The Big Disconnect: Arousal Nonconcordance

“Seldom, very seldom, does complete truth belong to any human disclosure; seldom can it happen that something is not a little disguised or a little mistaken.” Jane Austin

Speaking to my women readers: have you ever had that experience of being completely into your sweetheart or lover, of feeling very aroused—perhaps you’ve even had an orgasm or two—only to discover that your body has produced very little lubrication? Or perhaps you have experienced the opposite: you did not feel sexually interested or aroused—but discovered to your horror that your genitals were responding?

Most of us find these experiences disconcerting—and we may feel as if something is wrong with us, that our bodies have betrayed us. Or, our partners can interpret the lack of lubrication as a sign of lack of arousal or interest. Even worse: lubricating in a situation we find repellant can fill us with deep shame and self-doubt.

The reason we feel wrong or our partners feel hurt is that our cultural narrative tells us that genital response and arousal are the same thing. Romance novels, movies, porn, interpersonal sharing and even current sex education resources reinforce this message. Recent scientific studies show that our cultural narrative is flat wrong.

Arousal nonconcordance exists when genital response and arousal, the subjective experience of enjoying/desiring a sexual activity, differ. It turns out that all genital response tells us is that the genitals are reacting to something they’ve been conditioned to perceive as sexually relevant. Genital response tells us absolutely nothing about whether we are enjoying the situation, because arousal takes place in the brain, not in the genitals. In other words, genital response is an autonomic, trained physiological reaction that is not necessarily related to what we find sexually appealing. And at times, we may find something very sexually appealing—and our genitals do not respond at all.

In Emily Nagoski’s phenomenal book, “Come as You Are,” Chapter 6 explores the science that explains nonconcordance. I recommend reading her entire book, but Chapter 6 alone is revolutionary. Amazingly, in studies measuring women’s physiological reactions and subjective descriptions of arousal when viewing different kinds of porn, (get ready for this): “[t]here will be about a 10 percent overlap between what her genitals are doing and what she dials in as her arousal. 10 percent.” (Italics added). In men, genital response and subjective arousal overlap about 50 percent of the time.

The science of nonconcordance is far more complex than this brief summary, so I do hope you’ll take my advice and read Nagoski’s terrific discussion of the subject.

My interest is on the practical side: what does this really mean? Simply this: we can stop feeling wrong if our genitals and brain are sending us different messages and we can learn to trust our feelings over our genital response. Thus, if we are feeling very sensual, sexy and turned on with our sweeties and are not lubricating, we can trust our turned-on feelings and reach for the lube without analyzing what might be “going on.” Conversely, if we are feeling reluctant, turned off, or even repelled but become aware that we are lubricating, we can trust our feeling of “I’m not into this,” and say “no thanks.” Remember, all the genitals are telling you is this: “I’m responding to a stimulus because I’ve learned that it is sexually relevant.” Genital response does not mean you’re into it, that you like it or want it. That comes from your brain.

When I read about nonconcordance, I felt a load of cultural crap weighing about a ton drop from my shoulders and I love knowing that what my body does is pretty typical for a female body. Yet another harmful and confusing cultural myth bites the dust! I hope that you too can let go of the erroneous belief that genital response and arousal are one and the same and instead, learn to tune into and trust your feelings.

Next week: Nonconcordance and the sex abuse survivor