Sex Files: Reading the signs

Sex Files: Reading the signs

“What turns you on?” is a question I often ask clients who struggle with arousal. Some women just don’t know how to respond, and admit that they have given it little or no thought, which is not surprising, considering that few of us have learned to tune into our sexual feelings and thoughts while growing up or even as adults.

But uncovering answers to the question is a rich experience. Couples sometimes learn new things about each other when I encourage them to talk openly about what gets their juices flowing. It’s easy to assume that the same things that turn you on also arouse your partner; but that is often not the case. Both men and women tend to get aroused from seeing their partner being turned on, but other than that each person usually has their own likes and dislikes when it comes to getting in the mood for sex.

So where’s a good place to start? Long ago, the Romans figured it out: There’s value in reading erotica. Probably in the second or third century, Titus Petronius wrote Satyricon, an erotic tale of the narrator, Encolpius, and his young lover that was copied throughout the middle ages and then put into print in 1664. It was later translated into many languages, and became a classic of Western literature. The first modern erotic novel was John Cleland’s Memories of a Woman of Pleasure, also known as Fanny Hill, written in 1748. This work did not get over well with English authorities. Cleland and his publisher were arrested, and Cleland ended up renouncing his novel and officially withdrawing it from the public. Nevertheless, copies continued to be sold underground, and the book was eventually banned for obscenity in the United States in the early 1800s—a ban that was not lifted until 1973.

Many women get turned on by reading erotica. Is it any wonder that paperback romance novels are often conveniently placed in the grocery checkout line? And if it’s far more erotic reading material you want, it’s readily available in bookstores, magazines, or online. For example, the Erotica Readers and Writers Association has a fabulous website ( that offers a wide selection of quality erotica, from sensual reading to much more sexually explicit content, including links to movies, sex toys, etc.

And check out and I usually trust both of these websites to weed out the less than superior stuff. They offer selected erotica for women, men, couples, gays, lesbians, bisexual and transgender individuals. I always have a copy of Good Vibration’s Best Women’s Erotica on my bookshelf for clients to borrow for a few days. Both of these websites also have erotic material available online, at no cost —except that you might find yourself getting turned on while reading.

So if you are struggling with not being able to get in the mood for sex, give erotica a try. Free up some time for yourself and delve into some of the many offerings out there. And by all means, read out loud the passages you like to your partner! You never know where that can lead.

In my next two columns I will talk about how men and women sometimes get turned on for different reasons, and about who’s watching porn. So stay tuned.

Annette Owens, MD, Ph.D., is certified by the American Association of Sexuality Educators, Counselors, and Therapists. She sees clients in her Charlottesville office ( and answers questions online at and She is an advisor on the Health & Science Advisory Board ( and has co-edited the new four-volume book, Sexual Health (Praeger).