Top 10 Things to Know About Women and Arousal

by | Apr 30, 2019 | For Women | 27 comments

10 Things to know about arousal in women

How does arousal work for women?

For many of us it’s a big mystery! And if we’re going to aim to have mutually satisfying sex–where sex is not just about a man’s physical release, but is about a woman’s pleasure, too–then we need to understand how women feel pleasure.

I’ve written before about orgasm for women:

But today I want to get much more fundamental. I think one of the reasons that women have such a hard time reaching orgasm is because we don’t have the building blocks there yet. We don’t necessarily understand how arousal works.

Last Friday we talked about how, when you’re first married, it’s more important to aim for arousal than it is to have sex, because too often people skip important stages in a woman understanding her body in order to get right to intercourse, but then it’s hard to go backwards. You associate sex with something “blah”, so your body doesn’t crave it, and your husband may not realize that you missed out on something. So I thought it may be useful to do some “sex ed” today and talk about how our bodies work.

Here, then, are 10 things that you may not know about arousal and women:

1. Women have erections, too

We know that the sign of man’s arousal is an erect penis, which is kind of hard to miss. But when women are aroused, the clitoris can go from around 3-4 mm in height to around 8 mm (though some women may be much larger). When women get erect, blood flow increases to the genitals, and the vulva gets engorged to make penetration easier.

2. Women have several physiological signs of arousal

Clitoral erection and genital engorgement aren’t the only signs of arousal. Women’s nipples get erect, and the areola (the darker part around the nipple) can swell by up to 25%. The pupils will often dilate (hence “bedroom eyes”), and she’ll tend to breathe faster and feel flushed.

3. Before orgasm, the clitoris retracts into the hood to avoid direct stimulation

After the arousal period, women will experience what is called “sexual plateau”, where the body is getting ready for orgasm. This usually requires stimulation to push her over the edge. During sexual plateau, engorgement will continue, but the clitoris will actually look less erect because it will retract into the clitoral hood–so it almost appears “flat” against the body. It becomes less about stimulating her directly there and more about rubbing against the whole region. Many researchers believe that the clitoral “roots” extend up into the vaginal wall, and form what we know of as the G-spot. As he makes contact with the public bone during intercourse, it stimulates the whole region and even the interior vaginal wall.

4. Women have several different erogenous zones which can lead to arousal

Some of these zones are more powerful than others, but the ears, neck, mouth, backs of knees, inner thighs and inside of arms can be erogenous zones. So can toes (if you’re not overly ticklish!). We tend to think of the breasts and the clitoris being the biggest erogenous zones, but it’s often better when trying to get aroused to warm up with other things first to help you calm your mind, settle into it, and look forward to what’s coming. Starting right away with the clitoris can be overpowering for some women. Especially for women with sexual abuse in their past, too, warming up with other erogenous zones, or even with a massage, can help overcome some flashbacks or negative connotations. If you want to explore more ways to slow down foreplay and enjoy some of these other erogenous zones, do check out my Sexy Dares!

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5. Women’s sexual response cycle can look different from most men’s

Men’s sexual response cycle usually (not always) looks like this:

desire (libido)–arousal (excitement)–orgasm–resolution.

But for women, it can often (not always) be a little bit different.

arousal (excitement)–desire (libido)–orgasm–resolution.

For some women desire comes first, but for many the feeling that you actually want sex doesn’t really kick in until stimulation has begun. Women tend to be responsive when it comes to arousal and desire, meaning that we tend to respond to stimulation rather than feeling something on our own beforehand.

6. Sometimes (but not always), arousal can be impossible, no matter what stimulation is being provided, if their brain is not “into it”

At the same time, this doesn’t mean that women automatically get aroused with stimulation. It can happen (more on that in a second), but often our brains still have to be positively engaged or else arousal and desire won’t follow. He can be doing amazing sexual moves, but if you’re writing a grocery list in your head, you won’t feel it. This is different from necessarily feeling “turned on” first (or feel desire first). You may not feel in the mood, but if you’re thinking, “I’m going to enjoy this”, and if you start deliberately concentrating on the stimulation and your breathing, arousal often follows.

