I’d like to begin a longer, ongoing conversation today about arousal non-concordance.
To begin, a quick story. As a teen I always won the game Balderdash. Remember that game? You get a bizarre weird word, and everyone has to make up a definition for it, and then you read out all the fabricated definitions with the real one mixed in and guess.
I had a definition I used almost every time, and I always won that round: “the lint that collects in dryer traps.” It was simple. It was to the point. But more importantly, everyone thought: Oh, yeah, there should be a word for that. So they believed that that was a real definition.
Arousal non-concordance is kind of like that.
You may not know what it is, but as soon as I explain it, you’ll think, “oh, yeah. That makes perfect sense. I wish I had understood that was a thing!”
So here we go.
Sexual arousal has two components: your mind saying, “I want the sexy stuff!”, and your body saying, “I’m totally digging the sexy stuff!”
Sometimes, however, the mind might be saying, “let’s get it on!”, but the body hasn’t gotten the message. Or, in many cases, the body has gotten the message, but the mind is turned off, tired, or not even thinking about sex at all.
When the body and mind don’t agree on sex–you have arousal non-concordance!
In December on the blog our monthly series is going to be about Embodiment and Mindfulness.
I figure that it goes along with Christmas and the Incarnation well–how God took on human form and walked this earth, and then resurrected in a physical body, just as we someday will.
Our bodies matter.
So let’s talk about how to live embodied lives, where our minds and bodies are in accordance with each other as much as possible. Let’s talk about mindfulness, where we’re paying attention to our bodies and we’re living in our bodies, rather than making judgments about what our bodies should be doing.
We’ll officially launch that series on Monday, but I thought we’d do a preview today about arousal non-concordance, and continue that tomorrow on the podcast.
I spent some time this week looking up scholarly articles on arousal non-concordance, and it was fascinating. Here’s a bit of what I learned:
Men and women can both experience arousal non-concordance, but for women it tends to be more common.
A huge meta-analysis from 2010 that is still frequently cited found that the self-report, or subjective report of how aroused someone is does not always agree with the “objective” measures of heat cameras on the genitals, monitors, or more. So the genitalia would register arousal, but people would report that they weren’t aroused–and sometimes vice versa.
Men are more likely to say they feel aroused when their genitals do not show arousal; while women are more likely to say they aren’t aroused when their genitals show they are. Of the two genders, though, women’s arousal non-concordance tends to be much greater. The meta-analysis tried to figure out why this was so, and came up with several theories (the self-report may be correct but the instruments measuring arousal may be measuring the wrong thing; men may be more comfortable understanding arousal because they get more noticeable erections; women are made to feel more shame at arousal and so it doesn’t register as much, and more). After examining all of these possible explanations, they found that there was a real gender difference that couldn’t be explained away by methodological problems.
Women just seem to experience non-concordance more.
Further studies have elaborated on this even more, with these results:
Women tend to be physically aroused by a variety of sexual stimuli, while men tend to be more aroused by a distinct subset.
Let’s talk bonobo apes.
They’re not exactly sexy (unless you’re a bonobo ape, I suppose). But when women watch movies of bonobo apes mating, they say they’re not aroused, but they do experience genital arousal. Men, on the other hand, say they’re not aroused and don’t experience genital arousal.
What’s going on?
Basically, two things: First, in women, the self-report of arousal and genital changes in arousal are less likely to match up than for men.
But second, women experience genital arousal at a wider variety of sexual stimuli than men do, even if their self-report of what is arousing is still quite narrow.
So guys say, “that turns me on,” and their penises tend to agree. Women say, “that doesn’t turn me on,” but their genitals do show changes.
This article talks about the two different pathways to arousal that are likely independent of one another: one the cognitive element and one an autonomous system that reacts to sexual stimuli (either with lubrication or erection). And women seem to autonomously to a wide variety of stimulation, perhaps partly because women are more susceptible to sexual assault, and we experience fewer injuries if there’s lubrication. So women’s bodies may say, “let’s get ready for the sex” even when their minds are nowhere near thinking that way. It’s a protective response.
Now, please hear what this research is NOT saying: It’s not saying that women are aroused and don’t realize it–so get with it, women! No, it’s saying that there are two different arousal pathways that operate quite independently of each other. So when she subjectively rates her arousal and she says, “I’m not turned on,” she’s right. She isn’t cognitively turned on. But her body is gearing up for it anyway.
The sex differences in concordance between objective and subjective arousal can best be summarized as follows: The physiological arousal process, which likely evolved to maximize reproductive success, appears to be quite similar in men and women. However, men react motivationally stronger to sexual stimuli … Women, in contrast, react to sexual stimuli with lubrication, to protect their inner sexual organs, independent of their experienced arousal. Due to the specific anatomy and social influences, men learn to better align their experienced sexual arousal with their physiological reaction. Women, on the other hand, learn early on, not to trust their bodily reactions, as they are often in contrast to social expectations.
The problem with desire among women tends to be less about physical arousal and more about mental arousal, or desire.
