The Big Disconnect: Arousal Nonconcordance

The Big Disconnect: Arousal Nonconcordance

by Jane Steckbeck, World Association of Sex Coaches Certified Sex Coach

“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

In speaking to my women clients, many have had the disconcerting experience of being completely into their sweetheart or lover, of feeling very aroused—perhaps they’ve even had an orgasm or two—only to discover that they have produced very little lubrication. Even more disconcerting is when she experiences the opposite. She does not feel sexually interested or aroused but discovers to her horror that her genitals are responding.

Women find these experiences upsetting and may feel as if something is wrong or that their bodies have betrayed them. Or, a partner can interpret the lack of lubrication as a sign of lack of arousal or interest. Even worse: lubricating in a situation that a woman finds repellent can fill her with deep shame and self-doubt.

The reason women feel wrong or their partners feel hurt is that our cultural narrative tells us that genital response and arousal is 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 recommend that you read Nagoski’s terrific discussion of the subject.

My interest in arousal nonconcordance is on the practical side: what does this really mean? Simply this: our clients can stop feeling wrong if their genitals and brain are sending them different messages and they can learn to trust their feelings over their genital response. Thus, if a woman is feeling very sensual, sexy and turned on with her sweetie but is not lubricating, she can trust her turned-on feelings and reach for the lube without analyzing what might be “going on.” Conversely, if she is feeling reluctant, turned off, or even repelled but becomes aware that she is lubricating, she can trust her feeling of “I’m not into this,” and say “no thanks.” Remember, all the genitals are telling her is this: “I’m responding to a stimulus because I’ve learned that it is sexually relevant.” Genital response does not mean she is into it, that she likes it or wants it. That comes from her brain.

When I explain arousal nonconcordance, jaws drop as the information sinks in. Relief comes next, when a client understands that what her body does is pretty typical for a female body. Helping clients recognize and release yet another harmful and confusing cultural myth is amazing work and can be especially life altering for rape, incest and sex abuse survivors.