When someone you’re hooking up with says, “I’m so wet,” or “I’m so hard,” we understand it to mean, “damn, I’m really turned on, touch me.”
Our cultural understanding of desire assumes that we can tell if someone is turned on by how their body is responding during sex. Turns out that’s not really true! That’s because physical arousal is not the same thing as subjective arousal.
Physical arousal is when your genitals are responding to a sexual stimulus (like porn or a partner touching you). Subjective arousal is your personal assessment of whether that sexual stimulus is pleasing and turns you on.
The truth is, most people experience a significant mismatch between their physical arousal and their subjective arousal. This phenomena is called arousal non-concordance. It’s when you’re feeling really turned on but you’re not getting wet or hard. It’s also when your genitals respond to something but you find yourself thinking, “wait, I’m not into this.”
Researchers typically measure non-concordance by having a bunch of participants watch porn clips and rate how turned on they are (subjective arousal) while having the size of their erection or the pulse rate of their vaginas monitored (physical arousal). Then they compare how much overlap exists between subjective and physical arousal.
So what’s the verdict? Emily Nagoski tells us in her book, Come As You Are: The Surprising New Science That Will Transform Your Sex Life, that cis-women only experience complete concordance about 10% of the time and cis-men experience complete concordance about 50% of the time.
You’re not broken!
Arousal non-concordance affects pretty much everyone. Experiencing non-concordance is a completely normal part of human sexuality. However, sometimes it doesn’t feel that way.
If you constantly find that you don’t feel tingly sensations when someone is touching you or you can’t get wet or maintain an erection despite feeling turned on and really wanting sex, you might feel like there’s something wrong with your body. Conversely, if you don’t frequently want sex or don’t feel spontaneously turned on, you might feel like you have low desire.
Our cultural understanding of desire has traditionally told us that we should want sex a lot (whatever that means) and that our bodies will naturally fall in line as soon as we get turned on.
Arousal non-concordance reminds us that lots of people don’t experience arousal and desire in such an integrated, linear fashion. That’s normal.
Concordance and Consent
One really important thing that we can learn from arousal non-concordance is that physical arousal does not equal consent. It’s completely possible to respond physically, even orgasm, in response to a sexual experience that you did not desire or consent to.
Body language can certainly communicate lots of relevant information. You should definitely not ignore behavior cues you’re getting from a partner. However, clear and enthusiastic consent should be expressed verbally. Need advice on how to incorporate ongoing consent more smoothly into actual sexual exchanges? Read this.
Can I Change My Experience Of Concordance?
If arousal non-concordance is getting in the way of enjoying sex the way you want to, here are some ideas to try.
If you get turned on but your body doesn’t get the message…
Use lube! This sounds almost too simple, but lube can really help make physical touch feel more comfortable and sexy. Whether you have a penis or a vagina, using lube can help you avoid distracting, unpleasant touch that is too rough or dry. Try a good water-based lube.
Remember the clitoris! For people with vaginas, focusing on clitoral stimulation during sex makes your chance of orgasming higher. Experiment with what types of clitoral touch feel best to you. When you’re with a partner, you can try a clitoral vibrator like the Eva II. It’s adorable and keeps you and your partner’s hands free for sexy exploration.
Pay attention to what gets you wet. If you struggle to respond physically, whether this means getting wet or keeping an erection, it could help to do a little self-detective work. What types of physical touch feel best on your body? Masturbation is a great way to figure this out. Try lots of different techniques! Additionally, what types of external sexual stimuli or contexts tend to evoke a physical response in you? You can mine through your past sexual experiences for things that worked and try out some new tools. Do you notice that you can only respond physically with a partner you know really well and trust a lot? Does watching porn or reading erotica get you wet? Are you able to come when you use a certain sex toy? Keep track of sex strategies that are reliable for you.
If sex is typically enjoyable but you wish you wanted it more…
Try a mindfulness practice: A group of researchers recently had 79 people with vaginas participate in four sessions of mindfulness sex therapy. They found that the participants showed significantly more sexual concordance after completing these mindfulness sessions. The therapy taught participants to focus on the physical sensations that happen during sex and to learn to identify and notice any negative self-talk, distraction, or anxieties about performance, body image, ability to orgasm, etc. without judgment. At the end of the study, the researchers found that the participants’ experience of subjective arousal had increased far more than their genital arousal and this is what accounted for the higher levels of arousal concordance. Though therapy can be a great option, there are plenty of sex-specific mindfulness practices that you can do on your own! Try this approach.
Check out responsive desire: Another way you can change your experience of subjective arousal is to look at it from a different perspective. Dominant culture tells us that subjective desire for sex should come before physical arousal, but we know now that this is only one type of sexual experience. It’s also really valid for subjective desire to follow physical arousal. Some people almost never spontaneously desire sex but that when they consciously and consensually expose themselves to sexual stimuli, they find that they are mentally aroused, they actively want sex. This could mean watching porn, reading erotica, asking for sexual touch from a partner, or playing with your favorite sex toy. This is called responsive desire. Does this fit for you? If so, you might want to purposely schedule time to stimulate yourself sexually (only you get to decide when and how) to create opportunities for yourself to get turned on. Pay attention to whether pursuing stimulation results in you actively wanting and enjoying sex. If it doesn’t, don’t feel pressured to pursue sexual contact.
When to seek extra help
Trauma: If you’ve experienced traumatic, unwanted, or negative sexual contact, it can really impact how sex and sexuality work for you in the present. This can, of course, include physical and subjective arousal. If sex after assault or trauma feels scary, overwhelming, triggering, impossible, painful, or really uncomfortable it could help to talk to a sex therapist who also specializes in trauma work.
Physical Pain: If sexual activity is ever causing you unwanted physical pain, it’s a good idea to check in with a physician or a nurse who can provide medical guidance.
Arousal non-concordance is just one new framework for understanding desire. It might be super helpful for some but resonate less with others. The main thing to take away here is that there are so many ways to experience arousal, attraction, and desire. Our current sexual culture doesn’t do a good job of recognizing this diversity of experience which makes it even more important to find community, whether that’s close friends, good books, or thoughtful social media, that give voice to the many faces of desire.