Episode 209 – Sexual Barometers

sexual arousal

One of the questions I see the most in Facebook groups I follow is, “How do I know if my partner is turned on?” But I think that what they really want to know is the opposite. They want to know why their partner isn’t showing the outward signs of arousal like an erection or wetness. Let’s talk about what some studies have found about the difference between men and women when it comes to how our bodies react to stimuli and how our brain reacts. Because, as with most things, they are very different.

Show Notes:

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References for this episode:

Come As You Are by Emily Nagasaki

Sex At Dawn by Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jethá

Show Summary:

A topic that comes up a lot in facebook groups I am in, questions from clients and followers is, “How do I know if my partner is turned on?” But often it’s actually the reverse of that.  It’s assuming that our partner isn’t turned on because the outward signs aren’t there or they are wavering.  For example, women often assume that if their husband doesn’t have an erection or if his erection goes away, then he is not turned on by them, not aroused, not ready to engage, bored, tired, or uninterested.  On the flip side, men often assume that if women aren’t well lubricated or dry out during, that they too are uninterested, or not aroused.

As humans, many of us also assume that *if* the outward signs are there, then our partner wants sex or is ready to engage.  I hear of a lot of women who often assume that just because their partner has an erection, that means that he wants sex, expects sex, and therefore they have to have sex. Again, on the flip side, if a woman is wet, then a man often assumes that she wants it.  This misinformation can even go so far that women who have been sexually assaulted have been accused of actually wanting it because they are wet or even have an orgasm during the assault.

It is generally believe that genital response and sexual arousal are one and the same.  They are not.   These errors about what constitutes a person being turned on or not perpetuate dangerous cultural myths about sexuality.  The errors described here, the myth that genital response = sexual arousal is called non-concordance.

In 2006, psychologist Meredith Chivers set up an experiment where she showed a variety of sexual videos to men and women, both straight and gay.  The videos included a wide range of possible erotic configurations: man/woman, man/man, woman/woman, lone man masturbating, lone woman masturbating, a muscular guy walking naked on a beach, and a fit woman working out in the nude.  To top it all off, she also included a short film clip of bonobos mating.

While the subjects watched the varied erotic videos, they had a keypad where they could indicate how turned on they felt.  In addition, their genitals were wired up to a device that measures blood flow to the genitals, which is a surefire indicator that the body is getting aroused.

What did Chivers find?  Men were fairly consistent with the keypad what they were feeling in their body.  Straight men were turned on by anything with a naked woman and gay men were turned on with anything involving a naked man.  Women, on the other hand, were not consistent.  Women were turned on by just about everything they saw on the screen, regardless of sexual orientation, even the bonobos.  But unlike the men, many of the women reported on the keypad that they were not turned on.  The mind and the genitals did not match up at all. (Sex at Dawn pg 272-273)

A different but similar study found that there will be about 50% overlap between men’s genital response and his subjective arousal, which is pretty high.  Women will only have about a 10% overlap.  Women have almost no predictive relationship between how aroused she feels and how much her genitals response. (Come as You Are pg 193-194). So what does this tell us?  Men’s genitals are relatively specific in what they respond to, and so are their brains.  Women’s genitals are relatively general in what they respond to, while their brains are more sensitive to context. 

On March 27, 1998, the FDA approved the use of the drug Viagra to help men with impotence.  Viagra increases blood flow to the genitals during sexual stimulation.  But what happens when a woman takes a medication that increases blood flow to her genitals?  Not a lot.  Yes, she has more blood flow, but because her desire depends more on context, her genitals may be aroused, but her brain may not be.  Non-concordance!

According to the book Come As You Are, “non concordance is about the relationship between the peripheral system – the genitals – and the central nervous system – the brain: two separate but interconnected systems.  And the relationship between these systems is different for women and men.”

I’m sure most men can attest that they have had many unwanted erections in their life. They’ve had an erection when their brain is screaming “This is NOT ok!”  There have also probably been times when they were significantly turned on and the erection didn’t come for some reason.  Genital response is not desire, it is simply response.

Same for women.  There are times when we are well lubricated and yet what is happening in our brains is not sexually appealing.  It’s just simply a response.  Like a sexual assault.  The line “you said no but your body said yes” has been used against women time and time again.  Just because your body has a response, doesn’t mean you want it.

Sex researcher Meredith Chivers often says “Genital response is not consent.”  So just because your partner has an erection or is well lubricated does not mean that you have the go ahead.

So if an erection, lubrication, and even orgasms aren’t a barometer for sexual interest or arousal, what is?  The answer is communication.  Communicating with your spouse if they are interested, if they are turned on, if they are ready to proceed.  In previous episodes we have talked about consent.  And not only having consent to begin (because just because you are married doesn’t give you consent to do whatever you want whenever you want) but it’s also about having consent all along the way.  Checking in with your partner and asking them where they are.  

It’s also about understanding what is normal for you and your partner’s bodies.  It’s normal for a man to lose an erection during an encounter because the blood needs to recirculate.  A woman may not be lubricated for many reasons, age, time of the month, certain medicines, dehydration.  So asking where your partner is really the only way to understand where they are; mentally, physically, and emotionally.  

This is why it is so important that we are willing to have these hard conversations.  That we are willing to be open and vulnerable.  We also need to understand the stories that our brain often tells us that just aren’t true. Often we are making assumptions that cause so much pain and anguish and we really have no idea if they are true or not.  And just because our spouse is thinking or feeling a certain way (once we’ve talked to them to understand) then we can also talk to them and ask if they want that to change.  Maybe they do, maybe they don’t.  But understanding them in this new way is definitely going to help create more intimacy in your marriage.

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