Somewhere in all of the many messages that we've received about sex, many of us came to accept the idea that when a penis is erect or when a vagina is wet, it means a person is primed and ready for sex. This isn't always the case, and yet our cultural discourse around sex and arousal has led us to incorrectly assume that a person's physical response to sexual stimulation is always aligned with their level of desire.
In reality, there are many times when desire and physical arousal don't match. In fact, physical arousal (genital response) is distinct from subjective arousal1 (active mental engagement in sex), and the lingering confusion about this distinction can contribute to many people's insecurity or concern within their own sex lives and—at worst—can blur the meaning of true consent.
There's a name for when physical and subjective arousal are mismatched: arousal non-concordance.
What is arousal non-concordance?
It's a serious-sounding name for a pretty common phenomenon that most of us have experienced or will experience at some point in our lives. If you've ever had a sexual experience in which you felt really turned on but had difficulty getting wet or erect or if you've had the opposite happen, where your body responded to a sexual stimulus but your mind was saying no, then you've experienced arousal non-concordance.
"Arousal concordance and non-concordance describe the simultaneous physical manifestation (or lack thereof) of a mental and emotional state of arousal," physician and sexuality counselor Dr. Kanisha Hall tells mindbodygreen.
Simply put, arousal non-concordance can occur when the brain and the body are out of sync. While there is no official test to measure one's levels of arousal concordance or non-concordance, researchers have asked2 participants to watch porn clips or view nude photographs while their vaginal pulse rate or the size of their erections were monitored (physical arousal) and then rate their level of desire (subjective arousal). The existing overlap between participants' physical and subjective arousal is what is used as a marker of concordance.
Some people are more likely to experience arousal non-concordance than others. Dr. Hall says women may be more likely than men to experience it, which may have to do with the way female pleasure has been socially stigmatized, devalued, and construed as "mysterious," creating more barriers to sexual satisfaction both physically and mentally.
Dr. Hall also noted that "stress, hormone imbalance, physical or mental disability, or a history of trauma may present a roadblock."
Dealing with arousal non-concordance.
It's easy to see why experiencing mismatched arousal can be extremely frustrating. "An individual may feel like their body is betraying them," Dr. Hall says. "Others report feelings of inadequacy and dysfunction. These feelings bring stress to a person's daily life and relationships. Also, you must realize the partner is usually bothered as well because they feel lacking in their ability to arouse and stimulate."
Understanding arousal non-concordance and how we experience it can remind us that we are not damaged or weird if we don't want to get busy all the time, if we become physically aroused in nonsexual situations, or if we don't always respond positively to sexual touch even from a partner whom we love or a person we find super attractive. By taking the time to note those moments when we aren't experiencing arousal fully or when we experience unwanted arousal, we can become more attuned to how our bodies and minds react to certain kinds of stimulation and be more assertive about asking for what we want when we want it—and drawing boundaries when we don't. Importantly, understanding that physical arousal alone does not and cannot take the place of clear and enthusiastic verbal consent is absolutely necessary to address our society's ongoing culture of sexual assault.
We can also begin to figure out what really turns us on or off and open up the conversation with our partners. If you find that your mental desire for sex is present but that your body doesn't get the memo when it's time to get naked, getting reacquainted with things like lubricant (lots of it), clitoral stimulation, and taking the time to think about what kinds of touch or sensations you like and don't like can make a huge difference. "Self-care and masturbation are great tools for assessing physical responses to stimuli," Dr. Hall says.
If you experience physical arousal more than mental arousal, implementing something like a meditation practice or assessing what triggers your responsive desire can help your subjective arousal catch up to your physical response to sexual stimuli—if that's what you want. Otherwise, you can at least begin to accept that your body's biological responses are simply natural—nothing to feel shame or frustration about, as long as those responses aren't interfering with your daily life.
If your experiences of non-concordance are due to trauma or if everyday sexual experiences do bring up emotional or physical pain, often it's a good idea to seek out professional help from a sexual health expert, whether that's your gynecologist, another kind of sexologist or sexual health practitioner, or even a body worker who can help you process what you're experiencing.
Whichever route you choose, know that arousal non-concordance is a normal experience and can be managed once you become aware of what's happening.
Tiffany Lashai Curtis is a Philly-based sex-positive writer and nonprofit professional who works with queer black and brown youth. She received a B.A. and master's in mental health counseling from Rosemont College. Her writing and focuses on access, equity, and inclusive education for women and femmes of color within the sexual health community and beyond. She has written about sexual health, race, and culture for HelloGiggles, Unbound Babes, Refinery29, Fairygodboss, and Blavity.