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What Is a Sexual Awakening and How Do You Know When It's Happened?

Discovering your sexual self is a normal and exciting experience that can occur at any time and at any age. When most hear the phrase “sexual awakening,” they think of the first time in someone’s life (typically in early adolescence) where they experience arousal or the desire to be physically intimate with another.

Early adolescence is the most common time for a sexual awakening, but we can always discover more about our sexual selves later in life in different ways – like becoming aware of a kink we didn’t know we were into or owning a new aspect of our sexuality. The development of sexuality in a person’s life is a continuous process that starts typically in early adolescence and continues into late adulthood.

At What Age Can You Have Your First Sexual Awakening?

Sexual awakenings can happen at any age. Our first sexual awakening in life typically occurs during early adolescence (between 10-13 years old). The most common ages that teens begin to show interest in sexual topics is between 12 and 13 years old. At this age, you might have explored your curiosity by reading information about sex or sexuality on the internet, in anatomy books or in popular media. It is during this age period that adolescent sexuality begins to develop.

Of course, sexuality is about much more than just sex. It encompasses our values, attitudes, feelings, interactions, and behaviors around the concept of sex. Understanding this is key to comprehending a sexual awakening because it is not just that we are becoming aware of sex, but that our attitudes, feelings, and values around sex are beginning to shape themselves. So what exactly is happening in the body that leads to these sexual awakenings at this age?

"Once I unlearned my sexual shame around masturbation as a young adult, I began experimenting with sex toys, exploring my anatomy..." - Ilana, Sex Educator

Your Brain on Hormones

As you may remember from sex ed, these kinds of awakenings and arousal are typical effects of puberty, which triggers changes inside and outside the body. In both sexes, puberty begins in the parts of the brain that control functions like hormone release, blood pressure, and heart rate. During these changes in the brain caused by puberty, hormones are produced. Hormones operate like chemical messengers that travel through the bloodstream to various organs and elicit changes throughout the body.

  • For females, the ovaries are stimulated in order to make the female hormone estrogen. Estrogen is a hormone that causes the normal changes we often associate with puberty, such as breast development, increasing height, widening of the hips, and an increase in body fat. Menstrual cycles also start during adolescence and are caused by the balance in estrogen and another hormone from the ovary, progesterone.
  • For males, the testicles are stimulated to produce the male hormone testosterone. Testosterone causes the changes we associate with puberty in boys, such as the growth of the penis, increasing height, widening of the shoulders, deepening of the voice, and growth of facial hair.

Did you know the ignition for arousal is also within the brain? There are many areas of the brain that are triggered during sexual arousal, but the brain’s limbic system is mainly associated with arousal, as it is responsible for the control of mood and arousal.

Regardless of the trigger that sparks arousal – whether that's physical sensation, seeing sensual content, or sexual fantasies – the limbic system in our brain is stimulated, which causes the release of serotonin and cortisol arousal. Once the brain is activated, the physiological changes associated with arousal occur. And once we become aroused, we enter the first phase of the sexual response cycle (SRC). The stages of the SRC are excitement, plateau, orgasm, and resolution. Our sexual awakenings often occur when we experience the excitement stage of the SRC for the first time.

"I had a sexual reawakening in my mid-20s when my husband and I opened our marriage." - Niki, Double Teamed Podcast

The 5 Most Common Ways We Awaken Our Sexual Selves

Sexual awakenings can come in many different forms, but let’s talk about some of the most common experiences that often trigger a sexual awakening.

1. Exploring Our Bodies for the First Time

This is a very common way that many of us experience our first sexual awakening. We may notice that positioning our body in a certain way or touching specific places on our body elicits a pleasurable and arousing response. This can lead us to feel more curious about exploring arousal and increase the desire to explore our bodies even more.

Ilana, a sex educator, shared their sexual awakening experience with us: “When I was 10 years old I discovered that crossing my legs felt good. For the longest time, I didn’t realize I was masturbating and called it ‘stretching.’ Once I unlearned my sexual shame around masturbation as a young adult, I began experimenting with sex toys, exploring my anatomy and pleasure in exciting new ways.”

Exploring your body after a sexual awakening is a great way to discover your sexual self, become aware of what makes you feel good, and help you get to know your body better.

2. A First Crush or Romantic Partner

Our first crush is a very exciting and visceral experience. It’s the first time we have come to understand how it feels to really like someone in a romantic and sexual way. It may be the first time you get butterflies in your stomach or experience physical arousal towards another person. It can also be a very vulnerable and exhilarating moment of adolescence, and many of us experienced our first real sexual awakening through our first crush.

3. Pop-Culture Moments and Celebrities

Almost everyone has memories of a pop culture icon or celebrity who sparked their sexual flame in early adolescence. It is a nearly universal experience to be attracted to celebrities because expression of sexuality and sensuality is very common in pop culture. Viewing sensual content through the different mediums of pop culture often piques our curiosity.

Cami of Double Teamed podcast shares her experience of sexual curiosity through watching a movie at a young age: “I’ll be totally honest, I hardly remember my sexual awakening as an adolescent. BUT, the first memory I have was watching snippets of Cruel Intentions and wondering why I was suddenly curious about making out.” Another host of the podcast, Niki, shared her sexual awakening experience while watching a music video, “I think around 13 or 14 years old, I was watching the music video to Call Me When You’re Sober by Evanescence, and when I watched the part where she crawled across the dinner table to the guy, it was the first time (from memory) I had ever felt truly turned on.”

4. A Safe Space

Many of us may have grown up associating sexuality with shame or have not felt safe surrendering to the experience of arousal for a plethora of reasons. Before adolescence, we receive many mixed messages about sexuality from our parents, school, and our peers. Depending on how sex-positive our environment is growing up, we will have different internalized attitudes about sex and sexuality. Some of us may have had our sexual awakening in early adolescence, but felt too ashamed by it to truly explore our sexual selves.

This is why many people do not have their true awakening to their sexual desires and needs until they explore sex in a safe, non-judgmental space. This could be with a partner that creates a safe environment for experimentation or just being surrounded by friends who are sex-positive.

Cami from Double Teamed podcast shares her experience of exploring her sexuality once she found a safe space with a partner, “I had a sexual reawakening in college a few years later, when I had a casual partner named Trevor who was the first guy to make me feel comfortable and like myself in bed.”

5. Midlife or Later-in-Life

It is important to remember that sexual awakenings can happen at any point in someone’s life. This sexual awakening experience may come in adulthood, where you try something new with a partner and discover a new kink or sexual interest you may have.

Niki shares her experience with sexual awakening in adulthood: “I had a sexual reawakening in my mid-20s when my husband and I opened our marriage. I had another long-distance casual partner that helped me explore power dynamics and impact play, which eventually led me to discover my love for BDSM.”


Sexual awakenings can happen at any point in our lives and help us discover more about our sexual selves. These awakenings can help you foster more sexual empowerment and get to know your own needs and desires even more. Sexual awakenings are undeniably a huge milestone in life, and there’s always more to discover.