What is sexual arousal, anyway? Some research and theory

Every so often, I come across yet another documentary or opinion piece or scientific paper reporting the findings that, “Women are much less aware of their sexual arousal than men”, based on the finding that the self-reported mental state of arousal in men is much closer to the externally measurable physiological signs (e.g. blood flow to the genitalia). For instance, in the Channel 4 documentary “Undercover Doctor: Cure Me, I’m Gay” (“As a doctor who also happens to be gay, Christian … wants to discover whether or not these ‘cures’ are effective by trying them on himself.” – I want to be clear that the programme was very much against the idea that gayness can be cured!) Dr Christian Jessen accepts the Cornell test of sexual orientation (to see if the treatments worked, he’s tested at the start and end of the programme) and is told, “You’re gay; the genitals don’t lie.”

And every time I read, or watch on television, these sources, I feel angry and frustrated that the external signs are taken as “more true” than the emotional or mental sense. When I objected on one blog to this apparent dismissal of the mind in favour of the body, I was told to go and look up some search terms on “a database”. Not having access to academic databases, because those cost money I can’t afford, I used DuckDuckGo instead (a search engine that doesn’t track your searches like Google does). Of course a lot of academic papers still require exorbitant fees for download, but a few were available for free, or with enough information in the abstract to give me pointers.

What I found was that sexual arousal is defined generally in terms of sexual desire, and then in terms of the physiological and neurological preparation to act on that desire. Desire is initially described as the foundation of what arousal is. It’s only when they get down to measuring it that things start to go a bit body-essentialist.

Common usage lets sexual arousal mean both the physical signs and the emotional states. The scientific papers start by defining terms, so the signs are called “physiological” arousal, and the mental states are called “psychological” arousal. But then they slip into talking about “objective” (i.e. measurable signs) vs “subjective” (self-reported by the participants) arousal. And of course, in common usage, “objective” tends to mean “reliable”, “factual”, “more true”. Some papers even go on from this to call “objective” sexual arousal “sexual arousal”, and “subjective” arousal, “sexual desire”, thus separating from the concept of arousal the element that was originally described as its foundation.

One advice column I came across recently had a young woman writing in and saying that “I strongly desire sex, but I have no sexual arousal” and the advice-giver accepted that without questioning the idea that desire isn’t arousal.

As it turns out, I think there’s a way of splitting the “desire for sex” from “sexual desire”, in that, hypothetically, it could be that a person wants to have sex with someone else as a goal or objective, but that when they are together the immediate emotional urge or impulse to sexual behaviour is lacking: e.g. “I want to have sex, but I do not feel turned on”, as distinct from “I do not feel my crotch blazing for you” (psychological desire/arousal versus genital, and “peripheral non-genital”, arousal, as defined below). Be that as it may. But the idea points the way to how sexual arousal is more complicated than it is often presented.

A 2004 paper called “Sexual arousal: similarities and differences between men and women” by Alessandra Graziottin MD (sorry, I forgot to copy-paste the link into my notes before writing this piece – oops!) describes three layers to physiological arousal, in addition to the emotional experience of desire or lust:

  • central arousal, involving all the neurobiologically based events within the central nervous system (CNS);
  • peripheral non-genital arousal, including all the somatic non-genital responses associated with feeling excited (i.e. salivary secretion, skin vasodilatation and feeling of warmth, nipple erection, heart rate and blood pressure increase), and increase in the general neuromuscular tension;
  • genital arousal leading to erection in men, and to vaginal lubrication, clitoral and vulvar (vestibular bulb) congestion in women. The congestion involves an increase in pelvic vascular blood flow and resultant pelvic vasocongestion, vaginal engorgement, swelling of the external genitalia, and clitoral erection

Dr Graziottin goes on to note that focus is usually on male genitalia but on female emotional state, when it comes to diagnosing or researching sexual dysfunction. There is also mention of the obvious pojnt as to what extent the neurobiological arousal overlaps with the psychological and emotional experience of sexual desire.

