This entire post is one big shout out to Emily Nagoski’s fascinating, belief-exploding book Come As You Are. I’d love to issue this book as compulsory reading for anyone with genitals.
Here’s one of my favourite paragraphs from the book.
So, E.L. James [author of the 50 Shades of Grey trilogy], if you’re reading this: Lubrication means it was sexually relevant, which tells us nothing about whether it was sexually appealing. Therefore I humbly request that in the next edition, Grey says to Ana, “Feel this. See how sexually relevant your body considers physical contact with your buttocks and genitals, Anastasia. That gives me no information about whether or not you liked it. Did you like it? No? Double crap, let me make it up to you by reading Emily Nagoski’s book about women’s sexual wellbeing, so that I have a clue next time. (CAYA, pg. 208)
The context behind Nagoski’s advice is arousal nonconcordance, which is beautifully illustrated in the first 50 Shades spanking scene. In this scene Nagoski draws our attention to Anastasia’s (the spank-ee’s) verbal cues and body language like trying to move away, screaming, and screwing her face up so tightly it hurts. After finishing the spanking, Christan Grey (the spank-er) puts his fingers in her vagina and feeling that it is wet, tells her that her she likes this. (Yeeesh. Skin crawling moment for me).
Now! She might like this, and absolutely, 100% sexy awesomeness to her if she does. However, as illustrated in the above quote, a wet vagina does not indicate whether Anastasia actually enjoyed the experience. The only way to decide that is by asking someone, “Are you enjoying this?”. The only thing Ana’s wet vagina indicated was that her body recognized the stimuli as sexually relevant.
And here’s the exciting part – arousal nonconcordance can go the opposite way too: you can be turned on, but your genitals aren’t lubricating / getting hard. And…..this doesn’t mean you’re broken! Or abnormal! In fact, that means you’re pretty damn normal. Lay it down, Nagoski….
There’s a 50% overlap between blood flow to a male’s genitals and how turned on he feels. There’s a 10% overlap between blood flow to a women’s genitals and how turned on she feels.
The reason for the difference is that sexually relevant (expecting) is not the same thing as sexually appealing (enjoying). In men, there’s a lot of overlap between the two, most of the time; in women, the overlap is more context dependent.
The best way to tell if a woman is aroused is to notice what her genitals are doing, but to listen to her words. (CAYA pg. 222)
Context is hugely important for female-identifying people: for something to be sexually appealing, a lot of the time that means it’s presented to you in a sexy context. Everyone’s sexy context is different, and made up from external factors and your internal state. Your sexy context will differ from encounter to encounter too, depending on all of these factors.
To make this less abstract, I’m going to give a few hypothetical examples of context.
Context 1: You’re wanting physical connection and intimate touch, feeling a bit anxious so you don’t know if you want to have sex, feeling stressed about your day and tomorrow, busy brain, really tired, cold feet.
Solutions: Put more blankets on the bed. Put socks on. Turn up the heating and close the window. Communicate to your partner that you don’t know if you want sex tonight, but you’d like to cuddle really closely and touch bodies. Name the things you’re stressed about. Ask for your hair to be stroked.
Context…..set! By recognizing what your internal and external needs are, and working towards getting them met, you’ve created a context where a sexually relevant touch can be more appealing, rather than just relevant. If the context hasn’t been addressed: feet are still cold, not feeling the closeness you want, stress still making your brain race – then it’s likely the sexually relevant touch will just register as relevant, but unwanted. If you haven’t done your context work, even if your genitals are responding with arousal, you’re more likely to shut it down.
Context 2: You’re on holiday. You’ve spent the whole day lounging on the beach with your partner, feeling warm, relaxed, happy and sexy. On the walk back to the house you’ve been touching, kissing and talking about the sexy things you’d like to do to each other. When you get back there it’s safe, warm and private. Your mind is quiet, body is open and calm, attention is all on your partner.
Solutions: none! Sexy context is already there! The requirements to feel turned on in that context have already been achieved! Arousal concordance is likely to be high here – what you perceive as sexually relevant is also going to be sexually appealing.
So, to bring it all together.
Arousal nonconcordance is a pretty common thing (like, 90% of female population and 50% of male, at some point or another). You might experience it one way: where your genitals are indicating arousal, but your brain isn’t; or the other: where your brain is indicating arousal, but your genitals aren’t.
If you find yourself in the first situation – tell your partner what’s happening for you. Partners: remember to ask. Together, figure out what context you’re looking for: maybe a sexy one, maybe one where you watch movies, maybe one where you’re by yourself and have an early night. Most important: get your internal and external needs met.
If you’re in the latter situation – use lube / toys. Return to context and see if there’s something you can tweak. Don’t beat yourself up AND don’t beat your partner up about it: how you feel about nonconcordance is as important as knowing about it. This is so normal. You are so normal. And you’re just doing fine.
(I know that SAYING “don’t beat yourself up” is much easier than DOING. So, if this is you and you’d like to know how to not beat yourself up about things to do with sex, read Come As You Are! You can get it from the library. It’s so worth it).