Picture this: You walk into the Grille after a Friday night out, ripe with anticipation to take that first, deliciously warm bite into a crispy Dr. Feel Good. Sitting at a lowly lit table with your friends, your buzzer erupts and you spring out of your seat to collect your winnings. All of a sudden, on the walk back to your booth you notice that despite your boundless enthusiasm for this sandwich your supposed-to-be-watery mouth is as dry as a desert. What’s going on?
Turns out, the same thing can happen to your genitals! As developed as our bodies are as humans, one thing our anatomy can’t seem to get right is the ability to physically communicate our desires, preferences or levels of pleasure accurately in sexual contexts. In fact, I know this sounds crazy, but sometimes you literally have no control over the way your body responds during intimacy. Someone with a penis, for example, may be thinking to themselves, “Wow, I’m so excited to have sex with this person!” and yet still struggle to get an erection. Or perhaps another person, despite feeling substantially uncomfortable in an intimate situation, has a fully lubricated vagina.
This discrepancy between your emotional or cognitive desires and your body’s physiological response has a name: arousal non-concordance. Most people who have done any sort of exploration into their sexuality have likely come across some sort of arousal non-concordance, potentially causing them to wonder if there’s something wrong. The answer, as you might guess by now, is a resounding NO! To quote sex educator Emily Nagoski, “The world is somehow convinced that a person’s body knows more about what a person wants or likes than a person does.” What a silly idea!
So, what triggers physiological arousal if it can seemingly be so detached from one’s true feelings? First off, let’s distinguish between physiological and subjective arousal. Physiological arousal is an involuntary bodily response, which, in sexual situations, may include an increase in heart rate or blood flow to the genitals. On the other hand, subjective sexual arousal describes one’s mental experience in sex. Physiological arousal can happen because one is subjectively aroused, but it can also happen simply because sexually relevant touch is occurring and the brain sends signals to trigger a physical response. It can also be a part of normal processes, such as the vagina’s self-cleaning mechanisms.
On a more serious note, arousal non-concordance is especially important to understand within the context of consent. It is not uncommon for survivors to experience involuntary arousal during sexual assault or violence. One’s physiological arousal does not count as “consent,” nor does it reflect their feelings about the situation. Even so, problematic arguments saying the contrary continue to be used in our criminal justice system to refute victims’ claims in attempts to defend sexual offenders. This terrible distortion of evidence makes the misunderstanding of arousal non-concordance a highly present social justice issue.
All in all, our bodies are insanely complex and advanced systems. They can also be really mystical and confusing at the same time. Ultimately, what’s important is that we show consideration and empathy for each other’s expressed feelings and preferences over all else. If we all were to do so, the world would be a far better place.