Although not described in detail, this article on arousal non-concordance mentions sexual assault.

Are you sitting down? Because I’m about to drop some knowledge on you that will change your life! I’m here to tell you about something called arousal non-concordance. Arousal non-concordance is basically when your sexual arousal physically (in your genitals) doesn’t match up with your subjective arousal (how turned on you feel). You probably have never heard this term before, but I can almost guarantee you’ve experienced these differing levels of arousal before because it’s incredibly common. 

The origins of arousal non-concordance

I first learned about arousal non-concordance while reading Emily Nagoski’s book, Come as You Are: The Surprising New Science That Will Transform Your Sex Life. Nagoski has written extensively on this topic and even gave a Ted Talk about it last year. Her Ted Talk is fantastic and I recommend watching it right after you finish reading this. 

Your genitals can respond to something that is sexually relevant without it being sexually appealing. If you witness something that is sexual, your body can process it as sexually relevant, regardless of if you enjoy it or not. Your brain is what helps you decide if you like and want that thing. Nagoski gives the example of reading a news article about a sexual assault and noticing her genitals feeling aroused at the same time she felt horrified by what she was reading. This doesn’t mean she is turned on by reading about assault; she had this physical response because her body is responding to something that is sexually relevant, but her mind knows that she obviously does not find this appealing. 

Another example she gives is that victims of sexual assault can sometimes orgasm during a rape or assault. In some court cases, unfortunately, people have interpreted this as consent. Because of the research backing up arousal non-concordance, we know that the survivor’s body processed this as something that was sexually relevant, which would be why they had an orgasm, but that does not at all mean they wanted or liked what was happening. 

How it helps us understand relationships

Arousal non-concordance can help us understand our own sexual relationships better as well. You may have experienced times when you are intimate with a partner and you are ready to have sex, but your genitals might not seem ready. Similarly, you might have experienced when your genitals seem ready, but you are not ready yet. It is important that your partner listens to your words and not your body. Even though your genitals might be hard or wet or whatever else, you decide if and when you are ready to engage with someone sexually. You should never second guess yourself or have your partner convince you you’re ready because of what your genitals are saying. Your genitals respond if something is sexually relevant, but you respond if you like or want that sexually relevant thing!

The overlap between genital and subjective arousal

Based on the research behind arousal non-concordance, there is a 50% overlap between genital arousal and subjective arousal for someone with a penis. For someone with a clitoris and vagina, there is only a 10% overlap between genital arousal and subjective arousal. That means that for someone with a penis, about 50% of the time their genitals and mind will be equally aroused, but for someone with a clitoris, this perfect overlap only occurs 10% of the time!!! That’s why it is so important to have your partner trust your words and not your genital’s response in a sexual situation. That’s also why your genitals can respond sexually to something that is not appealing to you.

Now that you know about arousal non-concordance, what can you do with this enlightening information? As Nagoski suggests in her book and Ted Talk, tell someone about it. Spread this exciting news and know that you are not sexually twisted or broken. Tell your partner to trust your words and not your genitals. Finally, if you’re someone who experiences only the 10% overlap, pay attention to your subjective arousal (how mentally turned on you are) and buy some lube to help with the rest. 

The Sexual Response Cycle was developed by sex researchers Masters and Johnson in 1966 after observing patients during various sexual activities. Although this model was developed so long ago, it is still widely taught as the way our bodies respond to sexual activity. In general, this model can help us understand what’s happening in our bodies when we experience sexual arousal and desire, but human sexuality is nuanced and varies widely, so this model isn’t perfect. I do think it does a great job of helping us understand generally what’s happening in our bodies when we experience sexual arousal. It is important to note that people of all genders experience the cycle, but in different ways and at different times. You and your partner likely won’t experience the exact same phases at the exact same time, and that’s okay. 

Excitement Phase

The first phase of the cycle is excitement. The excitement phase can last anywhere from several minutes to several hours and includes experiencing muscle tension, a faster heart rate and faster breathing, blood starting to flow to the genitals. This cycle can start even before you physically see or touch your partner, which I think is so cool! 