7. Arousal usually starts in the mind, not the body

That’s why arousal usually starts in our minds, not our bodies. He does something to you, and because you’re paying attention, and because you’re looking forward to this, your body follows. When those two things aren’t there, then arousal during sex is often much more difficult.

But “usually” and “often” are the keyword here. It’s not ALWAYS. In fact, rape victims have been known to orgasm, and some posit that it’s because the heightened state of fear can cause our bodies to react more than usual to stimulation. Just because someone is physical aroused does not mean that they consented. This phenomenon is known as arousal non-concordance–when our subjective experience is different from our physical experience. For many of us, our minds want to be aroused but our bodies don’t follow. For others, our minds DON’T want to be aroused but our bodies take over.

8. The ability to “access” your arousal mechanisms is highly linked to sexual confidence

Because arousal is very linked to getting our brains engaged in the process, our attitudes towards sex and our sexual confidence are highly linked to our ability to get aroused. When we feel ashamed of our bodies, ashamed of sex, or when we feel like sex is only for the guy, then we’re less likely be able to feel aroused. A woman who is sexually confident can often feel “turned on” by life–she goes through her day confident of herself and who God made her; delighting in what’s around her; and when she directs her attention to her sexuality rather than her surroundings, arousal is often not far behind. But when sex becomes an obligation, and sex seems like something distasteful, then the only mechanism she has for arousal is from stimulation, which doesn’t always work.

When a woman feels sexually confident and gives herself positive messages about sex, and then she also gets good stimulation from her husband, arousal is often much easier. But when she only has one and not the other, arousal is often quite difficult.

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9. A woman can be aroused without being “wet”

Women can feel cognitively aroused (she’s enjoying herself and wants sex!), and can even have some engorgement, but not feel overly wet. Some women do not produce as much lubrication naturally as others. Lubrication can also vary depending on the time of the month, with lubrication being much easier right before ovulation and a little harder right afterwards.

For women, too, arousal can be much more linked to what’s going on in the brain than for men. In fact, some women can “think” themselves to orgasm without any stimulation at all. When this happens, women often experience less lubrication than when arousal is focused primarily from stimulation.

If you find that you’re just not able to get lubricated, even when you subjectively feel “turned on”, just pick up some lubricant! It doesn’t cost very much, and it can make the world of difference.

10. When menopause hits, a woman can mentally feel aroused while her body doesn’t necessarily do what it once did

Because of changes in hormone levels, a woman’s body after menopause often has a harder time with lubrication. Blood flow to the genitals is also reduced, and changes in the vaginal wall can make engorgement more difficult. That doesn’t mean that she can’t enjoy sex–it only means that she may need more lubrication and more stimulation first! Use it as an excuse to draw things out and take things more slowly. It can still feel wonderful!

10 things to know about Arousal in Women: How women's arousal works and what are the signs of arousal.

What do you wish you had known before you were married? Let’s talk in the comments!

Sheila Wray Gregoire

Sheila Wray Gregoire

Founder of Bare Marriage

Sheila is determined to help Christians find biblical, healthy, evidence-based help for their marriages. And in doing so, she's turning the evangelical world on its head, challenging many of the toxic teachings, especially in her newest book The Great Sex Rescue. She’s an award-winning author of 8 books and a sought-after speaker. With her humorous, no-nonsense approach, Sheila works with her husband Keith and daughter Rebecca to create podcasts and courses to help couples find true intimacy. Plus she knits. All the time. ENTJ, straight 8

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Sheila Wray Gregoire

Author at Bare Marriage

Sheila is determined to help Christians find biblical, healthy, evidence-based help for their marriages. And in doing so, she's turning the evangelical world on its head, challenging many of the toxic teachings, especially in her newest book The Great Sex Rescue. She’s an award-winning author of 8 books and a sought-after speaker. With her humorous, no-nonsense approach, Sheila works with her husband Keith and daughter Rebecca to create podcasts and courses to help couples find true intimacy. Plus she knits. All the time. ENTJ, straight 8