The main purpose of looking up these papers was to tackle a question of male sexual arousal, which is that the blog writer contended that it is completely non-controversial that a male person, on experiencing erection, then feels sexually aroused, which feeds back into greater physiological arousal. I didn’t find evidence of such a feedback loop, but I did discover that men are known to use their erection to determine and report on their emotional state. Determinants of sexual arousal and the accuracy of its self-estimation in sexually functional males, credited to David H. Barlow on that link, mentions in the introduction:

Rowland and Heiman (1991) also found a substantial disparity between ratings of subjective and physiological arousal in males with erectile disorders. The authors demonstrated that contrary to men without sexual problems, men with erectile difficulties tended to rely more on mental than on physical cues to estimate their levels of subjective arousal.

Laan and Everaerd (1995) as well as Korff and Geer (1983) suggested that compared to men, women in general may rely less on physiological cues to estimate their sexual arousal, and that this fact might explain why the discordance between subjective and physiological arousal is greater among women.

And that point is something that intrigued me. For one thing, it revealed a reason why I was so sceptical in the first place. I should have known that, as with so many things, I am not a typical male. In particular, having suffered from depression for most of my adolescent and adult life, and spent a year on SSRIs, my sexual function has not been typical after all. The selection criteria for several of the papers I found on my search would have ruled me out of participating because of these facts about my medical history.

(Another reason I am sceptical is that I don’t think many teenage boys who get a “bus erection”, by which I mean one where the vibrations of the diesel engine on the bus cause a hormonal teenager to experience an erection, interprets that as proving they have sexual desire (although there’s often the fear that everyone around them will).)

The main intriguing thing for me was what these observations mean about how men and women are socialised to relate to their emotions and their bodies.

This is based largely on intuition or hypothesis, so don’t go attaching too much to it. But it’s what I currently suspect to be the case. In gender studies and feminist thinking, it is understood that men are socialised to be distant from their emotions so that negative emotions are generally experienced as anger, regardless of their origin, and positive emotions that aren’t centred on success or sex are also marginalised or regarded as effeminate. Conversely, women are socialised to be expressive of emotions but to view their bodies as “other”, or shameful.

My hypothesis is that boys and girls are taught to relate to their sexual arousal differently, in the ways outlined by Dr Graziottin. By teaching boys to measure their sexual arousal by the external signs – most notably, the erection – boys are simultaneously taught to ignore their own emotional state when considering sex, or sexual arousal. Similarly, teaching girls to focus on their emotional responses simultaneously teaches them to ignore the signals coming from their own bodies (the term for being aware of internal physiological states is “interoception” and scientists often claim their results show men are better than this; I question whether looking down and seeing an erection counts as interoception, though, and wonder whether results would be different if visual and tactile input from the genitals were denied.)

An intriguing paper called Physiological and Subjective Sexual Arousal in Self-Identified Asexual Women, by Lori A. Brotto & Morag A. Yule, has some evidence that may tie into this hypothesis. In their study, they measured subjective arousal (which they called “sexual desire”), subjective self-reporting of physiological arousal (or “subjective sexual response”), and objective measurements of physiological arousal (“psychophysiological sexual response”), for groups of women who identified as lesbian, straight, bisexual or asexual. Their results showed that objective arousal was similar between all groups, as was subjective sexual response. But, “Interestingly, concordance between genital and subjective sexual arousal was significantly positive for asexual women,and non-significant for the other groups of women,suggesting greater interoceptive awareness of genital excitement in asexual women.” Another finding, based on self-reported emotional responses (“positive affect” and “negative affect”), showed that sexual women responded emotionally on positive affect to the erotic material whereas asexual women had no response on either positive or negative affect:

This finding was consistent with previous findings, which showed that asexuals discuss sexual arousal (and masturbation) using technical, emotionally bare descriptions (Brotto et al.,2010). Asexuals provided non-sexual explanations for why they engaged in masturbation, and the latter was more associated with tension relief than with sexual pleasure.

Brotto & Yule speculate that desire follows physiological response, and that, “Perhaps the lack of sexual activity among asexuals leads them to be highly attuned to the (rare) times when they do experience genital arousal.” My speculation is that, in the absence of the emotional context by which women are normally socialised to assess their levels of arousal, asexual women are more likely to be aware of their bodies’ responses (as in, “tension relief”, etc) when assessing their awareness of physiological arousal.

