Arousal Non-Concordance: When the Body and Brain Aren't In Sync
The Mayo Clinic says a sexual response involves "a complex interplay of physiology, emotions, experiences, beliefs, lifestyle and relationships." So, in order to engage in truly fulfilling sexual activity, our hearts, minds and bodies need to be fully present and in sync.
What happens if they aren't? Again, let's refer to the Mayo Clinic: "disruption of any component can affect sexual desire, arousal or satisfaction."
If you've ever had an experience in which you mentally wanted sex but your body wasn't cooperating—or your body produced a sexual response while your mind wasn't feeling it—you've experienced a phenomenon called arousal non-concordance, and it's much more common than you'd think.
Defining arousal non-concordance
It may sound self-explanatory, but let's hear it from the professionals.
"At its most basic sense, arousal non-concordance is when your mental arousal does not match what we commonly associate with physical sexual arousal, like an erection or wetness," said Carlos Cavazos, a licensed psychotherapist, certified sexologist and relationship coach based in Austin, Texas, and host of "Ask Carlos" on YouTube. "For example, someone with a penis may be watching porn and be fully aroused mentally, but they do not have an erection or someone with a vulva may display vaginal wetness but not be turned on psychologically."
All demographics can experience arousal non-concordance, but Cavazos said some studies indicate evidence that it's more common in people assigned female at birth.
"Really, it's a term that dispels the myth that physiological signs of arousal always mean mental arousal and vice versa," said Tabetha Mumford, sexual wellness and pleasure advocate and owner of #PartyTab.
Arousal non-concordance in relationships
It's understandable that arousal non-concordance can have negative effects on relationships. Ideally, for sex (particularly penetrative sex) to be pleasurable for all involved, our bodies need to produce the necessary responses to sexual stimuli, such as erections and vaginal wetness. When they don't, complicated emotions can arise.
"[Arousal non-concordance] can be really difficult in relationships as it sends mixed signals to your partner(s), which can lead to feelings of inadequacy, insecurity and frustration," Cavazos said. "We have been taught to associate psychological arousal with physiological responses like erections, wetness or hardened nipples. If we don't see those things when we are trying to be intimate with our partner(s), we tend to think that they are not into it, even if they've never been more turned on mentally in their life."
According to Planned Parenthood, "getting wet" happens when a person with a vagina is sexually excited—blood flows to the genitals, the vulva and clitoris swell, and the vagina lubricates itself to prepare for comfortable and enjoyable vaginal sex. However, the organization notes, while this usually happens, it doesn't always. Sometimes, even if a person with a vagina is extremely turned on, the body doesn't produce the necessary physical reactions to signal it's ready for sex.
When it comes to arousal non-concordance in your relationship, the best thing to do is communicate your needs to your partner.
"A woman who experiences vaginal dryness during some of the hottest sex of her life might feel embarrassed that she has to reach for her lube," Mumford said.
Arousal non-concordance is not embarrassing, and does not mean that you're "broken." It is not a negative reflection on you or your sex partner, either. When it comes to arousal non-concordance in your relationship, the best thing to do is communicate your needs to your partner. If your needs include using lube and sex toys to help ready your body for sex, that's perfectly okay. Remind them that you still desire them—very much.
"Learning more about [arousal non-concordance] and educating your partner should be on your to-do list," Cavazos said. "Accept arousal non-concordance for what it is, and don't let yourself or your partner overthink it. Instead, your focus should be on problem-solving, preparation and communication."
Arousal non-concordance in non-consensual sex
Arousal non-concordance also works the other way around—your body may have a sexual reaction even when you don't want sex. For example, morning erections, or "morning wood," don't necessarily mean the people who have them are in the mood for sex first thing in the morning. Morning erections are caused by the parasympathetic nervous system, a system of the body that's active while the body rests and repairs itself. Sometimes, sexual responses are simply nothing more than science.
Arousal non-concordance can happen during sexual assault. Even if a sexual act is non-consensual, the body may still respond to the sexual stimuli with wetness, erections and even orgasms.
"A woman who has been sexually assaulted might feel confused and ashamed that her vagina self-lubricated during the assault," Mumford said. "It is also important for those in the legal field to comprehend this phenomenon, too. A person's body might react to stimulation but that does not mean it is enjoyable for them or a consensual act."
It is of utmost importance for sexual assault survivors to remember they did not secretly "want" their assault because their bodies responded to the sexual stimuli. The only thing that makes sex consensual is ongoing, enthusiastic verbal confirmation of your desires. Your body's reactions do not provide consent for you. And when it comes to sex, consent is always required, even in committed relationships.
"Have discussions about consent and learn to trust each other's words instead of what your bodies are doing or not doing," Cavazos said.
Remember to always communicate
Cavazos provided some dialogue examples you can use to communicate with your partner about arousal non-concordance:
- "If I tell you I'm turned on and into it, I am."
- "Unless I specifically tell you that I am turned on and want to have sex, don't take my wetness/erection as an open invitation to initiate."
As always, open communication and understanding are key to a healthy sex life. Arousal non-concordance can certainly be annoying and inconvenient, but thankfully, there are ways it can be overcome.
"Know that arousal non-concordance is a typical 'glitch' in the sexual response cycle," Mumford said. "Like with most things, education helps diminish the stigma. Educate yourself and communicate with your partner(s)."