In Nonconcordant Arousal Lies Freedom

“Lovers in the Evening” by Constantin Somov, 1910. Based on her facial expression, I wonder if she’s experiencing some arousal nonconcordance?

New to this blog post series? Check out the rest of my blog posts making a case for sex education for all.

Okay, let’s say you have acquired some basic knowledge about sex (no thanks to the efforts of those trying to keep young people in the dark). You’ve probably learned that hard penis and wet vagina = signs of being turned on.*

In her book Come As You Are: The Surprising New Science That Will Transform Your Sex Life, Emily Nagoski, Ph.D., describes this as the “standard narrative” about sex and arousal. She writes: “As far as most porn, romance novels, and even sex education texts are concerned, genital response and sexual arousal are one and the same” (192).

The fact that youth (and adults) are getting messages that both idealize and normalize arousal concordance (which is the assumption that genital expression guarantees your own experience of pleasure) means that it’s vital to address this issue in sex education materials, for both adults and youth. Because, as Nagoski points out in her book, believing that arousal concordance is universal can have pretty awful consequences for folks who don’t experience it.

Before I go into those, feel free to hop over to Nagoski’s website for this 2-minute video explaining what arousal nonconcordance is (she also goes into the gender gap, mentioning the results of research demonstrating that women experience nonconcordance more than men do).

According to Nagoski, there are some huge problems with how our culture makes arousal concordance the norm: it conflates genital response with being turned on, and it assumes that genital response means you’re enjoying it.

Wait… there’s a difference between being turned on, and enjoying what’s happening? YES. Genital response in both men and women means that your body is like, “hey, this is sexually relevant, better get that blood flow going and those juices pumping.” It has nothing to do with whether your mind is engaged, on board, excited, teased, tantalized, or aroused.

This can lead to tons of problems for people, wherein experiences that are not inherently problematic (getting a boner when you don’t feel aroused; or being in the midst of sexy-times that you’re enjoying, but your body’s not responding “the right way” by showing signs of arousal) are pathologized and made to seem wrong. Nagoski presents a handful of examples in her book, and the ones about women’s experiences really resonated with me, because I’ve experienced arousal nonconcordance and felt ashamed of it. It’s pretty common for women, apparently, but apart from Nagoski and a handful of other sex educators, no one’s getting out the word that there’s nothing wrong with you, you’re not broken, if you experience this. Chalk this up to another way in which our culture doesn’t do a good job of accommodating for how female sexuality is a bit different from male sexuality; overall they’re quite similar, but more women experience nonconcordance than men, but we get shamed for it because cultural understandings are usually predicated on male models.

Additionally, arousal nonconcordance can intersect with and amplify the messages of rape culture, leading to victim-blaming if the person being assaulted has any kind of bodily response. More people are taking the view that when a woman is raped, lubrication can be the body’s way of protecting itself from damage, but if we throw in Nagoski’s work on nonconcordance, we can also state that the body is simply recognizing that there’s something happening that’s sexually relevant, and reacting accordingly. It’s a value-neutral statement, because we’re working to uncouple pleasure (the subjective part of the experience) from arousal (the physiological part of the experience).

Similarly, as Nagoski points out in her book, if a man experiences genital arousal upon seeing a sexual act that he finds repulsive, it’s not evidence that he actually likes or enjoys it. But – thanks again, rape culture! – he might perceive it that way. Nagoski’s anecdote of a male friend who walked in on a guy raping an unconscious woman at a college party, and just left, demonstrates this. The man was too horrified and ashamed at his own experience of arousal, when clearly he was against rape, that he removed himself from the situation instead of intervening. What might’ve happened instead if he’d known about arousal nonconcordance?

(Also, thanks to rape culture, there’s a tendency to view male-on-female rape as the only kind of rape that happens, while actually men can be raped, and women can be the ones raping and assaulting. Just thought I’d mention that. There’s some evidence that male victims of sexual abuse also experience genital arousal during it, so getting out the message of nonconcordance benefits people in these positions, too.)

As a cultural scholar, I know that making information about nonconcordance more widely available might be impeded by cultural lag, or that thing that happens when some parts of a culture change quicker than others. The resulting lag is often noticeable in folklore and expressive culture, since the narratives and beliefs that have become “traditional” stick around as long as they resonate with people, even if people might not fully agree with them (people are complex; who knew?!).

What can we do? Talk about it. Destigmatize the idea that if your genitals and your mind aren’t on the same page, there’s something wrong with you. Break the association between physical arousal and subjective pleasure. Use your words when you’re with a partner, making sure they know what you perceive as arousing, and that they should go with what you say in addition to – or perhaps instead of – how your body responds. Read Nagoski’s book, if you’re so inclined (I know I loved it; some sections totally blew my mind). Above all, keep advocating for the right of everyone to accurate, shame-free sex ed!

*Among the other problems with the hard penis/wet vagina model of arousal concordance, intersex and trans individuals are made invisible. All the more reason to think expansively about arousal!

Why Can’t We Just Talk About Sex?

I’m annoyed at our sex-phobic culture a lot of the time, for a lot of reasons, but today it’s specifically because we consider it taboo to talk about sex outside of a few limited contexts.

When is it okay to talk about sex? Presumably with one’s partner(s) – though in the mainstream culture it’s assumed that in order to talk about sex you’re heterosexually married and pursuing sexual activities as a way to procreate. And in theory you should be able to discuss sex with your medical professionals, especially if you’re experiencing a disorder that’s sexual in nature (genital pain, trying to conceive, etc.).

