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When Mind and Body Differ: Arousal Non-concordance and What It Means for Your Sex Life

Content Warning: Discussion of sexual violence, discussion of sexual activity


Picture this: you’re sitting on the couch with a loved one – your roommate, your best friend, your partner, or whoever you like enough to share a couch with on a late evening – and your stomach growls. Your companion turns their head away from your binge-watch to raise their eyebrows and ask if you ate dinner. 

Your stomach growled, but you know you’re not hungry. The filling meal you ate just an hour before speaks to that, as does the contented feeling in your stomach. But your stomach growled anyway.

You may wonder why your stomach growled if you weren’t hungry. The point of growling is to speak to hunger, right? After all, humans evolved in such a way that our stomachs will declare to the world and ourselves when we need to go into hunter and/or gatherer mode to acquire a meal. A quick Google search, however, can point to numerous reasons your stomach might growl, from digestion to even just a normal reaction to watching a pizza commercial that caught your eye, even if you weren’t intending for pizza. 

Most important of all after that quick search is understanding that nothing’s wrong. Your body isn’t broken for the extra stomach growl. The food you had before wasn’t unsatisfying. Your body was having a normal reaction to a normal situation. 

You probably realized by clicking on this article that I’m not going to be talking to you about how your stomach works, but I use this example of a typical bodily response to help dive into what today’s topic will actually be about: arousal non-concordance.

What the heck is arousal non-concordance?

Arousal non-concordance can be best understood by understanding arousal itself. Sexual arousal is the process which our body goes through when we are sexually stimulated (“turned on”) by something in our environment – a lover’s touch, explicit imagery, a spicy text message. We often mistakenly think of arousal as a purely physical thing (my partner kisses me = blood flows to my genitals), but arousal exists just as much in the brain as anywhere else in our body. When we’re mentally and emotionally aroused, we’re engaged with sexual thoughts and excited for the possibilities. 

Arousal non-concordance happens when the brain and the rest of the body are not in sync. You may feel your body become aroused even when you don’t feel aroused emotionally or mentally, or you may feel a desire to engage in sexual activity with your partner but notice your genitals are several steps behind – perhaps you’re struggling to get an erection or not feeling as lubricated as typical. This is common and normal. In fact, research shows non-concordance as a common occurrence in all genders, with some key differences; studies that examine how a person’s reported arousal (i.e. whether they “feel” or “think” they’re aroused or turned on) matches up to their physiological arousal (i.e. whether or not there is blood flow to their genitals, or other markers in their genitals that we consider signs of “physical arousal”) have shown that men’s mental arousal matches up with their body about 65% of the time while women’s matches up about 25% of the time (Chivers et al., 2010). While it’s important to acknowledge that neither group was 100% of the time being concordant, this statistic also demonstrates how important it is for women and people assigned female at birth to understand how arousal non-concordance is incredibly common.

There are many reasons why non-concordance might happen. It could be related to hormonal imbalances, traumatic experiences, physical pain or injury, sexual shame, or even every day stressors. In her book Come As You Are, sex educator Emily Nagoski describes another common reason that many people – especially those assigned female at birth – experience non-concordance: a miscommunication between mind and body regarding the difference between “this is sex related” and “this is sexually appealing”. It’s common for us to see something is related to sex and have that stimulus cause a physiological reaction. 

An example of this may be that you’re watching a show and a sex scene happens. You may not actually feel emotionally aroused – say, you find yourself unattracted to the actors, or you are watching this with a friend which definitely puts a damper on any “mood” it might inspire – but your body might still react. This is not because you want to immediately immerse yourself in the fantasy of the show in front of you, but your body sees something that is sex related and tries to start to engine, thinking it’s time to have sex. Think back to the scenario at the beginning: you weren’t hungry looking at the commercial, but seeing pizza made your stomach activate and growl. 

Okay, but why does it matter? 

The simple answer is that knowledge about our sexuality is power – the more we understand our own bodies, the more that we can work with our bodies instead of against them. Knowing that mental and physical arousal are not always in sync allows us to understand the fact that as I’ve already mentioned, our body responding differently to a stimulus than our mind is both common and normal. When we think our body is “wrong” or acting “abnormally”, this creates shame – one of the biggest barriers I see to my clients having happy and fulfilling sex lives. 

The more complicated answer comes into play when we’re looking at sexual trauma. Unfortunately, a common myth around sexual violence is that our bodies reacting – a person being “wet” or “hard” – indicates consent. The science of arousal non-concordance shows us clearly that you can never assume someone is consenting because of a bodily response – you must always listen to a person’s words above all else. Along with non-concordance being a source of victim-blaming from others, people who don’t understand their own non-concordance may feel shame or blame themselves for their own responses – “Why would I ever get turned on by that?” Remember the wise teachings of Emily Nagoski: our bodies often react to what is sex related, not necessarily what is sexually desired. The natural responses our bodies go through to stimuli say nothing about who we are or what we want at any given moment, the same way that your stomach growling does not mean someone around you should immediately cook you a five course meal. 

What do you do about arousal non-concordance?

In most cases, nothing beyond understanding that it’s a typical part of sexual functioning. You may talk with your partners about it and practice talking to one another openly about sex, including when you want it and when you don’t. 

However, if you find that arousal non-concordance is severely impacting your life – be it creating a barrier to meaningful intimacy or disrupting daily functioning – then it may be a good time to consult a professional. Therapists who practice sex therapy can be great resources for processing through sexual shame and health concerns. Speaking regularly to your primary care physicians is also important for sexual health, especially since conditions similar to arousal non-concordance such as Erectile Dysfunction can be tied to cardiovascular diseases. 

No matter what you do, know that above all else, your body is normal. Oftentimes, we bully ourselves and each other by trying to pick at the ways that our bodies and our sexualities are different and wrong, but every single human body is more similar than it is different. To end with one last quote from Come As You Are:

“We know by now that there’s no such thing as normal—or rather, that we’re all normal. We’re all made of the same parts as everyone else, organized in a unique way. No two alike.”

References and Further Reading