It has a name.
Have you ever headed back to your date’s place after a sultry night out, ready to have a good time — only to struggle getting there physically? The connection is there, but you just cannot get yourself aroused no matter how much you want to. You might be left feeling embarrassed at this momentary impotence, kicking yourself for potentially signaling to the other party that you just aren’t that into them when it couldn’t be further from the truth. The technical term for this feeling is arousal non-concordance, which is essentially the disconnect between the mental or emotional response and the body’s response to sexual stimuli. In addition to the aforementioned scenario, arousal non-concordance can also refer to the opposite effect — when the body is responding physically to sexual activity or touches (vaginal lubrication, for example) but the desire is not there or the mind is saying no.
Sexual wellness educator Catriona Lygate explains that while people often tend to use the words “desire” and “arousal” interchangeably, there is a marked difference between the two. By her definition, sexual arousal is a physical state of being, and something one can sometimes not have conscious control over. Desire on the other hand, is psychological. We can desire a second scoop of ice cream after dinner, less work hours, or the neighbor three doors down. This is a conscious want individuals do have control over.
Learning and understanding the desire-arousal distinction are crucial in troubleshooting any issues in communication. Culturally, many are socialized to believe that talking about sexual likes and dislikes is awkward, embarrassing, and unnecessary; that if sexual chemistry is present, the people involved will naturally know how to please each other. In practice, this is not always the case. Arousal actually involves a tricky combination of many contextual factors such as your mood, headspace, your emotions about the relationship with the other person(s), and distinct turn-ons that play on your senses like smell, taste, and touch.
Researcher and author Emily Nagoski popularized the term arousal non-concordance in 2015 when she first published Come As You Are; however this phenomenon has existed for as long as humans have been getting busy. To describe how sexual response works, in her book, Nagoski goes into the dual control model which involves a gas pedal and a brake. Any time your brain receives information that’s even slightly sex-related (like right now), it sends a signal varying in intensity to “hit the gas” and feel arousal. Simultaneously, your brain is also hitting the brakes based on all the external factors in the moment that may indicate it’s a bad idea to be turned on right now. She explains that being turned on relies on so much subjective messaging from our environment.
Many have been in situations where they might not be in the mood for any sexual activity, but a caress or knowing touch in the right spot can elicit an instant response from their body. You might not want to become intimate, but physical changes can be interpreted otherwise. After understanding arousal non-concordance (the disconnect between mind and body reactions), however, it is evident that bodily arousal is not always an indicator as to whether someone wants to initiate or continue sexual acts.
Nagoski actually digs into this further in a blogpost subsequent to her 2015 book, stating that genital response is, again, not primarily about desire or pleasure but sexual “relevance” (meaning presence of sexual stimuli). The stimulation that gets our bodies going in any given moment might be unwanted, but it has no true bearing on one’s sexual fantasies. If bodily arousal appears to be a false “green light” as previously mentioned, then arousal non-concordance is the yellow, signaling that it’s time to slow down and have a conversation. “It is crucial to know and remind yourself that you are not broken, damaged, or flawed if you experience arousal non-concordance,” shares psychologist and certified sex therapist Dr. Kate Balestrieri.
What if the roles are reversed and it’s your partner who is aroused but verbally communicates they do not want to proceed? Listen and respect their limits. Dr. Balestrieri says, “Make note of the context in which you experience non-concordance, so you can be more readily prepared to discuss with a partner, set boundaries that align with your mental and emotional desire, and remain convicted of your own truth about non-consensual experiences.” And if your partner is not aroused but verbally communicates they do want to proceed? Focus on their pleasure. Use this time to ask them what they desire and focus on their erogenous zones during foreplay.
For any instances of arousal non-concordance, the lesson here is to always communicate. If you are experiencing this issue in any form, confiding that information is important to establish understanding between you and your partner. It doesn’t have to ruin the vibe — this is the perfect opportunity to learn something new about each other by offering an alternative. Perhaps this moment helps you realize some sexual trauma ignored early on is resurfacing, and thus preventing you from feeling comfortable enough to take that next step of intimacy. “It can be helpful to work with a sex therapist or to seek assistance from an OB/GYN or urologist if you experience arousal non-concordance frequently, or if you feel distress as a result, especially if you have a history of trauma and feel confused by your body’s reaction,” Balestrieri recommends.
At a time where sex seems on everyone’s minds after months of isolation and anxiety, talking about arousal non-concordance may ease any apprehension one might have about sexual satisfaction and can create realistic expectations when meeting someone new. Remember that genital response does not always equal sexual desire, and you should be looking for clear, verbal consent before getting down to business. Any temporary awkwardness is better than misconstruing what your sexual partner wants at that moment, and communication is key to making your partner feel safe and comfortable. Context is crucial when getting in the right frame of mind to set the mood, so don’t be shy — ask what your partner wants! When both pleasure and desire are present for all parties, it’s a guaranteed great time.