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  1. Phil

    What do I wish I knew before I got married? I wish I knew Jesus and God. I missed out due to circumstances of my life and further choices based on those exposures to bad things. For this post I think the sexually confident piece is VERY significant. Grace responded quite well to the sexually confident woman post/podcast but it was short lived. One night recently we were laying in bed and she suggested sex the next morning. I was like great! She is initiating YAY!. However, there was a potential conflict to the timing and I brought that up in discussion. She went on to say well…initiating wasn’t good enough now we have to talk about it? Now let me tell you I would have loved to go into foreplay and start talking about it and flirting but I was talking about logistics for PETE’s sake! I sighed and looked at her and blurted out. “You are afraid of sex” Maybe that wasn’t the nicest thing to say but I was fed up…we had been in a funk for quite some time. It got her attention and we had a brief discussion regarding that and her reaction and that conversation has reset our sex life. Maybe that won’t work for everyone but I really think our ego’s have so much to do with the way that we act. So back to the question….What do I wish I knew before marriage? How to stuff my ego for the better of everything including sex! Have great day everyone….

    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      Great answer, Phil! And, yes, the sexual confidence piece, I think, is the most important. It’s just interesting, though, how complex women are. I was fascinated when doing the research for this post about how frequent arousal can be during rape, for instance, even when the person is petrified and really wants to get away. So it’s not always automatically one way.

      • Phil

        When I read what you wrote I went youch! Eeek! However, I can recall in my sexual abuse being aroused and angry at the same time so unfortunately it is true. I like how you have separated arousal from sex. Seems significant and I have been practicing this with Grace. Love it!

      • Amaju Adomi

        As a man, my question is how I can be better? How can i make things easier, is there a formula? It seems like it’s easy for the me the man to get aroused, but quite difficult the other way around, what can i do? After 6 yrs of marriage and two kids, i am still haven’t figured it out

        • unmowngrass

          I think looking for “a formula” is half the problem in itself?

          My impression from the comments here and from life in general is that a lot of well-meaning-but-clueless men want to succeed, and they want to succeed every time, so they attempt to look for what works and then automate the process. Which may very well be how they approach everything else in their whole life.

          But when there’s a woman on the other end of that, she can start to feel that she isn’t valued as a complicated, contrary ~person~ with ups and downs and sideways and backwards and forwards and different moods and emotions.

          So any kind of list saying “do this” or “don’t do that”, aimed at husbands, inevitably has all the women commenting saying “lists like this make me feel cheap”. Like she isn’t valued for herself. When “being a sexy, flirty, initiating enthusiastic wife” becomes another item on her to do list. Instead of a state of being that she also enjoys. Because all those tips, great as they might be, are not, and should not be, formulas. Even the best ones are only ever going to ‘work’ 8 or 9 times out of 10. Because without that 1-2 times to have the freedom to say, “yeah, great effort, but I still don’t want to have sexy times tonight (and you need to be okay with that)”, then… he would own us. We wouldn’t own ourselves, emotionally (and then be free to share ourselves with our hubbies, if we wanted to). If he’s not willing to continue to pay attention on an ongoing basis and make adjustments along the way — if he wants to just set it and then forget it, emotionally — then he stops seeing her as a person to interact with, and starts seeing her only as a body to use, and that makes her feel cheap.

          And this idea of “you cannot simply have me. you have to want me with everything you have” that women have… that is a direct reflection of the heart of God and who He is, that women bear in a unique way. (I got that bit from the book Captivating by John and Stasi Eldredge, which BTW I HIGHLY recommend! And yes, men bear the image of God in exclusive ways too, that’s in John’s book Wild At Heart.)

          • Sheila Wray Gregoire

            Great thoughts! I agree. It has to be about you as a person, not a list. And it definitely can’t be automated.