Otherwise, there aren’t many socially acceptable venues in which to openly and honestly discuss sex. And I think that’s a problem. For one thing, it perpetuates the idea that sex is shameful, because we must keep it a secret. For another, it prevents people from benefitting from the experience and wisdom of others. Nobody automatically knows how to have great sex. It’s not a gene that gets passed along. It’s not a magical chemistry that sparks between you and the right person (despite Hollywood depictions). Yes, you can have amazing chemistry with someone that causes you to have phenomenal sex with them the first time – but if it’s happening intuitively, you can’t replicate it easily, or at least consciously.

Being able to talk about sex means learning how to enjoy sex, and also how to identify when things aren’t going so great. Sometimes situations can be physically or emotionally abusive without being obvious about it (take, for instance, the fact that one in four men in Southeast Asia admitted to committing rape when different phrases were used to describe coercive sex). And since we unfortunately lack any kind of institutionalized, evidence-based sex education, a lot of knowledge about sex and relationships (both the good and bad aspects) must come from firsthand experience, friends, and the media.

Let’s face it. Most people are already curious about sex. As MSP blogger Kate points out in this excellent blog post on how a sense of curiosity can enhance your sex life, we can harness our innate curiosity to help transformation those initial awkward conversations into invitations to explore. I think a big part of nurturing curiosity about sex is simply being able to talk about it – and not just to prospective partners, but to other people in our lives (assuming it’s appropriate to be discussing sex with them; to me, this excludes children and other relationships where there is a power imbalance, but other people might have different boundaries).

I like to make sure that my friends and acquaintances know that I’m available to talk about sex if they want to start a judgment-free conversation about it. I think it can be helpful to share your experiences with someone if you want reassurance that a particular interaction was normal or healthy, or if you want advice on how to change some aspect of it.

I get that not everyone likes to discuss their sex life with others, or thinks it’s ever appropriate. Those people don’t have to. I’m not trying to create a society where every conversation has to revolve around sex. I just wish it were more acceptable, more of the time, to recognize that sex is a significant part of many people’s lives, and thus should be a legitimate conversational topic outside of the bedroom and the doctor’s office.

Teaching Relationships Empowers Everyone

In this installment of my The Case for Sex Ed blog post series, I’m going to address how teaching the basics of equitable relationships as part of a sex education curriculum can improve the lives of teens and everyone.

When we talk about relationships there’s a tendency to assume that we mean sexual and/or romantic relationships. Cue freaking out, because apparently talking to teens about anything sexual apparently is the same as telling them to go do it. But everyone is in relationships, all the time, most of them platonic. We all relate to our family members, teachers, friends, mentors, coworkers, acquaintances, hobby-sharers, and more. And if there’s one thing I’ve learned as a sex educator, it’s that solid communication, relationship, and ethical principles tend to apply across multiple categories. If you should be honest and empathetic with your friends, that’ll probably work in your relationships too. So in teaching about relationship skills and communication, we teach life skills that apply more broadly.

In sex educator Al Vernacchio’s (yes, he of the fantastic sex as pizza metaphor) new book, For Goodness Sex: Changing the Way We Talk to Teens About Sexuality, Values, and Health, he addresses teen relationships as a major area needing more education and attention.

Vernacchio guides his students through the process of figuring out how their values impact their relationship needs and wants over time, stating: “It’s also important for kids to know that some deal makers and deal breakers can change as we grow. Others will remain set in stone no matter what our age. Thinking about our individual deal makers and deal breakers in relationships is an evolving process. We continually need to call them to mind, evaluate them, and make adjustments when necessary” (80). This is excellent advice, and I wish I’d had more of this guidance growing up.

Another of Vernacchio’s points is that there are multiple ways in which teens are subjected to inaccurate and harmful messages about power and symmetry in relationships, from the media as well as the dynamics they observe around them. According to Vernacchio, the social pressures to be in a romantic or sexual relationship – whether or not it’s healthy – are immense, and without education that explicitly addresses how healthy and unhealthy relationships each work, teens might end up in toxic or even predatory relationships.

The components of healthy relationships that Vernacchio teaches include: equitable levels of power, maintaining your individuality within the relationship, being able to express yourself fully without fear of repercussion, and being reliable and present. I think there are obvious benefits to teaching about these healthy relationship traits, though in-depth discussion of what they mean and how they might play out could lead to talking about examples that might include sex, coercion, and other taboo topics.

Further, there are findings indicating that when sex ed programs address power in relationships, they’re more effective at preventing teen pregnancy and STI transmission. This makes sense, as the types of sexual activity that results in pregnancy and/or STI transmission don’t happen in a vacuum: they often happen in the context of romantic and/or sexual relationships where there might be a power disparity or inequality that could be addressed.

There’s also evidence that our relationships impact our health. Studies show that spousal conflicts impact one’s immune system and ability to recover from disease and injury, while other researchers have found that people with unsupportive, critical partners were more likely to suffer depression.

While we’re all constantly surrounded by and participating in various relationships, it’s not necessarily an intuitive process to figure out what makes them healthy. With all the mental, emotional, and physical health risks and benefits that accompany being in relationships, we owe it to everyone in society to ensure that we have a grasp of how relationships work, and how we can improve and benefit from them.