Why Cheaters Cheat, Part 2 Understanding the Arousal Template


Author, speaker, and educator Patrick Carnes, PhD, defines the arousal template as “the total constellation of thoughts, images, behaviors, sounds, smells, sights, fantasies and objects that arouse us sexually.”[1] Essentially, you can think of your arousal template as what turns you on, attracts you, arouses you, or stokes your sexual desire. 

Each of us has a unique arousal template that is (mostly) formed in childhood by a combination of experiences that may or may not be sexual but nevertheless shape our developing sexuality. Each person’s basic arousal template is made up of all the experiences, teachings, observations, and modeling received from parents, schoolteachers, family members, religious leaders, siblings, peers, songs, movies, books, images, videos, etc. 

Here are some examples:

  • If we grew up with parents who never mentioned sex, provided no sexual education, and never showed affection to each other, we may unconsciously view sex as secretive, not to be talked about, and perhaps shameful and bad. 
  • If we saw our parents show healthy affection to one another, were provided with age-appropriate sex education, had our innocence guarded, and were allowed to develop our own sexual identity, we may view sex as a good and normal part of life. 
  • If we were unprotected and sexually abused by an adult or older child, or if we were exposed to sexual content (movies, pornography, books, sexual behavior in the home) that was developmentally inappropriate or crossed boundaries, we may come to view sex as scary, as something we don’t have a choice about, or as a way to get attention and to get our needs for intimacy and connection met. 
  • If we were taught about sexual boundaries, taught ownership of our bodies, taught about sexual choice and how to say yes and no, and were given lots of emotional nurture and attention in our family of origin, we may grow up with a strong sense of self and the ability to make informed choices about how we engage sexually with others. 

These factors also play into the specific things that get us aroused – the behaviors and body parts that turn us on. In other words, our arousal templates are borne from our experiences and the teaching, observations, and modeling we received, as well as the context in which those things took place

Let’s say eight-year-old Suzy has a sleepover at her friend Jenny’s house. While she is there, Jenny’s older brother comes into the room where she is sleeping and touches her inappropriately. Suzy lives in a family where she has been talked to about good touch and bad touch and body boundaries. She knows that her body belongs to her and that her genitals are a private part of her body. She also has a history of going to her parents with things that upset or trouble her, and her parents have a history of being responsive, comforting, and helpful. 

When Suzy returns home, she tells her mom about Jenny’s brother. Suzy’s mom remains calm and talks with Suzy about how Suzy feels about what happened. She helps Suzy to process her feelings and reassures her that she has not done anything wrong or in any way caused Jenny’s brother to behave this way. She then has a private adult conversation with Jenny’s mom and makes the decision that from now on Jenny is welcome at their house, but Suzy will not be going over to Jenny’s to play or sleep over. 

Here is what Suzy’s mother does not do. She does not freak out or make what happened about her own feelings. She does not create a major scene with Jenny’s mom and embarrass Suzy. She does not ignore the event. She does not blame Suzy or shame Suzy or tell Suzy that she made it up. She does not tell Suzy that she talked to Jenny’s mom and it won’t happen again and then continue to let Suzy play and have sleepovers at Jenny’s house. She does not create an environment in the house where Suzy cannot talk about what happened and has to keep it all stuffed inside herself instead. 

If any of those things had occurred, the impact on how Suzy feels about sex and how her arousal template develops will be very different. If Suzy is not allowed to talk about what happened and how she feels about it, she may, for example, come to eroticize this type of inappropriate touch – desiring it (even while feeling shame about it) and seeking it out in actuality or in role-play, while also thinking about all forms of sex as dirty, secretive, and shameful. 

I’m taking the time to spell out this example here because one of the most important parts of understanding one’s arousal template is understanding that whatever happened or didn’t happen, occurred or didn’t occur in a context – and those two things together are what combine to create both your arousal template and how your feelings unfold around sexuality. 

Suzy’s experience of being sexually abused by Jenny’s brother will, without question, impact her feelings about sex and the development of her arousal template. But how her feelings and arousal template are impacted will be wildly different depending on the support, guidance, and empathy she receives from her mother (and perhaps from other family members and/or a therapist). 

When we think about a person’s arousal template, we can at times think simplistically about this issue, viewing it only as what turns someone on – what that person is attracted to. In that way, we can identify someone’s arousal template as “he’s attracted to large breasts” or “she’s attracted to older men” or “he’s into Asian porn.” But understanding who and what a person is attracted to (age, gender, body type, race, personality traits, etc.) is only a starting point for unpacking and exploring the arousal template. 

The second and perhaps more important part of understanding the arousal template looks at the meaning that we give to the sexual partners and sexual experiences we are drawn to. Because our sexual development happens in a context and our arousal template is the result of experiences, information, and modeling within that context, our arousal template is a multi-layered phenomenon beginning with what we are attracted to as the outer layer, but giving way to deeper layers that involve our perception of ourselves and others, and the meaning we give (again, about ourselves and others) to the sexual experiences we have. 

In my next post, we will start to peel back layers of the arousal template to learn about what lies beneath cheating and sexually compulsive behavior for many individuals. 

[1] Carnes, P. (2015). Facing the Shadow: Starting Sexual and Relationship Recovery: a Gentle Path to Beginning Recovery from Sex Addiction. Gentle Path Press.


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