We typically think of arousal as black and white—you’re turned on, or you’re not. That’s how the movies portray sexual arousal, anyway. But is this depiction of arousal accurate? Not at all!
Arousal is often more nuanced and less linear than we account for. Sometimes, we can be turned on mentally, with little to no genital response to show for it.
Other times, we might not be in the mood for sex or even think that something is sexy and concurrently experience wetness, an erection, or other genital arousal symptoms such as pulsing, engorgement, or tingling. When the brain and genitals don’t agree, it’s called arousal non-concordance. And it happens to more people than you might think.
Simply put, arousal non-concordance is a disconnect between the genitals (physical arousal) and the mind (subjective arousal). Unfortunately, our culture holds a problematic and incorrect assumption that when someone’s genitals are not aroused, they must not be turned on. Or, when genitals are aroused, this must mean that person wants to have sex. These faulty assumptions can cause a great deal of harm and misunderstanding.
When people experience arousal non-concordance, they might find a swath of misleading information about arousal and feel led to believe something is broken. Rest assured, arousal non-concordance is extremely common, and it does not mean that you have a dysfunction.
So, let’s unpack this important yet under-discussed phenomenon.
How common is arousal non-concordance?
According to the groundbreaking book Come as You Are: The Surprising New Science That Will Transform Your Sex Life, author Emily Nagoski Ph.D., found that 90% of cis-women and 50% of cis-men have experienced arousal non-concordance. This statistic means that a penis owner may likely experience erections due to arousal non-concordance from time to time. Similarly, the majority of women experience arousal non-concordance at some point in their lives, with either their genitals or mind not in agreement.
Arousal non-concordance happens in every emotional and motivation system we have, Nagoski points out in her TedTalk. During sex is just one way that arousal non-concordance shows up. Nagoski offers the example of your mouth-watering when you bite into a wormy apple. Just because your mouth watered doesn’t mean you want to finish the apple or find apples with worms appetizing. Regardless, you reacted to stimuli.
Can you be aroused but not turned on? Absolutely. Nagoski explains, “Genital blood flow can increase in response to sex-related stimuli, even if those stimuli are not included in the subjective experience of wanting and liking.” It’s crucial to talk about arousal non-concordance when we talk about consent—just because someone’s genitals show signs of arousal doesn’t mean they want sex.
Nagoski notes that the predictive relationship between genital response and subjective response is between 10 and 50%. Nagoski points out that this is an enormous range—you simply can’t predict desire just by looking at genital blood flow.
Is it low libido or arousal non-concordance?
Low libido is often a catch-all diagnosis for many who experience any type of decrease or discrepancy in desire, and it’s not always accurate! Low libido and arousal non-concordance are entirely different terms, with the potential for some overlap.
If someone is not experiencing a genital response to sexual stimuli, they might be misdiagnosed with low libido. Their genital response could have nothing to do with not wanting sex, and everything to do with arousal non-concordance. When arousal non-concordance is misdiagnosed as lack of libido, it can cause people to get the wrong treatment or think they have a physical issue that needs medication.
Low libido can be a shame-inducing way of prescribing a “lack” of desire, implying that something is missing. Arousal non-concordance, on the other hand, doesn’t mean that desire is gone. Arousal and desire are, after all, two different things. Arousal is a response, and desire is wanting. Both desire and arousal can influence one another.
The difference between spontaneous and responsive desire
When talking about arousal non-concordance, it’s essential to understand what turns us on and how we get turned on. In movies and TV, we frequently see desire as an instantaneous acceleration. With just a lustful look or kiss, clothes are tossed aside, and a passionate encounter ensues. But desire has more nuance than we are taught to believe.
Spontaneous desire is just as it sounds—you are going about your day, and then out of nowhere, you are spontaneously in the mood for sex. With spontaneous desire, the desire to have sex accelerates rapidly, like in typical sex scenes in movies.
Responsive desire means that you respond to stimulation. Responsive desire isn’t as “a to b” as spontaneous desire. It’s much more like a constellation in that your interest in sex might not be existent, could grow, diminish, then grow again until you are in the mood for sex.
Nagoski’s research found that 75% of men, compared to 15% of women, experience spontaneous desire. Realizing how you get turned on can help people tap into their arousal process.
What helps arousal non-concordance?
Arousal non-concordance can be a frustrating experience. If you’ve ever had to explain to a partner that you do, in fact, really want to have sex, despite a lack of genital response, you’ll likely understand why. But as Nagoski articulately spells out, the only way to know if someone is turned on is to ask them and listen to their words.
Here’s the thing—as frustrating as arousal non-concordance can be, it is not a sexual dysfunction and doesn’t inherently mean that anything is physically wrong.
The main crux of Dr. Nagoski’s research is to listen to your brain. Tapping into your arousal process can help you map what turns you on and how and when you notice arousal.
Utilizing mindfulness-based practices can also help with arousal non-concordance. One 2016 study notes that mindfulness-based interventions have been particularly beneficial for women’s genital sexual arousal concordance.
At Lover, we help people discover their unique experiences with arousal. We know that arousal is nuanced, non-linear, and full of pleasure-inducing potential. Follow this link to download our app and equip yourself with skills to be more present for pleasure.