Arousal non-concordance: how arousal really works (or doesn’t)

By Sara Kloepfer

Ever been in the heat of the moment, feeling sexy and ready to go but…nothing is going on down there? This phenomenon is called arousal nonconcordance, and while it can be confusing as hell, it’s also totally normal. Arousal nonconcordance occurs when your mental, or subjective, arousal does not match your genital response, or physical arousal. In other words, there is a lack of overlap between how much blood is flowing to your genitals and how turned on you actually feel. This explains why you can feel psychologically aroused but physically not that horny, and vice versa.

You Can Be Aroused...With Nothing Going On Down There

We know that sex requires both mental and physical engagement, but there is a cultural myth that if your body is responding, you are turned on. However, genital response and arousal are NOT the same thing. Genital response is an automatic physiological reaction that is not necessarily related to whether or not you enjoy something. Arousal is part of your autonomic nervous system, the same reflex-driven system that controls heart rate, digestion, and perspiration. There are many reasons that you could be mentally aroused but not physically ready: stress, lack of sleep, hormones, or drugs or alcohol, just to name a few. Arousal takes place in your brain, not your genitals.

Arousal nonconcordance can happen to anyone, but it happens more for those of us with vaginas. For people with penises, there is about a 50% overlap between how erect their penis is and their subjective arousal, but for people with vaginas, there is only about a 10% overlap between their genital response and their subjective arousal.

Basically, vaginal response does not always indicate desire or pleasure. Feeling wet or engorged (sorry, there’s really no sexy way to say that) does not necessarily mean you are ready for sex, just as feeling dry does not always mean you aren’t turned on. We aren’t surprised when people with penises get involuntary erections in not-so-sexy situations, so we shouldn't be so quick to associate vaginal wetness with arousal.

But You Can Also Be Wet And Not In The Mood

When physical and mental arousal do not match up, we usually assume that something is wrong — either our partner is not interested in sex right now, they're not interested in us, or we aren’t doing “a good job.” But arousal is way more complicated than that.

If you are feeling turned on but not lubricating or able to get or keep an erection, don’t worry. Just trust your feelings (and maybe try some lube). Conversely, if you feel reluctant or turned off but are wet or hard, also trust your feeling to say no. Lube is not a substitute for mental arousal, but rather a tool for helping your body catch up to your mind. Think of tickling as an analogy: it can be pleasurable, but when done against someone’s wishes, it can be very unpleasant. And even when the person being tickled is uncomfortable and asks you to stop, they will still laugh, because that is the body’s automatic reaction to tickling. Just because they laugh does not necessarily mean they want to be tickled. Just because your genitals respond to sexual stimuli does not necessarily mean that you want to have sex. 

Sometimes we can feel physically aroused in response to stimuli we do not find mentally arousing, or that we may even find repulsive. For example, some people with vaginas get wet during pelvic exams. While this may be embarrassing or uncomfortable, it is clearly an uncontrollable reaction to touch. Similarly, getting physically aroused or even climaxing during sexual assault is actually quite common. While these experiences can be extremely confusing and upsetting for survivors, remember that physical arousal is never a guarantee of desire or consent. It does not mean you are conflicted or in denial about some secret fantasy. Understanding the discrepancy between physical responses and mental desires is key to helping survivors cope with feeling guilty or betrayed by their body, as well as combating false narratives that equate wetness or erections with pleasure.

Arousal nonconcordance is just another reminder that sex is complicated and consent is crucial. Not judging or making assumptions about your partner based on their ability (or lack thereof) to get physically aroused is a key part of a sex positive approach. It also takes pressure off yourself! Remember, it’s what your mind says that matters.

Image Source: Tony Futura

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