s once-radical zipless fuck idea to movies like How Stella Got Her Groove Back, Trainwreck and the show Fleabag. More recently, we’ve seen it in terms of the gay male experience with Call Me by Your Name.
But there’s no evidence to suggest men don’t have them too, even if they don’t call it that. And nowadays, women and men both admit to and like getting laid. Female-driven porn, hookup culture and kink are routine parts of the conversation about women controlling their own sexual narrative. And we know from stories of divorce, coming out and Dan Savage columns that everyone is getting more comfortable with exploring their sexual desire and less ashamed about demanding sexual compatibility in relationships right alongside liking the same Netflix shows.
Being willing to try new shit is the du jour expectation in relationships. If anything, that would imply that we’d need fewer sexual awakenings these days if we’re all less repressed and living in a generally more woken-up state about our sexuality.
But Stoya’s advice seeker gave me pause. It made me realize that you don’t have to be repressed in the slightest to have a sexual awakening. Like not knowing how much you love crème brûlée until you try it, it’s entirely possible to not miss what you never knew you weren’t getting. Until of course you get it and you realize you can’t live without it anymore.
In other words, our hypersexualized culture may mean we’re all headed for even more sexual awakenings rather than fewer, because the more stimuli we see, the more likely we are to realize we respond to it, whether it’s finding out after a hookup that you love butt stuff, or realizing within a couple that you are both really into role play.
It’s exciting, but confusing. What does it mean? How long will it last? Will it just serve as some kind of faddish, crush-like obsession that passes as quickly as it came? Or does it set us off on an endless, restless quest for the next sexual fix? And especially, what if you’re the only person having the sexual awakening, and the other person is still perfectly content to remain asleep?
“Sexual awakening can be intense,” Stoya writes by way of advice. “Sexual desire can be powerful and momentarily all-consuming. Exhilaration, nervousness and even fear would be reasonable reactions. What I’m trying to say is: If you’re freaking out, you’re totally normal. Take it easy on categorizing yourself and give your sexuality time to unfold.”
She recommends feeling out the limits of the partner’s willingness to go nuts with you, but there really is no predictability to how long an awakening will take hold of your every waking thought or prove itself to be the new normal. It’s ultimately an unanswerable question. Everyone has that divorced friend who is currently banging like it’s going out of style, who eventually settles back into a more typical relationship that is probably not so different from the one they fled. Others confuse the highs of the experience with love, which rarely works out well. New obsessions may fall completely by the wayside, or may simply become part of the rotating repertoire of sexual desire. Some people wake up in a threesome and there’s no turning back.
Perhaps more important is trying to keep it in check so it doesn’t rule your entire life, as thrilling as that may feel in the moment.
Back to Stoya:
The time constraints of your life definitely come into play: Consistently neglecting your work, friends or emotional bond to bang is a warning sign. Checking in with each other and yourselves as your relationship and sexuality develop is crucial. So pay attention and listen to your gut, and you’ll have a great chance of knowing when you’ve reached your limit.
Some therapists recommend that the best thing to do to avoid this sort of experience is to make awakenings less powerful by having them more often. In other words, don’t go so long starving yourself in the future so it doesn’t need to become an all-encompassing obsession.
Of course, even if you haven’t reached your limit, your once-willing partner may decide they’ve had enough. In which case, you’ll just have to sit back and wait for the next awakening to come along. But if the current cultural climate is any indication, there ought to be another sexual awakening pulling into the station any minute now.