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Arousal Nonconcordance

Confusion of the genital response
6 Min Read
Arousal Nonconcordance
Arousal nonconcordance: The lack of overlap between genital response, such as getting wet or getting hard (the physical), and personal desire, such as liking or wanting (the psychological).

The Media

Every day, societal structures such as the American sexual education system and the media commonly provide people with inaccurate and incomplete information on what is sexually “normal.” This leaves a lot of room for confusion as people progress in their sexual experiences.

Take, for example, the movie After We Collide: There is a scene where the two main characters are about to have sex, and the female lead refers to the fact that she is not self-lubricating, or “wet” by telling her partner, “It’s not working.” The implication is that something has gone wrong — but that couldn’t be further from the truth, as equating a lack of wetness with your body “not working” perpetuates a common misunderstanding of how bodies function.

It’s not the first time pop culture has offered up contradictory examples of what sex could be: In “Fifty Shades of Grey,” the domineering love interest Christian Grey tells Anastasia Steele to explore how lubricated she is by his stimulation. “Feel this,” he says, “See how much your body likes this, Anastasia.” But Anastasia feels confused, given that she self-described the experience as both demeaning and abusive (3). So what is really going on here?

While both of these examples are female-focused, people of all genders can experience arousal nonconcordance. It is, however, important to hold space for women in particular, given that the experience is more common for women and more tightly judged, as you will come to read.

Take this information as an overview, as there is much more to discuss when it comes to physiological responses. In other words, this is not a solution for ongoing issues or abnormal changes in your body. If you are noticing something new or uncomfortable, make sure to consult a doctor.

Arousal Nonconcordance

We tend to think there is a strong overlap between physical and mental experiences. After all, the body wouldn’t cause blood to flow to a person’s genitals if they weren’t aroused, right?

Wrong: On average, there is only 50 percent of complete overlap for men and 10 percent overlap for women, a phenomenon known as nonconcordance. Basically, it’s the difference between your mind “expecting” sex, and “enjoying” it (3).

Expecting Versus Enjoying

The expecting is the body’s way of recognizing a sexual stimulus. In other words, “Genitals learn to associate certain stimuli with certain physiological responses that have nothing to do with pleasure or even interest” (1). The enjoying is when there is a true interest in the sexual context.


In one study, researchers exposed 36 women to two-minute long narratives featuring sexual content that varied from enjoyable or to violent and unwanted. The researchers found that even when participants reported arousal, their genital response was sometimes missing. Researchers also found the participants had a genital response to videos of animals, such as bonobos, having sex. This is another example of your body recognizing a sexual stimulus, even if it’s not something that is sexually desired. What’s more, some people experienced a physical response after being exposed to violent scenes or scenarios.

This isn’t so uncommon: When it comes to violent stimuli such as rape, the body often self-lubricates as a means of protection from penetration and injury (1). It’s even possible to experience an unwanted orgasm during assault as a body reflex.

While male genital response and arousal are more overlapped than female response, there is still ample room for confusion. In Come As You Are, sex researcher Emily Nagoski recounts a man walking in on an assault and getting an erection because he recognized the situation as sexually relevant — even if the assault itself is distinct from sex. And even though he might have felt emotionally distraught by what he was seeing, factors such as alcohol consumption can cause his body to react to the “expecting” factor rather than enjoyment (3).

This is why understanding a concept like arousal nonconcordance can be particularly important. If you are unaware of how the mind and bodywork, you may create unnecessary shame and fear about your perceived desires.


This information on arousal nonconcordance may feel new, but it isn’t. The concept has actually been publicized many, many times before (3). Nagoski points to the patriarchy as a key reason as to why it hasn’t stuck.

The Patriarchy and Arousal Misconceptions

Society often looks to men as the cultural “default” for understanding sexuality. Therefore, as overlap between arousal and genital response is much more likely for men than women, it is something society has considered the norm.

“If it weren’t about men-as-default, then we’d all be just as likely to wonder, ‘What's up with men, that they have so much overlap?’ as we are to wonder, ‘what's up with women, that they have so little overlap?’” Nagoski explains (3).

Society is far more likely to label women as being “broken” than it is to hold space for the ways in which women differ from men both physically and physiologically. This leads to frustration and lack of open communication between partners, as well as unintentional pressure for women’s bodies to respond a certain way. For example, male partners can sometimes insinuate that a lack of lubrication on a woman’s part is a sign of sexual disinterest, when it really is not.

This is not to say the same pressures are not placed on men as well — they are just more commonly experienced by women. However, it’s worth it for all partners to use this information to rid themselves of unnecessary and incorrect “norms.”

This isn’t the only misunderstanding about what constitutes arousal, as people consistently refer to arousal in terms of a binary: That men get “hard” and women get “wet.” This grossly misunderstands the reality of both kinds of sex organs, given that semen helps men get wet, and women often experience a hardening of the clitoris when they’re aroused.

Cues You Can More Closely Rely On:

Given that focusing on genital response isn’t the best way to decipher someone’s arousal, let’s look at other, more helpful cues:

1) Breathing: Watch for an increase in your respiratory rate and pulse. Many people also hold their breath during peak of arousal, or prior to orgasm, so you can look for that as well (3).

2) Muscular tension: The most common and reliable spots to notice are the abdomen, butt, wrists, calves, and feet (3). 

Lube, Lube, Lube

It’s important to keep lube on hand, no matter how “wet” you or your partner typically gets. If you’re looking to engage in activities such as water sex and especially anal sex, as well as having sex multiple times in one day, it’s especially crucial. However, arousal nonconcordance really showcases how necessary lube can be. It is not going to solve all the aspects of genital/arousal overlap (or lack thereof), but it definitely solves some!

When it comes down to choosing the right lube for you, experts vary on which type they recommend the most. While some people prefer silicone-based lube to water-based formulas because it dries to a more powdered texture, silicone does degrade silicone sex toys. Whichever you choose, make sure to read the ingredients. Avoid things like glycerin and nonoxynol-9, as they can be irritating or cause infections.


  1. Suschinsky, Kelly D., and Martin L. Lalumière. "Prepared for anything? An investigation of female genital arousal in response to rape cues." Psychological science 22.2 (2011): 159-165.
  2. Orenstein, Peggy. Boys & Sex: Young Men on Hook-ups, Love, Porn, Consent and Navigating the New Masculinity. Souvenir Press, 2020.
  3. Nagoski, Emily. Come as you are: The surprising new science that will transform your sex life. Simon and Schuster, 2015. 


  1. @FredericForest
  2. @FredericForest
  3. Via @AlphaChanneling
  4. Via @Mewsha