Recalling that I opened by mentioning the Cornell test undertaken by Dr Christian Jessen, although the researcher said that, “The genitals don’t lie,” the element of the test that I found far more convincing was that they coupled the penile response gauge with a pupil-tracking system that measured pupil dilation and direction of gaze. During the heterosexual clip, Dr Jessen’s attention wandered all over the place, whereas when the gay men were on the screen, his pupils dilated and eyes were focussed very much on the most interesting parts of the male anatomy. If I’d been making the programme, I would have said, “‘The eyes are the window on the soul’ – and the libido!” Presumably analysing the pupils of the asexual women in the Brotto & Yule study would have shown them to be distinctly less engaged with the material than the straight women.

A study available on Scribd (unfortunately, only the first page is available for free) called The Role of Attention in Sexual Arousal: Implications for Treatmentof Sexual Dysfunction by David C. de Jong is described as a review of the current literature on attention in sexual arousal. De Jong uses a definition of sexual arousal that puts the physiological first, as the cause of rather than response to, “an emotional and motivational state” (the asexuality study discusses that it is motivation that asexual women seem to lack, rather than physiological arousal).

The part that grabbed my attention from the first page, was this:

In the subjective dimension of sexual arousal, a person experiences a private world of eroticism in which perceptions and physiological responses are infused with meaning, sexual memories are revisited, and fantasies are explored. The literature addressed in this review provides empirical support for the relevance of subjective experience to sexual response.

Here’s an interesting question. The studies that use more-or-less the same methodology, typically describe something along the lines of, “We showed a gay porn, then a straight porn, and the gay men responded to the gay porn and the straight men responded to the straight porn.” But they never say what actually happens in the porn clips they use. The only example I found was the description from the Brotto & Yule study of, “a Candida Royalle, female-friendly film consisting of progressively increasing sexual intensity of heterosexual manual genital stimulation,oral sex,and penile-vaginal intercourse clips which were spliced together and joined by accompanying background music.” Annoyingly, it doesn’t say if “oral sex” included fellatio, cunnilingus, or both. “Manual genital stimulation” could be mutual, self-performed, either or both partners.

Some things turn me on more than others. I imagine the same is true for other people. Hence, “a private world of eroticism”. If a person feels put off by the thought of someone going down on them, then viewing an oral sex clip would likely result in lowered interest and lower subjective arousal. I understand that some gay men aren’t into anal sex, but perhaps do enjoy giving or revceiving blowjobs. And so on.

For me, sex in and of itself is boring to watch. I need meaning, and frankly, I need there to be some element of BDSM – either power play (which term I use to encompass bondage as well as verbal or tactile control) or pain play (including psychological events such as humiliation play) – for it to interest me. Another reason why I would be unsuited to the typical sexual response studies, I suppose.

Clarisse Thorn, sex educator and author, wrote about her long journey to discovering her own sexual response (and specifically, orgasm). From Part 7: Figuring It Out:

On some level, even if it’s the most tissue-thin fantasy, I usually have to convince my emotional-sexual self that I’m not in charge. It helps if I have an emotional connection with whoever I’m fantasizing about, too. If I don’t have an emotionally involved romantic partner, I seem to automatically create BDSM-themed fantasy worlds with hilariously ornate storylines. Years ago, it never occurred to me that I couldn’t reach orgasm because my internal characters weren’t compelling or my plotlines weren’t dramatic enough … but sometimes it’s true!

In January, Pandora Blake (whose feminist spanking porn site comes highly recommended) wrote about being asked to watch some “women friendly” porn for an article by FHM (a “lads’ mag”) with another woman, Lucy:

I was intrigued to hear about Lucy’s tastes. I think it was the first time that either of us had talked about our porn-viewing habits within minutes of meeting someone, but I’ve always been happy being open about this sort of thing, and Lucy is not exactly a shrinking violet. She mostly watched free clips on tube sites, preferably quite rough, anonymous, gonzo style fucking with lots of closeups. She told me this with an air of apology, expecting me to judge her for her taste. Instead I returned her confidence with the admission that I like to watch free gay male porn videos on Tumblr and RedTube, preferably rough anal with an abusive daddy/boy flavour. (Actually, now I think about it, that may not have been as reassuring as I hoped.)

