Deceptively Aroused

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Arousal NonConcordance. Roll those words around in your head a couple times, because they’re ones you should remember. Simply put, arousal nonconcordance is when your mental and genital arousal don’t line up. We’ve all had these sorts of experiences: you’re bored during sex, but your genitals are responsive. You’re turned on but for some reason, your genitals just aren’t getting the message.

While these are very common issues for a lot of people, we still tend to think that there’s something “wrong” when stuff gets nonconcordant. I’m here to tell you that nothing is wrong, so long as you’re not in pain. And if lube isn’t helping you out, you may want to talk to a doctor.

The first person to really bring this to my attention was Dr. Emily Nagoski, Ph.D. in her book Come As You Are — an indispensable resource for those of us who aren’t up on the science of sex.* She breaks things down in a way that’s not only easy to comprehend and actionable, but without the Cosmo-esque dramatization.

Though arousal nonconcordance is something that has definitely existed as long as humans have, Dr. Nagoski notes that “The earliest psychophysiological research I’ve read that explicitly measures sexual arousal nonconcordance is maybe thirty years old.” And despite that research, many are still unaware of the affects of nonconcordance on their sex lives. A lack of understanding that has propelled feelings of shame in many individuals I’ve met.

Arousal nonconcordance is especially fraught for those who’ve experienced trauma. Some people who have suffered sexual or other abuse respond with arousal. This can be disorienting, and can lead questions of whether or not they “asked for it.” Awareness of arousal nonconcordance is important in dispelling these fears.

Many have also had the experience where you tell a partner you’re not into something, and they cite genital reaction — wetness, an erection — as meaning that no, you actually are aroused. “Your body is telling me you like this!” That’s not necessarily true.

If you take anything from this post, it’s that a person’s wordsare far more important than any genital response.

In experiments that attempt to define and measure arousal nonconcordance, the most relevant findings have been how different people with vulvas versus people with penises experience arousal.

From Come As You Are: “A guy comes into the lab. You lead him into a quiet room, sit him down in a comfortable chair, and leave him alone in front of a television. He straps a “strain gauge” (which is exactly what it sounds like) to his penis, puts a tray over his lap, and takes hold of a dial that he can tune up and down to register his arousal (‘I feel a little aroused,’ ‘I feel a lot aroused,’ etc.). Then he starts watching a variety of porn segments. Some of it is romantic, some is violent, some features two men, some features two women, and some features a man and a woman. He rates his level of arousal on the dial as he watches, and the device on his penis measures his erection. When you look to see how much of a match there is between how aroused he felt — his ‘subjective arousal’ — and how erect he got — his ‘genital response.”

What you’ll find in that data is about a 50 percent overlap in genital response and subjective arousal for people with penises. For people with vulvas, there is about a 10 percent overlap. People of all genital structures experience arousal nonconcordance, but people with vulvas statistically experience more than do people with penises.

There are a variety of reasons for this. Primarily, though, us with vulvas generally have genital response to anything that’s sexually relevant — it doesn’t matter if it’s sexually appealing.

This nonconcordance is what has lead to common myths and judgements of women: that if their genitals respond, they must be into it. This is wrong, and thankfully science has been able to give us the proof that that simply isn’t true. This science can also help us prove that victims of sexual assault are telling the truth when they say they did not consent, regardless of how their genitals reacted, and can give people some comfort knowing that our genital response does not determine what’s going on in our brains.

Thanks, science.

*In Chapter 6 — Arousal: Lubrication is Not Causation, Dr. Nagoski explains the science around arousal nonconcordance, so if you’re curious to know more than I could fit in this humble post, I’d recommend checking out her book.

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