  2. j

    It would be nice to be allowed to arouse and not “hurry up and get it over with” I should quit reading blogs like this, the additional anguish it causes is too much to bear.

    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      Oh, I’m sorry, J. I really am.

    • Christy

      I feel your pain, as interesting as it is for me to read, it is also a trigger and a great source of pain and feelings of failure

  3. CS from NY

    I’m curious about your item number 8. A woman feeling confident is not something a man can make happen. I can encourage my wife to feel confident but I cant make her feel that way. Given my wife’s enjoyment of sex is fully my responsibility, how can I be responsible for her confidence without implying her lack of confidence is a bad thing? I’m afraid bringing up her lack of confidence will make her feel bad. I don’t want to upset her.

  4. Emmy

    Bringing up her lack of confidencen does not help, that’s for sure. And you are not responsible for her self confidence, at least not alone.

    You might do something to help, but if she does not take your help or does nor help herself at all, your means are limited. Most women do however respond well to kind words and deeds. It would be good to know what her love language is. How does she show that she cares? Is it time together? Does she like to cuddle? Does she use loving and affirmative language? The way she shows how she cares is very likely to be her love language, and if you “talk” the same way to her you will build up her confidence little by little.

    Alas, some people rather ruin the self confidence of their spouse. Not only men do that. Wifes can be just as bad with it. Criticizing your spouse and putting unreasonable demands on her/him and complaining about how (s)he looks or cooks or cleans or vacuums can be real confidence killers.

    But I don’t say you’d do that kind of things. Probably not, because you are interested in building your wife’s confidence. I’m sure you will find ways to do it.

    • CS from NY

      She says she doesn’t know what her love language is, so I try to meet all five, but it’s hit or miss. I agree with your point about general confidence needing to come before sexual confidence though.

      • Phil

        CS – If you bought the book you would find out that there is a way to find out what her love language really is if she is willing to fill out the questions. The book does it for you if you are honest in answering the questions. Recently on some blogs there has been some folks claiming there may be different love languages than the ones that are determined in Gary Thomas’ book..Here Becca was talking about her Love Language being spontaneous goofing around….something like that…I recently had a discussion with my wife that my love language is sex. She agreed. I scored a 9 I believe that is how it went….on physical touch. Anyway…I couldn’t find the book quick as my wife’s night stand is stuffed full but the book might help you work together….and maybe come up with your own love languages….I believe in what Gary wrote and it is his book…..but hey…I can have my own vision and outlook and interpretation as well….best wishes to you.

      • Melanie

        CS, I’d encourage you to pray, cheer her on, and if she’s open to it, study God’s heart for sex and His design for it together with her. You can’t make her sexually confident, but you know Who can. It can take a long time. Women wrestle with feelings of guilt, shame, inadequacy, and frustration of all kinds in relation to their sexuality, sometimes long into marriage. There is nothing as healing as understanding God’s heart for sex and working to conform our understanding of it to God’s. Honestly this goes for both men and women.

        It starts with the greatest commandments. True authentic, honest, real, not self-seeking love.

  5. Emmy

    I also believe there can’t be secxual self confidence it there is not “normal” confidence first.

    My hubby could call me sexy and beautifull and flirt and make out as much as he can, but that would not help my sexual confidence at all if he’d tears my “ordinary” confidence down at the same time.

  6. Natalie

    These are all so true!!

    For me, the past year has been an exercise in retraining (or possibly training for the first time? I’m still not sure) myself on how to 1) view myself as a sexual being, 2) view sex and sexuality as nothing to be ashamed about and as a gift from God to married couples, and 3) be comfortable and feel free in that sexual side of me. The only way that’s all happened has been through lots of prayer and 100% (borderline obsessively lol) immersing myself in all things sex. Knowledge really is power! This blog has completely transformed the way I see sex, arousal, and myself as a person actually! And to think this all occurred while being pregnant too lol, at a time when it’s pretty stereotypical for women to withdraw from their sexual sides, feel grumpy or unattractive, and start focusing on their mothering side.