As we began to explore our host’s selection of “female friendly” porn, I was assessing what I was seeing on two levels. My first interest was in observing whether the material actually aroused me or not, while being aware that this was unlikely, given the artificiality of the situation, and the fact that none of our viewing material involved e.g. spanking, BDSM or gay rape.

Blake, similar to Thorn in this, describes herself as a “plot fetishist”. So, um, how do you control for that sort of relationship to the viewed material? Blake admits, “I don’t know if much of what we watched pressed either of our involuntary arousal buttons, as it were” (the scientists would presumably guess “yes”). But it seems a fair guess that if you show porn that does match the “usual tastes” of your subjects, then it’s going to be more arousing than if it doesn’t. And it’s going to hold the attention of the subject. Pandora Blake, again:

For instance, we agreed that we wanted to see rougher, more vigorous sex than many of the scenes portrayed; something with a sense of urgency, a touch of violence. A lot of what we watched seemed to show slow, sweet sex, and we were constantly clicking ahead to find something with a bit more energy.

(My added emphasis.)

If you put more-or-less vanilla sex on a screen in front of me, I’m just not that interested unless I can superimpose some kind of power dynamic and storyline onto it. Like Blake and Thorn, I want an elaborate storyline involving power, emotion and sometimes peril.

When I wrote last month about fantasy vs erotic short story, I wrote the following:

When I want to feel turned on, whether that’s masturbating or just the brain-buzz from sensual/sexual arousal, I can, of course, use visual porn or read something written by someone else.

Masturbation is about the direct genital arousal. But “brain-buzz” and “sensual arousal” must be the same as those “central” and “non-genital” aspects that I quoted from Dr Graziottin. Specifically, what I was expressing there is that, for me, the experience of arousal is more about those aspects in a physiological sense, than it is about my genitals. (So, another reason why I might not be considered a “normal” male!) In part, I think this is related to my BDSM identity. I feel most turned-on by being a top or Dominant, but it doesn’t always trigger genital response. (The same is true of anal play, which I find extremely hot but it doesn’t matter how lovely that thing in my butt feels, I don’t get a hard-on.) I do feel other kinds of turned-on, though, throughout my body and in my mind. For instance, I don’t get an erection from watching spanking videos, but I feel extremely hot and aroused from it. My attention would definitely be on that beautiful bouncing bum. Genital sexual arousal, for me, has been reliable in sexual encounters, but develops from the BDSM as well as expectation of genital contact. (When watching porn, I haven’t worked out what makes my penis stand up automatically for some clips, and not for others, but I think it’s most likely to happen when I start spinning off my own fantasies and storylines). I would love to see studies of kink versus ‘nilla across gay/straight/bi groups and clips, for spanking porn as the stimulation (researchers – buy them from Pandora Blake!). Maybe those studies exist, and if so, links to summaries/free access would be welcomed.

This brings me back to where I started, which was a feeling of anger and frustration that the physiological is treated as “objective” and “more true” than the psychological or self-reported arousal. My last point for this piece is to ask why I feel that way.

The reason, I believe, is that I have a more general nightmare, related to “big data”, surveillance society, and so on, of a world in which I will say I feel one way and the computers will say I am lying or mistaken, and everyone else will believe the computer and not me. My internal feelings and emotions will be irrelevant because they “know” that I will like X and dislike Y, even if I repeatedly say I hate X and love Y, so I will forever be condemned to X. I haven’t read Kafka, so I hesitate to use that as an analogy. On the other hand, I suspect watching and reading tons of science fiction, including dystopian worlds, throughout my life may also have something to do with these fears. As luck would have it, Friday’s Basic Instructions webcomic illustrates this neatly, with the first panel. Of course, the fears may also be linked to the various ways in which I differ from the norm, and have in the past found my niche un-catered for.

In a general sense, it is about wanting people to take me at my word when I report my emotional states. In specific terms, there is also a fear of being raped or sexually assaulted, and not believed because of some autonomic response (for instance, waking up with a stiffie and that being taken as consent to sexual contact – a form of sexual assault that has been used by male comedians as fodder for their jokes). There are far too many instances of women reporting rape only to be disbelieved because of physiological evidence of arousal (even though the science, as described above, shows that women respond physiologically to most stimuli regardless of interest in sex).