Why isn’t there a female version of Viagra? That’s what researchers have been trying to figure out: is there a magical pill that will make women aroused? And the answer has largely been no, because for women the problem is less in terms of genital autonomous responses and more in terms of cognitive responses. Another review of the research found again that women tend to respond automatically to sexual stimuli, often within a few seconds, but subjectively they’re not registering any arousal at all.
Unlike for men, then, when the problem is with keeping an erection, women’s problems tend more to be with how cognitively we interpret sex. This makes sense–we don’t need a pill to help us get lubricated, since lots of lubricants are available (and I highly recommend Femallay’s vaginal melts which help nourish your vagina and improve elasticity, too!). No, instead what we need is to feel like we WANT to be sexy.
Here’s what these researchers conclude:
Most theorists discuss women’s sexual arousal in terms of a feedback mechanism between these two components, but some studies indicate that genital and subjective sexual arousal are not closely connected for some women. Increases in genital arousal tend to occur somewhat automatically, within seconds of the onset of an erotic stimulus, and can occur even in the absence of subjective reports of feeling sexually aroused. Moreover, the degree of connectivity between genital and subjective arousal seems to be unrelated to sexual arousal function and dysfunction in women. This disconnection raises the question of what exactly sexual arousal in women is and whether physiological changes that occur in the absence of a subjective sexual experience should even be considered a sexual response.
The issue is not what the genitals are doing but what the brain is thinking. That’s where arousal gets blocked up. And as Rebecca says on the podcast which launches tomorrow, that makes sense. We’re created to be discerning. It’s not safe for women to want to have sex with people that they won’t be safe with or won’t feel safe with, so the mental component in arousal is far more important.
So it’s not that women aren’t aware of what actually turns us on. It’s that we need to pay more attention to what women say turns them on, because it’s the subjective part that makes us desire sex! So if we say we don’t like something, even if our bodies respond, that doesn’t mean we like it and we’re just wrong. It means we want more of that thing that we like! And then we’ll actually want sex mentally–which is the important part.
One last thing–and this one is super important.
Arousal non-concordance can often be at play in cases of sexual assault, and can make trauma victims assume they actually wanted it or consented.
Honestly, Law & Order: Special Victims Unit was the first time I heard of arousal non-concordance (that show has seriously done a good job at educating people on consent and sexual assault!). I’ve talked about it since then several times, and I want to return to it in the new year when we look more at this last element of arousal non-concordance: How it plays a part in furthering sexual assault trauma.
I have known many victims of date rape who did not understand that it was date rape because they became lubricated and even reached orgasm. They assumed that because they were physically aroused, they must have wanted it, even though they had repeatedly said no. This can be even more difficult for male victims, because their arousal is often necessary for the sexual encounter, and so the fact that they became physically aroused seems to mean they weren’t assaulted. But if a guy did not want it to happen, did not consent, and said no, and then someone went ahead anyway and the guy’s body responded, this does not mean that it was not assault.
There’s ongoing research into this, but in some cases it looks as if some people have heightened physical responses to assault because the fight, flight and freeze trauma response is closely related to the sexual arousal response. When our senses are heightened, arousal may follow more commonly. This does not mean anyone wanted it to happen.
Arousal does not equal consent. Orgasm does not equal consent.
I think a common scenario for Christian wives is feeling like you want to get aroused but your body won’t follow.
This one’s hard to measure in the lab, which is likely why they didn’t find a big incidence of it. But what I hear again and again is women who want to feel aroused, and want to enjoy sex, but their bodies do nothing. I talk a lot about this in both The Orgasm Course and the Boost Your Libido course (which we’re actually revamping over the Christmas holidays because it’s been out for a few years now and it’s time for an update! If you’ve bought it in the past, you’ll have access to the whole new Boost Your Libido course when it’s out in January!).
The Orgasm Course is Here to Help You Experience Real Passion!
Figure out what’s holding you back. Open the floodgates to orgasm.
What we’ll be looking at a bit this month is how the practice of mindfulness can bridge this gap. It’s what I’ve been trying to teach for years, especially when I speak and in the courses. How to be mentally present when you’re making love. Or “embodiment” is actually another way to put it. How to actually inhabit your body and how to experience your sexuality with your body and not just your mind. So more on that to come!
I hope arousal non-concordance becomes something we talk about more, and that it enters our common vocabulary, in the same way that I hope vaginismus gets talked about more. The fact that so many people don’t understand that this is possible means that people can feel guilt that isn’t theirs; people can feel like they’re perverts if they get aroused by erotic material they were exposed to that they didn’t want to see or didn’t even like; or feel like there’s something wrong with them when their body responds when they don’t want it to–or when it doesn’t when they do want it to.
We’re complex creations. It makes sense that arousal is complex, too.
Have you heard of this concept before? Does it make sense to you? What is your biggest struggle with it? Let’s talk in the comments!
Sheila Wray Gregoire
Founder of Bare Marriage
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