    Anyway, I just wanted to add that, for me, filling my mind on a daily basis with sex-positive scriptures (Song of Solomon primarily, since it’s basically a whole book that rejoices over the beauty and mutuality of sex as God designed it to be) and words from fellow sex-positive Christians has been pivotal in rewriting the sex-negative messages that had been engrained in me during childhood and adolescence (mostly purity culture teaching). I feel like I’ve gone back to a more “original” version of “me”, the “me” of my childhood who was joyful and unashamed of all aspects of herself and her personality (not that I was sexual as a child lol, but you know what I mean… more of that “purity” and innocence of childhood, I guess… everything I felt I was before I learned about sex and started feeling shame and guilt around my body, genitals and sexuality). I’m now so excited to start this new chapter in my sex life with my husband, who has been changing so much on his own recently, largely from me changing sexually I think. It’s really amazing and encouraging to see how this seemingly one small change (i.e. a change in my views on sex and self) has totally transformed our marriage already! God is so good, and it’s so true that He puts things in your life right at the time you need them!

    • Andrea

      Your reference to the innocence of childhood slayed me. Reminded me of those studies that show how boys and girls start off the same in life, but come pubescence the girls’ self-esteem experiences a precipitous drop. On the sexual plane, boys masturbate with impunity and go into their first sexual experience completely familiar with their arousal-to-resolution pattern, while girls don’t even know they have a clitoris and channel their natural urges into unrealistic Prince Charming fantasies.

      The saddest video I recently saw was one where 5 and 15-year-old girls are asked to “run like a girl.” The innocent, original 5-year-olds run as fast as they can because they have not yet internalized the misogyny and they figure “I’m a girl so that must mean I should run as best as I can.” The 15-year-olds respond by making fun of themselves running, twisting their heels outwards and flailing their arms… you get the picture. It reminded me of an article I read called “Faking it like a woman,” which the author said was a twist on “throwing like a girl” and that all of those harmful societal scripts for women – from movies that teach us how to fake vaginal orgasms to teachers and parents who only bother to teach boys how to throw well – are part of the same structure. Boys on the other hand, while excelling at sports and orgasms, lag behind girls in school (all the way from kindergarten to college, from which women graduate in greater numbers) because being bookish is seen as effeminate. So it’s all messed up for both genders, though obviously not hopeless.

      • Natalie

        I can’t remember where I heard/read this, but somewhere in the past couple months, I heard sex described as being the sweetest, most innocent, pure act that a husband and wife can partake in with each other when it’s done as God intended… that mix of mutuality, love, vulnerability, all things that encompass “yada” in the Hebrew.

        I think there are so many beautiful ways to apply Matthew 18:3 when Jesus said, “unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”… that could also be applied to missing out on so many of the good things God created for us even here in Earth’s current fallen state (sex being only one) when you lose that childlike innocence and let the sin you’re surrounded by in everyday life (or even the non-biblical, cultural teachings you were raised with about sex, sexuality and your role in society) cloud how you see and feel about certain things and certain aspects of life.

        When we talk about my childhood, my mom almost always mentions how sweet and vivacious and magnetic I was as a child, and how it broke her heart so much when I started getting bullied in 2nd grade (at my small Christian private school where Bible lessons were taught daily, mind you) for being the first of the girls in my grade to start going through puberty and develop physically. That’s when she saw that fire and zest for life that was intrinsic to who I was as a person becoming diminished and defeated. And though I remained very motivated academically and outgoing, I’ll admit, I did leave a certain amount of that “fire” behind in my childhood. I always thought it was just me growing up and wising-up to the ways of the world and becoming more realistic about life in general and my place in it; and to a certain extent, that’s true and needs to happen to all children eventually. But I agree with my mom that another aspect of it was me losing confidence in myself and who I was at my core as a person. I didn’t doubt God per se and His plans for my life, but looking back now, I think I definitely doubted that He had anything greater than average in store for my life. So I set my sights low and didn’t try to go above and beyond, because the few times I did, that resulted in failure. I think I carry a good amount of that lack of confidence still to this day as an adult. Some could call it a realistic take on my strengths and abilities; some could call it limiting my own potential with how I think about myself. Either way, since we’re talking about sex here in this article, I think it’s definitely effected my expectations of and for my sex life. And only until recently have I started questioning those ideas of mine and why I’ve set my sights so low for myself when there’s so much more of God’s gift of sex that I could be enjoying and partaking in with my husband. “The ability to ‘access’ your arousal mechanisms is highly linked to sexual confidence”, and sexual confidence is just an extension of the confidence you have as a whole person. On the podcast Sexy Marriage Radio (Andrea, I think you turned me on to this… THANK YOU x1000!!!), they say “how you do life is how you do sex, and how you do sex is how you do life.” How SOOOO true that is!!!

