Sex & The Brain: The Wild World of Arousal

This week in our Sex and the Brain series, we explored the differences of arousal between men and women. 

While it may be obvious to some that men and women don’t get aroused the same, many still have not acquired this piece of knowledge. Men are like frying pans, and women are like slow cookers – so let’s get down to the science behind the kitchen appliance metaphors.

It turns out that both men and women have the exact same amount of erectile tissue in our genitals. According to Emily Nagoski Ph. D and extensive research at the Kinsey Institute, our anatomy is made from the same physical parts; they’re just… organized differently.

So, in studying arousal, we had to look at a number of different factors before looking at the differences between the sexes.

How We’re Similar:

The most clean cut example is the Dual Control Model. The theory divides our sexual response into two mechanisms: the accelerator (Sexual Excitation Scale) and the brakes (Sexual Inhibition Scale).

Most of us are generally in the middle of the scale, having a balance of things that both excite us and/or inhibit our sexual response. A few of us are on the outskirts, with hypersensitive breaks or sexual accelerators. The one thing that doesn’t determine where you are on the scale, curiously, is gender.

There are two types of brakes. One picks up on threat, whether of a possible predator or of possible consequences.The other is an internal process, navigating how we perceive our body image and our possible fear of performance. It is the balance of each of these in each individual that navigates our arousal, not our gender.

The truth is very few things on this planet are innately sexual. We learn to associate an object, an attitude, a look, or a context, with sexuality by our environment and the people in it. Our associations to those stimuli is what our body then interprets as safe, sexual, or unsafe, depending on the context within which we were first exposed to it (and all the times after).

We’ve been trained to associate erections and wetness as key signifiers that we are sexually interested in someone or something. This is incredibly destructive. It imposes an unrealistic reference point for desire that is assumed over everyone’s unique ability to decide what it is that turns them on as an individual. 

Let’s look at why.

How We’re Different

For men, there is a 50% overlap between what his genitals respond to as arousing and what he believes and says he will find arousing. His arousal will respond to porn of his specific sexual orientation.

For women there is only a 10% overlap between what they think they will be aroused by and what their genitals are aroused by. There is no direct relationship between how her genitals respond and what turns her on. They are equally as aroused to porn of their sexual orientation, as they are to any other orientation. This means their genitals can respond to something associated to sex that they might even find unappealing.

Female genitals respond to a broad category of what could be sexual versus associating that stimulation to their pleasure or interest.

Men on the other hand take the opposite approach, and have very specific responses to what their bodies deem sexually relevant and what they feel as pleasure or interest.

So, What Does it All Mean?

For one, it shows that figuring out what things turn you off and on is vitally important to a healthy sex life. Your physical gender will not facilitate for you or your partner what a reliable across-the-board turn on will be. It has to do with what you, as an individual, deem sexy and what you deem a “boner killer.”

Secondly, this research indicates that even though a man gets a boner looking at the neighbor, it doesn’t necessarily mean anything about what he wants or desires. Just because a woman is wet during a BDSM play party doesn’t mean she likes it. So what does? Your integrated experience.

A lot of women have become confused by this. They engage with some kinky delicacies, but aren’t finding pleasure in them, yet their body still responds. In other cases, they are very aroused, but their body does not respond (lube to the rescue!). Regardless of your body’s response, this doesn’t override what your brain knows about your likes and dislikes.

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Understanding yourself is a process of trial, error, and essentially, putting trust in yourself and your boundaries. Yes, your body is there to guide you, but so is your brain. 

Until next time,

J

 

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