For example, if you’re dating someone and every time you’ve seen one another so far you’ve had sex, simply seeing their name pop up on your phone on the day of a date together can start this cycle because your brain associates them with sex. How wild is that!? As I mentioned, this phase can last anywhere from a few minutes to hours, and of course, can vary in levels of intensity. Sometimes your mind can feel desire, but perhaps your body doesn’t yet, or vice versa. 

Plateau Phase

The second phase is plateau. During the plateau phase, all of the experiences from the excitement phase continue but slowly increase with intensity. Perhaps the feelings you initially feel thinking about seeing your partner later increase when you actually see them or when they kiss you hello. This phase could also occur when you and your partner(s) actually start being physically intimate with one another. 

All of the things in the excitement phase are continuing, and the genitals get more filled with blood. Your breathing and heart rate increase even more, as well as your muscle tension. Some people also experience muscle spasms during this phase in other parts of their body besides their genitals. Even though this phase is called “plateau,” the arousal and sensations in the body are still increasing here little by little. 

Orgasm Phase

The third phase is orgasm. A very important note to make here is that not everyone experiences orgasm every time or even most of the time they have sex with a partner. Orgasm shouldn’t be the only goal of sexual interaction, pleasure should be! Although this is included in the response cycle, I want to acknowledge that this is not accurate for a lot of people. 

During orgasm, people can reach the climax of their sexual experience. This climax can include orgasm or involuntary contraction of the muscles and genitals. Blood pressure heart rate and breathing are all at a high, and a great release of sexual tension can occur. The vagina and uterus involuntarily contract here, and the penis can ejaculate. Some people also experience a flush of color on their face or body in this phase. 

Resolution Phase

The final phase of the cycle is resolution. During resolution, the body slowly returns back to its natural resting state. The heart rate slows, the muscles relax, and the increased blood flow to the genitals returns to its resting state. During this phase, people may feel relaxed, more connected to their partner, or even snuggly and tired. This phase is a great opportunity for partners to discuss aftercare, or ways to feel safe and comfortable after sex. People with vaginas should always pee right after sex during this period. 

What if I experience the sexual response cycle differently?

Generally speaking, this is the cycle our bodies go through during a sexual encounter with someone else or ourselves. As I mentioned, this model isn’t totally accurate to how people experience sexual arousal, but generally speaking, it can give us an idea. This model presents the sexual response in a very straightforward, linear way, and that is not always accurate. For example, orgasm might not be part of everyone’s sexual response, and that is normal. 

Perhaps there are some encounters where you experience the excitement and then resolution, never experience a plateau or a climax. That is normal. It is also normal to not experience these phases at the same time, in the same way, or at the same level of intensity as your partner or partners. For example, it is not likely that everyone involved in a sexual encounter will experience orgasm at the same time. One partner might naturally spend more time in the excitement or plateau phase before reaching a climax. One partner might feel more energized during the resolution, while the other might feel sleepy. All experiences are normal!

My favorite thing I’ve learned in studying the sexual response cycle is learning more about the excitement phase. I love knowing that this phase can start by even just seeing your partner without physically touching yet. That is so cool! 

Are there other models of sexual response?

Since this cycle was first established in 1966, other researchers have written and observed more accurate ways to describe the sexual response that accounts for all of the variations in sexual experience and desire people have. These different models can be found with a little extra reading, but the Masters and Johnson model still remains the most widely taught, despite its shortcomings. Other models developed in the years after Masters and Johnson account for acknowledging desire, pleasure, and satisfaction as part of the sexual response and someone’s interest in seeking out sexual activity with a certain partner again. 

Next time you experience the sexual response cycle, it might be interesting to tune into your body and see how you’re really feeling. Notice if the excitement phase starts by simply knowing you’ll see your partner later that day, for example. Think about what makes you feel totally cared for a safe during the resolution phase. Once you reflect, share that information with your partner for a more connected sexual experience.