The Great Arousal Mismatch: When Bodies and Brains Don't Line Up
amanda replies:My boyfriend and I were making out, and I decided I wanted to go further and have oral sex with him. We discussed it before I did it and we both agreed it was the right time. As I was about to do it, I realized he was still soft. He was a little embarrassed by it, and I reassured him. But now I’m worrying it had something to do with me?
So I have a girlfriend and we have tried to have sex a few times, and at the beginning of it- when we work into from kissing/ touching I’m erect and when I receive oral sex I’m usually also erect but once we’re about to begin vaginal sex I tend to get flaccid enough to where I can’t go in- I don’t think I have ED because I get a lot of erections from nowhere like a normal teenager and when I masturbate I’m also always erect but I can’t seem to make it work with my partner. Please help.
“In general, my libido is really high compared to my girlfriend’s, which is lower. I feel like it’s so easy to get turned on when I'm around her but sometimes I don't even want to have sex. It's suuuuper frustrating when I just want to hang out and enjoy our time together. I was wondering, is there any way to lower my sex drive?“
Ah, if only there were a switch for body parts that we could turn on and off at will, so that we could get everything to behave at just the right times and in just the ways we wanted.
It’s an inconvenient truth that sometimes our bodies are or aren’t ready for sex when we would, or would NOT, like them to be. Erections can pop up when the owner of said penis would really rather they didn’t, or won’t show up when their presence has been kindly requested. Vaginal lubrication may be operating in slow-mo even though the person with the vagina is seriously ready for some penetration, like NOW! What’s up, genitals?
Emily Nagoski, a sex researcher, coined the term “arousal discordance” to describe this. Arousal discordance means that physiological (in this case, bodily) and mental arousal don’t match up at the same time. This can go in either direction: you can want sex mentally but your body may not be ready, or your body might be raring to go even though you don’t actually want to have sex.
As for why this mismatch happens? There are a number of reasons. First, let’s cover the situation where your body isn’t quite ready for action.
In the Case of the Missing Erection, even though a person might really want to have sex, a penis may not be ready for action because of anxiety or stress, medications, tiredness, pressure, feeling distracted...you name it. Just because someone can’t get hard doesn’t mean that something is wrong with their partner or that they don’t want sex. It also doesn’t mean a wild erection won’t appear later on! Taking your time, talking to your partner, trying some other sexy activities out, and removing any pressure for an erection can all help.
If this has happened a few times, it might also become a bit of a learned response, as in, “I lost my erection the last few times we tried to have intercourse...what if it happens again this time?” Boom: stress and pressure, an erection’s worst enemies. Relax and try different things, and remember that sex can be so much more than intercourse. Even if the erection doesn’t show up, there’s still lots of pleasure to be had by both parties.
As for vaginas, we’ve covered before in detail why vaginas may not be as wet as one would like for sex. Even the most sexually aroused vagina-owner may occasionally, or even regularly, find themselves quite dry. Fortunately there’s an easy solution here: LUBE. All the lube. Don’t be shy. Needing lube isn’t a sign of failure on your body’s part, and there’s nothing wrong with using it for masturbation or any kind of sex. Even if you need it every time. In addition to lubrication, vaginas also relax and loosen up in preparation for sex. If that tightness isn’t going away, be patient and take your time (and again! lube!). For people with vaginismus the tightness may be incredibly painful; in that case, visit your gynecologist.
What about when your body is ready to go even though you do NOT want to have sex? Arousal is a normal part of the sexual response cycle, and your body isn’t doing anything wrong by gearing up - though it can certainly be inconvenient. This tends to happen most often during puberty, when a high-octane mix of hormones is prepping your body for All The Sex (at least, it thinks it is); this usually settles down with age. In the meantime, when this happens, try not to be annoyed or upset with your body. It’s just doing what it thinks it’s supposed to do, and it doesn’t deserve any negative feelings from you. Acknowledge your arousal and then distract yourself, wait for it to go away, or (if appropriate) you can masturbate for some relief.
Understanding arousal discordance is particularly important in the context of sexual assault. Sometimes, a person being assaulted will have a bodily response such as an erection or lubrication, or even orgasm, during assault or rape. This is then used by the abuser or anyone else as justification for why it couldn’t have been rape. “They had an orgasm; why would that happen if they really didn’t want it?” and “They were hard so they must have been enjoying it,” are just a couple of examples. But as we’ve covered, arousal does NOT mean interest, desire, or consent for sex. That’s why communication is so important. If your partner is hard and/or wet, you need to check with them to make sure they actually want to have sex - aka, get consent. If they say no even though their body seems ready, you have to respect their wishes and stop. Sex is so, so much better when everyone’s brains AND bodies are on board.
Some related stuff:
- How do I make these erections stop!?!
- The Roundup of “I Get an Erection When …” Questions
- Why can't I get it up?
- He couldn't get it up: is it because of me?
- What's With Being Wet from That?
- Why don't I self-lubricate enough?
- Ethical Horniness, Or How To Find A Partner In An Enthusiastic Consent World