“Yes Means Yes and No Means No.” A wet cunt doesn’t mean yes. An erect penis doesn’t mean yes. They indicate a readiness for sexual activity, but not a desire or motivation. That’s why I object to constructions that regard a discrepancy between psychological and physiological arousal as meaning that the person is “unaware” of their arousal. The use of “objective”, while technically correct (as in, we can objectively measure how engorged a penis or vaginal wall is but not what someone’s emotional state is), is problematic because it implies that this gives the “true” measure of arousal and therefore how a person is, or ought, to be feeling. In terms of social justice, and actually functioning in the world, it is far more useful to understand and accept as valid people’s self-reported states of arousal rather than to trust the readings on a machine.


The most obvious thing to draw from this is that I am very much not a typical male when it comes to sexual responses. Which identifying as genderfluid, bisexual, kinky-as-all-get-out probably should have told me already. But hey. Some other things that may place me outside the norm are my history of depression and having taken SSRIs to treat it, which leave me now less interested in achieving orgasm as part of sexual behaviour because for a while it was an unrealistic aim (since SSRIs tend to suppress the ability to do so, and depression tends to suppress all motivational feelings).

Conclusions that relate to more than just me: whatever we mean by sexual arousal, it’s a complicated thing. With three levels of physiological measures plus the psychological desire and attention, plus the question of motivation, there’s not always an easy way to answer the question “Is that person sexually aroused?” One thing that we might say is that an intention to have sex need not lead to sexual arousal. Similarly, sexual arousal does not have to mean intention (or willingness) to have sex (for a broad definition of sex).

The tendency to treat external or physiological signs as “objective” arousal has to be seen as socially problematic, and constituting a form of objectification that marginalises the subjective experience and choices of men and women.

My belief is that differences in reported sexual arousal may be socialised, and that men become alienated from their emotional arousal states while women become alienated from their bodily arousal states. This hypothesis is untested but ties in to broader feminist thought about gender role socialisation. When the typical socialised measures are absent (men with erectile dysfunction, women who don’t respond emotionally to purely sexual stimuli), men and women become more in touch with the other elements. I would be interested to see research that shows how other identities (for example, “stone“, “kinky”, etc) affect these results.

The research I uncovered seems to accept a vanilla or standardised view of sexual behaviour as “arousing”. While standardised stimulation is obviously necessary for a properly controlled test, individuals have particular interests or points of engagement that are peculiar to them and may not match the standardised presentation. Points of preferred activities, plot-preference (as in, how much, and what sort of storyline), preferred features (while human attraction is often theorised as being relatively uniform, there are many ways in which people’s preferences differ from the “norm” generated by research into attraction), and so on, may all affect what constitutes psychological arousal, and may also affect physiological responses (although that effect seems likely to be smaller, especially with the observed non-specificity in women’s physiological responses).

This, in turn, leads to the overall fear that claims to an “objective” measure of sexual arousal lend themselves to a situation where a person’s internal, emotional experience of desire and motivation is overridden by social norms or individuals (particularly those in powerful positions relative to the person). As a person who in various ways lies outside of the norms (see my first point), this is particularly frightening to me, personally. It is also a point on which those who tend to have relatively less power in society would generally have cause to be concerned.

My inclination is to trust the person’s self-reporting and uphold the validity of how each individual feels about what has happened to them. That means that the most relevant and reliable data is self-reported sexual arousal, in terms of desire and motivation. This is most important in terms of interpersonal and social relationships between humans, and in terms of individuals seeking self-actualisation. The role of science should be helping people to unite, and understand the relationships between, their mental states and their physiological responses to achieve desired goals.

Which is to say, exactly as much sex of exactly the intensity (from sweet and gentle to mindblowing/vigorous/rough) that they wish for (which, in the case of asexual folks, is likely to be very little).


About ValeryNorth

I overthink everything.
This entry was posted in Body, Gender, Kink, Politics, Science, Sex and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to What is sexual arousal, anyway? Some research and theory

  1. Pingback: Gender, online roleplay and media | Valery North - Writer

  2. Pingback: Retrospective: Some highlights of my 2014 blogging | Valery North - Writer

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