You’re having sex with someone, and they exclaim, “you’re so wet,” or you experience an erection. And indeed, you are wet and lubricated or experiencing an erection, both of which are generally deemed to be signs of sexual arousal in females and males, respectively. Yet, something’s wrong… you don’t feel remotely aroused. If you’ve experienced this, don’t worry, you’re far from alone.
Arousal non-concordance is an extremely common phenomenon wherein your genital response doesn’t align with your subjective arousal. Basically, you may experience vaginal lubrication or erection without feeling aroused. This phenomenon is common among all individuals — men, women, gay, straight, non-binary, transgender, and everyone in between. But it’s particularly common amongst females, i.e., individuals with vulvas.
Current research shows only a 10% overlap between women’s genital responses and subjective arousal. That essentially means vaginal lubrication is not an accurate barometer for actual sexual arousal. Meanwhile, there’s a 50% overlap between men’s genital response (erection) and subjective arousal. We’re using the terms “women” and “men” to refer to individuals with vulvas and penises, respectively, but this condition applies to everyone.
But even so, most people continue linking genital response with sexual arousal.
Contemporary culture has a startling lack of understanding of arousal non-concordance. Research clearly shows that erection and vaginal lubrication aren’t signifiers of sexual arousal or attraction, especially for females. But even so, most people continue linking genital response with sexual arousal — that’s an issue worth addressing in greater detail. Below, we discuss the types of arousals and why there’s a disconnect between genital response and sexual arousal.
Physiological arousal vs. subjective sexual arousal
To understand the reason for arousal non-concordance, we must better understand arousal in general and the different types of arousal. Most people view arousal as a state of excitement linked to an emotion, inevitably leading to physiological changes that trigger vaginal lubrication or erection. The traditional definition of arousal links emotions and physical response, but contemporary research shows that the physical response may occur without emotional stimuli and vice versa.
Our contemporary understanding of arousal should be broken down into two components — physiological arousal and subjective sexual arousal.
In fact, arousal non-concordance is the norm rather than the exception.
Physiological arousal refers to involuntary physiological responses, such as increased heart rate and increased blood flow to the genitals, leading to vaginal lubrication and erection. Subjective sexual arousal refers to your active, emotional engagement in sex, i.e., your feelings concerning the sexual experience. Physiological and subjective arousal may occur simultaneously, but arousal non-concordance occurs when they’re not the same. In fact, arousal non-concordance is the norm rather than the exception.
What causes vaginal lubrication?
Vaginal lubrication, also known as wetness, can happen because of a wide range of factors beyond sexual arousal. Genetic lubrication is an essential bodily function that protects your vulva from injuries and tearing. It also serves a hygiene purpose — self-lubrication allows your vulva to remain clean, moist, and free from harmful bacteria and infections. As such, wetness serves a wide range of health-related functions that have nothing to do with sex.
Some women also experience sexual lubrication during moments of traumatic sexual assaults.
Vaginal lubrication can also happen because of touch, even when you’re not sexually aroused. Women may also experience wetness during pelvic exams, even when uncomfortable or clinical. Some women also experience sexual lubrication during moments of traumatic sexual assaults — wetness absolutely does not indicate arousal. Vaginal lubrication is simply your body’s involuntary physiological response to touch, not an accurate barometer for your emotional state or desires.
The fact that women can also become wet during moments of physical discomfort, disgust, revulsion, or trauma, indicates that vaginal lubrication occurs when sexually relevant signals are sent to the brain. Your genital response is merely an indication of a sexually relevant signal, not sexual desire or pleasure. Understanding this difference is essential for our contemporary understanding of sexual arousal and desire, especially regarding discussions of consent.
Physiological arousal isn’t consent
We’ve established that physiological arousal isn’t the same as subjective arousal and that an individual may be physically aroused without wanting sex. That’s why it’s essential for everyone to seek verbal consent during sexual encounters rather than relying on their partner’s physical response to touch. You must listen to your partner’s words rather than reacting to a response from their genitals. It’s essential for you to forge healthy communication standards to express exactly what each partner wants.
Understanding this difference is essential in moving forward discussions of sexual assault. Survivors of sexual assault are often discredited and dismissed or told they’re not “true victims” because they may have produced a physiological response, such as wetness or erection. However, as we’ve highlighted above, physiological arousal isn’t indicative of subjective sexual arousal or consent, so this argument is completely baseless. Consent can and should only be determined through active engagement and verbal confirmation.
Subjective sexual arousal doesn’t always lead to a physiological response
Just as a physiological response may occur without subjective sexual arousal, you may also feel sexually aroused without a genital response. This basically means you may struggle with erections or vaginal lubrication even when you’re sexually aroused, which can be frustrating for your sex life. This may happen because of emotional or physical stress — your body may not respond correctly when you’re complexly exhausted. And it can also happen because of hormonal reasons.
If you’re struggling with vaginal lubrication or erection, you can also try masturbating in a comfortable, safe, and relaxing environment, such as a bathtub. You can also use various sex toys, such as clitoris stimulators and vibrators, to induce physiological arousal without feeling self-conscious. You can also explore your body’s erogenous zones, i.e., parts of your body with a high concentration of nerve endings. The most important key to generating physiological arousal is feeling comfortable, relaxed, and discovering your body on your terms.
At the end of the day, it’s important to remember that wetness and erection aren’t accurate indicators of your partner’s sexual arousal, and subjective sexual arousal doesn’t always lead to a physiological response. Most people assume that the two are inextricably linked, but the opposite is a lot more true to most people.