  7. L

    Thank you for the second half of point 7. This was so validating for me. I have not been raped, but I am coming out of a period in which, for the most part, sex has been intensely distressing. I have found orgasm so confusing and disturbing during this period – the disconnect between the physical and the mental and emotional parts of me made me feel like my body was betraying me or lying in some way. And as though I was just a machine – press a button and get a reaction. My husband couldn’t understand why sometimes I didn’t want to pursue my own orgasm and I didn’t know how to explain to him how fractured it made me feel or that it only added to my distress. (Not to mention I just wanted to get the thing over with a lot of the time.) To him, orgasm meant it was good. So if I orgasmed I was communicating to him something that wasn’t true – that everything was fine and dandy and it was a wonderful experience. Then there was the added layer of guilt because, well, I was orgasming wasn’t I? And not everyone is able to. So just shut up and be grateful. But to have you put words to some of what I was feeling, put it out there in the world as an experience others have had, and actually give it a name – arousal noncondordance – is… liberating? Maybe that’s too strong a word, but it certainly makes me feel less weird and broken and gives me a small arsenal of linguistic tools to help move toward clarity. And from there, change.

    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      Oh, I’m glad, L! There really is arousal non-concordance for many, many people. I hope that you can work out some of the marriage issues you’re having. I’m sorry.

      • L

        Thank you Sheila. Yes, we are working things out slowly. Your blog is actually playing quite a large role in that process. And I’ve been blessed with a very patient and loving man.

    • Emy

      I have been reading a fantastic book called “Come As You Are.” It is not written from a Christian perspective, but it explains in great depth all of the emotional, mental, physical contexts that influence whether a woman is able to enjoy sex. There is so much more involved than just the physical side. This book has already helped me to understand myself better, as in figuring out WHY I am/am not desiring sex at different times and looking at different ways to increase the chances that I will be! It’s a very affirming, encouraging book!

      • Sheila Wray Gregoire

        Awesome! Thank you for the recommendation.

      • L

        Thanks Emy, sounds really valuable. I’ll have to check it out!

  8. Shannon

    I think ignorance is bliss. I wish I had never heard the words “arousal” or “orgasm”. If I didn’t know about these things then I wouldn’t think that I was “missing something”. I wouldn’t think I was “broken”. I wouldn’t think that god just made me this way. I’ve had to acknowledge the fact that I was not created with those abilities or working parts. I am trying to be less selfish and concentrate on my husband’s pleasure. Why should I deny the one who gets the most out of it?

    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      Oh, Shannon, you’re not broken! Your “parts” certainly do work! You just haven’t figured it out yet. Have you checked out our Orgasm Course? Or our orgasm series? Deciding that you’re just going to ignore your own pleasure doesn’t end up working well in the long run. You just end up empty and resentful. Sex was meant for BOTH of you. It really was. And you can figure it out! I hope you do.

  9. Marie

    Thank you for #7. I hated myself for so long. I felt betrayed by my body because my body responded to the man who assaulted me. When I repeatedly said no he told me my body was saying yes. It took years of therapy to accept my body’s response was not consent and to move past the shame and perceived betrayal.


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