Arousal Nonconcordance: When your Body Seems to Say ‘Yes’ but Your Mind Says ‘No’
Welcome to my virtual therapy room! I am Dr Lori Beth Bisbey and this is Sex Spoken Here. Remember that this podcast deals with adult themes so if you don’t have privacy you might wish to put on your headphones. This week I am talking about arousal nonconcordance.
What? Huh? I can hear you saying. In simple terms, arousal nonconcordance is when your genital response doesn’t not match your internal experience.
For example, if you have a vagina, you are feeling really turned on but you are not wet. Everyone experiences nonconcordance at times and it can be extremely confusing. The most upsetting examples of nonconcordance, are around rape and sexual assault. Many people experience orgasm during rape and this can lead them to believe that they wanted the rape. Sometimes worse than the self-blame is the blame heaped on them by others – and the attitude of the criminal justice system when they are not aware that nonconcordance is a normal response in these situations and that orgasm does not mean that there was desire, enjoyment or consent.
Dr Emily Nagoski, sex educator discusses nonconcordance in detail in her book ‘Come as You Are: The Surprising New Science that Will Transform Your Sex Life.’ She gave a TED talk at TED2018 that covered this topic as well. She highlights that when sex research is done with men measuring penile response to determine arousal in response to stimuli and comparing it to subjective arousal reported by the man, there is only about a 50% concordance between the two. That means 50% of the time there is nonconcordance – the man reports arousal but his penis doesn’t harden or the man doesn’t report arousal but his penis is hard. She reports that if you do the same experiment with a woman – there is only 10 percent overlap. Think about that for a second. Though a woman’s genitals react to sexually relevant stimuli, the overlap with subjective arousal is only 10%.
What does this actually mean? Something can be sexually relevant but not something a person would find desirable.
Bondage is sexually relevant but Marc finds it tedious. Images of anal sex are sexually relevant and cause Jerry to lubricate but she finds the idea of anal sex repugnant. One of the things this highlights is how important the brain is in female sexual response.
Emily Nagoski talks about Ross Buck’s framework to think about emotion that allows us to better understand nonconcordance.
‘Emotion I is the involuntary physiological response – your heart rate and blood pressure, pupil dilation, digestion, sweating immune functioning. Genital response falls into this category and my college friend who got wet while she was bored, tied up waiting for her partner to come back, experienced this kind of response but nothing else.
Emotion II is involuntary expressive response to a feeling. It’s body language- or more accurately, paralanguage – things like vocal inflection, posture, and facial expression – all the cues we use to infer another person’s internal state. A great dinner date will be full of Emotion II, as you find yourself putting your hand on your date’s arm, gazing into their eyes and smiling. These are often influenced by culture but have a great deal of universality and they can be intentionally controlled to some degree but not as much as you might think. Did you choose the expression on your face right now?
Emotion III is subjective experience of a feeling. If someone asks you how you feel and you check in with yourself to find the answer, what you’re noticing is Emotion III. This is subjective arousal – the conscious experience of ‘I want you so much I can hardly stand it’ which may or may not be accompanied by genital response (Emotion I) or eye contact (Emotion II). So nonconcordance is not only related to sex – it is related to all expression of emotion as well.
There are three myths related to nonconcordance that Emily Nagoski highlights as being particularly dangerous.
The first one is the most long lasting and the most dangerous in my view. This is the myth that genital response means someone is sexually aroused. This is true for both men and women. Men are more likely to experience this in the form of missing genital response but feelings of sexual arousal and then assume they are not really aroused or that there is something wrong with them. Men can experience a lack of an erection at a time when they really want sex and not understand what is happening. They will go looking for a cause when it fact it is simply nonconcordance.
Why is this particularly dangerous, because it encourages people to question their subjective feelings of arousal.
When someone does this, they begin to question their judgment and may agree to do things that don’t cause them pleasure and that they don’t want to do. It is the myth that leads to men telling women who say they don’t want to do something or even saying a clear no that they obviously are aroused because they are wet. Genital response is a conditioned reflex – it is the body expecting activity because it is exposed to a sexually relevant stimuli. Again – it does not suggest wanting.
Genital response does not mean turned on. Subjective response is the only completely sure way to assess whether someone is turned on and so you need to be talking with a partner or potential partner.
Myth number 2 is that genital response means enjoying. This is when it is suggested that a woman’s genitals are giving the ‘truth’ about what is really turning them on and that women are either ‘in denial’, ‘out of touch with their bodies’, ‘lying’ or ‘completely repressed and not aware of their own deep desires.’ This myth is dangerous as it encourages men to push forward justifying this behaviour by saying the woman is not aware of her own desires – suggesting her genitals will highlight what is really true. The danger is obvious. If your genitals tell you the ‘truth’ about arousal and you lubricate when being sexually assaulted or become erect when being sexually assaulted then it means that you wanted or enjoyed the assault. This could not be further from the truth since genitals only signpost that something is sexually relevant not enjoyable or wanted. For example research has women (and men) reacting with genital response to movies of monkeys mating. Genitals react to mating as something that is a sexual act but I haven’t yet met someone who has a fetish about monkeys mating (so no wanting or enjoying).
For women, the biggest part of arousal occurs in the mind.
The evidence of this is the only 10% overlap between genital response and subjective arousal. For men, 50% overlap means that about 50% of arousal is in the mind.
Finally, the third myth is that nonconcordance is a problem. That is to say, if your genital response is not matching with your subjective response there must be a problem that needs treating. This is wholly untrue. There is a relationship between nonconcordance and sexual dysfunction but a relationship is NOT causation. None of the research suggests that there is any causative relationship.
The most important take aways for all of this: To know if someone is sexually aroused and enjoying what is happening, you have to listen to their words not to their genitals.
That is why it is so important to gain verbal consent and not to make assumptions that because someone is responding genitally that is consent. Nonconcordance is normal and common. The person who is nonconcordant does not need to be fixed. They just need to trust their own brains and their partners just need to listen to their words.
This week I talked about arousal nonconcordance. If this triggers you or you have a comment to make, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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