In October 2019, we surveyed over 5,000 people to discover lubricant preferences and perception of arousal. 76% of respondents associated increased natural lubrication with being more aroused. There’s a misconception that the more aroused a woman is, the more natural lubricant she produces. In fact medically speaking higher levels of arousal are not directly correlated to the amount of natural lubricant produced by the body of a person with a vagina, which explains why so many women experience discomfort during sex.
Arousal is not a binary experience, desire can lead to sexual arousal which can lead to involuntary bodily changes, but desire does not always lead to sexual arousal and or bodily changes.
As a general rule of thumb we tend to associate erections and vaginal wetness with being turned on. We assume that we know how turned on someone is by the way their body responds to stimuli like a partners touch, or porn. In reality that’s not really the case, this is because there’s a difference between subjective arousal and physical arousal.
Subjective arousal is your personal evaluation of how a sexual stimulus is making you feel, if you’re turned on or experiencing pleasure.
Physical arousal is how your genitals react to sexual stimulus.
It’s completely normal to feel that your subjective arousal and your physical arousal aren’t aligned, many people experience this, it’s known as arousal non-concordance. Maybe you’ve felt confused in the past when your partner has gone down on you and your genitals reacted but you weren’t turned on. There could have been a number of factors at play like stress, tiredness, lack of energy or you just simply weren’t feeling it in the moment. It can also happen in reverse, you may really want to initiate or engage in sexual activity but your genitals have other ideas. Again, this is completely normal and according to author Emily Nagoski it has happened to 90% of cis-women and 50% of cis-men.
Unfortunately as a result of our cultural conditioning, we tend to think of sex as a tabooed topic and as such any concerns we may have about our sexual wellness become larger than life. When we don’t feel comfortable sharing things with others, we tend to overthink and place too much emphasis on an issue, when we add limited information to that mix (as is often the case with sex), we can spiral into negative thought cycles and convince ourselves that ‘there is something wrong with me’.
There is nothing wrong with you, you are a human being with hundreds of different influences in your day-to-day life, real life is not like the books, movies, or porn we’ve grown up on. In these stories everyone wants sex, and has it regularly with ease, like flicking on a switch. Real life is complicated with daily plot twists which affect our mental, physical and sexual health. If you feel like you don’t want sex as much as you ‘should’ or you’re not often turned on ‘enough’, remember that there is no minimum threshold for sexuality, it is all relative to you and your desire.
Recognising that arousal is not black and white can be the first step to understanding yourself and others through a different lens
If a partner has not verbally consented and they’re physically aroused, this does not serve as consent. You still have to check in with them to see if they’re subjectively aroused and get verbal consent, which needs to be enthusiastic and indisputable. If a partner is saying no, and you can feel that they are physically aroused, this does not mean they are ‘playing hard to get’. Again, verbal consent is absolutely necessary, and it is always necessary no matter the stage you are in your relationship. You can read more on the importance of consent and ways to ask for it here.
Want to bridge the gap between your subjective and physical arousal?
If you tend to be subjectively but not physically aroused, start by listening to your body and making note of what makes you physically aroused. Masturbation is a good place to begin, pay attention to the movements and touches that make you feel good. You can also try a mental deep dive into past sexual experiences that have been memorable for the right reasons, what triggered a positive physical response? Was is a certain position with a sex toy, or a type of porn? Give yourself the time to investigate and trial different options.
Lubricant is your best friend, integrate it into your sexual repertoire. Water-based lubricant will enhance the sensations you feel by making the experience smoother and more comfortable. Dryness is not a necessary element of anyone’s sex life.
If you often find yourself physically aroused but not subjectively aroused, consider your mental and physical health. Are there events or experiences within your relationship or outside it which may be influencing your subjective arousal? You may choose to talk to someone close to you about these external factors or you may wish to see a Psychosexual Therapist, these therapists specialise in sex counselling as well as relationship therapy. Therapy can be incredibly useful, many people see a therapist once as week as part of their self-care or mental health routine. Others choose to seek additional support when they are going through a specific change or phase in their lives. You may benefit from sharing your experience with someone who has the expertise to guide you through your sexual wellness journey.
Own your journey
The important thing to remember is that your sexuality is unique, it exists on a spectrum with which you experience arousal and attraction. Whilst arousal non-concordance can be useful for getting to grips with desire, that’s not to say it’s the only tool that can help you make sense of arousal and sexuality. Your friends are likely to be asking themselves similar questions, share your experiences with them if you feel comfortable, or you can invite them along to one of our supper clubs where we discuss themes related to pleasure and sexuality. If you prefer anonymity when exploring topics of this nature you can put any question you’d like to the HANX community on HANX Life.