There is a myth that genital response equals desire and pleasure, a myth that both porn and mainstream culture continue to perpetuate. But again, this is just a myth. Put simply: genital response ≠ desire & pleasure. This is what is known as arousal nonconcordance and is one of the most important things we can learn about and share when it comes to sex.
According to Emily Nagoski in her book “Come As You Are”, nonconcordance is about the relationship between the peripheral system and the central system which are two separate but interconnected systems.1 In the case of arousal nonconcordance this is between the genitals (the peripheral system) and the brain (the central system).
As Nagoski explains in her book, men experience a 50% overlap between genital response and subjective arousal. This means that there is a predictive relationship between how aroused a man feels and how much his genitals respond, half of the time.
In women however, there is only a 10% overlap between genital response and her subjective arousal, which means that there is literally no predictive relationship between how aroused a woman feels and how much her genitals respond.
Firstly, knowing about arousal nonconcordance can help us understand the menstrual cycle & perimenopause
When hormones are low we tend to experience vaginal dryness even if we are sexually excited. So if you have a partner who associates wetness with desire and pleasure this could lead to some confusion.
On the other hand around ovulation when our hormones peak we may experience an uncontrollable wetness.2 But a woman’s wetness does not correlate with pleasure or desire. Which brings me on to my next point…
Not understanding arousal nonconcordance can lead to gaslighting. If a partner recognises and articulates what they want and like and their partner told them they were wrong because of how their genitals were responding, this, according to Negoski, is gaslighting.
Finally, arousal nonconcordance reminds us that genital response is not consent. In a case presented by Nagoski in her TedTalk “The Truth About Unwanted Arousal” (which everyone should watch)3 a victim experienced orgasms and “the perpetrator’s lawyer made sure the jury knew about those orgasms because he thought the orgasms could be construed as consent”.
But the truth is, as she says, “Genital response just means it was a sex-related stimulus; doesn’t mean it was wanted or liked, certainly doesn’t mean it was consented to”
I want to finish just as Nagoski does in her TedTalk by asking you to have one brave conversation.
To explain arousal nonconcordance to someone you know who has experienced sexual violence, to anyone who might sit on a jury in a sexual assault case, to the confused teenager in your life who is just trying to figure out what is happening.
Say “Genital response means it’s a sex-related stimulus.It doesn’t mean it was wanted or liked.”
And finally, explain it to your partner. Say “My genitals do not tell you what I want or like. I do!”