What Is An Arousal Template?

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David Fawcett PhD, LCSW

Each of us has a sexual arousal template – a “map” in the brain of what we find sexually appealing. Although researchers do not fully understand how or why the various things to which we’re attracted appear in our arousal template, it is clear that by the time we are 4 to 6 years old, our arousal template is largely in place – even though we are not yet sexual. It is also clear that as we age, elements can be added to our sexual arousal template, but not eliminated. For individuals who consistently pair substance use with sexual behavior, this can be problematic.

Every person has a unique and distinct arousal template. What turns one person on may not interest others at all, and vice versa. This is a good thing because it means that no matter what we look like or how we act, there’s someone out there that we’ll find attractive who will also find us attractive. As my grandmother used to say, there’s a lid for every pot.

Generally speaking, arousal templates are part genetic, part learned, and part cultural.

  • Genetic: Physical health, sexual maturity, fertility, fidelity, facial symmetry, reproductive age, waist-to-hip ratio, and even gender preference are all impacted by genetic markers.
  • Learned: Our life experiences build on our genetic code. Basically, we add to our arousal template through classical conditioning and salient experiences (both good and bad). Learned elements of the arousal template tend to seep in without our knowing it.
  • Cultural: Environment influences including family messages, early sexual experiences, religious influences, media (magazines, TV, movies), pornography, gendered messages, and current fashion trends will also find their way into the arousal template.

Elements of a person’s arousal template can be quite varied, potentially including things like:

  • Physical Characteristics: Eye color, hair color, race, height, weight, age, etc.
  • Emotional Characteristics: Being kind, controlling, needy, angry, etc.
  • Places: Shopping centers, hotels, salons, cars, bars, neighborhoods, etc.
  • Processes: Smoking, having one’s blood drawn at a lab, dancing, etc.
  • Objects: Computer keyboard, pipe, sexy billboard, high heels, etc.
  • Sounds: Ringtone, text alert, message alerts on apps, sexualized sounds, etc.
  • Visuals: A sexy image, an attractive person on the street, billboards, social media, movies, TV, etc.
  • Behaviors: Furtive glances, dressing provocatively, being ignored, etc.

All of these elements can be impacted by genetic, learned, and cultural inputs – including sexualized drug use. Individuals who consistently pair addictive substances with sexual behaviors often tell me they’ve added to or discovered previously hidden elements of their arousal template through hours spent on pornography or acting out. Arousal templates can also be altered as tolerance develops and even more intensity is required for arousal.  Typically, when describing such escalation, they use words like rougher, taboo, groups, hardcore, and intense.

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