1. “arousal nonconcordance” in a nutshell
This article you’re reading right now is not a Big Explainer Piece on arousal nonconcordance; it’s a Big Explainer Piece on why you keep reading the same, wrong story about arousal nonconcordance over and over and over again.
If you’re interested in reading a Big Explainer Piece on arousal nonconcordance, I wrote an entire chapter about it in my book, so , check out chapter 6, “Lubrication is not Causation” — and if you’re really interested in the science, be sure to read the extensive end notes, which describe the diverse methods by which it has been studied. You might also consider chapter 3, “Context: And the ‘One Ring’ (to rule them all) in your emotional brain,” for the brain science that underpins chapter 6. In fact, just go ahead and read the whole book. It’s pretty good.
In the meantime, here is the nutshell explanation:
Genital response, for all humans, indicates that they’ve been exposed to a sexually relevant stimulus — something that their brain has learned, through classical conditioning, to respond to as a cue that sexual things are happening in the environment. Subjective arousal, for all humans, indicates that they’ve been exposed to a sexually appealing stimulus — something their brain perceives, right now, in this moment, as being kinda hot.
This is reflected in the brain mechanism controlling a lot of this. Your emotional brain has a thing that most journalists call the “pleasure center of the brain,” but it’s not JUST a pleasure center. It responds to pleasant things with pleasure (“liking”), yes. But may or may not activate desire (“wanting”), and vice versa. And the third system is about learning what counts as relevant to a particular motivaiton system.
With apologies for the terrible analogy, think about it like Pavlov’s dogs. Dogs automatically salivate when food is put in front of them; by ringing a bell and presenting food together, over and over, a dog will learn that a bell is food relevant stimulus, and will begin to salivate with the bell alone.
DOES THAT MEAN THE DOG LOVES TO EAT BELLS???
No, people. No.
It means the bell is food relevant.
If videos help you understand stuff, here are two:
or this (this one is me):
For reasons we don’t yet understand, it turns out that women’s — (in the research, “women” is restricted to people who were born in a body that made the adults around them go, “It’s a girl!” and then were raised as girls and grew into the psychological identity and social role of “women;” of course there are lots of people who identify as women for whom one or more of those things aren’t true, but… cisheteropatriarchy is everywhere. Sorry.) — as I was saying, women’s brains are likely to categorize anything even remotely sexually relevant as “sexually relevant” — and that includes images of bonobo chimps getting it on.
Does this mean women actually, secretly want to have sex with bonobos? Of course not. It means their brains categorized it as sexually relevant, even if it wasn’t sexually appealing.
NY Magazine published a thoughtful and critical article titled, Why I’m Not Buying This Study That Claims All Women Are a Little Gay. I like that NY Magazine article, probably because a big chunk of it is basically a paraphrasing of chapter 6 of my book — did I mention I wrote a whole chapter on this?
The researchers who do arousal nonconcordance work also liked it:
Be like the scientists. Like the explanation that both best fits the science and, not coincidentally, respects women.
Genital response = “sexually relevant stimulus”
Subjective arousal = “sexually appealing stimulus”
2. why we see the same wrong story, over and over
The headline that got me started writing this piece is: Do Women Lie About Their Sexual Arousal? (Or do scientists just not know how to measure female arousal the way they do male arousal?).
It’s an article about a Daily Beast article about research on arousal nonconcordance, which is just one of many, many, many similar headlines. A related recent headline (different study, same topic) at Vice was “a new study suggests most women are bisexual or gay: Nearly three-quarters of women are found to have been turned on by both guys and girls.” That particular study got a whole lot of low quality media coverage (sample headlines: Women are either bisexual or gay but ‘never straight’, and No Woman ‘totally straight,’ study says.) And in fact these kinds of headlines have been showing up for as long as this kind of researcher has been happening — about three decades.
So how come they are either, “Women are Liars! Their Vaginas Are Telling Us the Shocking Truth!” or else, as with the article that started me writing this piece, “Women are NOT LIARS! Their Clitorises Are Telling Us the Truth!” In short: WHY are we so desperate to believe that bloodflow to our genitals is a more “true” indication of our sexual response/orientation/identity/pleasure than, ya know, our experience?
FIRST: It’s a temptingly feminist-sounding and sex positive-sounding story to tell, that this science “proves” that women are not the frigid, sexless creatures that our culture would have us be; just look at how omnivorously sexual women “really” are! Our vaginas are revealing the secret, hidden world of women’s true (and rampant!) sexual desire! Just look what women would be like, sexually, if only we were freed of cultural shame, if only we weren’t oppressed out of connection with our real sexual selves!
Right? That’s an appealing story, and it fits with — and reacts against — the reality that women totally, definitely have been shamed and oppressed out of connecting with our real sexual selves.
But our vaginas do not know what we want and like. Our vaginas only know what’s sexually relevant.
And there’s a dark, horrible consequences of the mistaken idea that our vaginas know what we “really” want: Sometimes genitals respond during sexual assault; sometimes a person might even have an orgasm during a rape.
Are we going to say that that genital response means that the person “really” wanted or liked what happened to them, when every single other part of their mental and physical experience was of frozen horror at this traumatic experience? I’m certainly not. Are you?
This temptingly feminist-sounding, sex positive-sounding story is the same story that rape apologists have been using for centuries, to say that a woman “really” wanted a sexual encounter, because her genitals responded.
And fuck that.
SECOND: A mistake both kinds of articles (woman are liars because: genitals and women are not liars because: genitals) make, is that they’re both suggesting that the only normal, healthy way for genital response and subjective experience to co-exist is for them to match. To be concordant. In short: that the only normal, healthy way for human sexuality to be… is to be the way men’s sexuality generally is.
But why does it have to be true that genital response and subjective experience “should” match? Why? Yes it’s what we expect, but since when does what we expect dictate what should be true?
I put it to you that it’s what we expect… because it’s what largely true about men. We’re entrenched in an androcentric, genital-centric way of thinking about sexual desire and response.
And it’s time to quit it. It’s time to expand our baseline starting point for understanding the science of sex into something that is equally inclusive of people of all genders, and takes the brain — including that messiest of all constructs, subjective experience — just as seriously as it takes bloodflow.
In short, we hear the same damn story over and over, because people are trying to understand these research results within a framework that assumes men are right and women are wrong, and that bloodflow isreal and subjective reporting is a lie. We hear the same damn story because we’re not noticing that what this research should force us to do is to break entirely free of that framework, and build a new one.
3. how to stop the madness
I think readers are frustrated and confused and annoyed at the contradictory “Women Are Liars, According to Science”/ “No We’re Not, According to Science” articles. I am. Aren’t you? And there’s certainly evidence that researchers are tired of journalists getting this wrong — seriously, just spend a little time reading Meredith Chivers’s Twitter feed and you’ll see. Like:
And at least some journalists are tired of researchers making it sound like women are crazy, lying, or in denial. (If they’re not, I can only conclude it’s because the media benefits from the incessant back-and-forth click-baiting headlines than from people actually learning something interesting, true, and potentially important.)
I, as a sex educator, have a different job from either the researchers or the journalists. My job is to explain the research in a way that helps people have better sex lives and that promotes social justice. My job is to know how to cut through the cultural shame and stereotypes, as well as through the technical jargon, and communicate the facts clearly and memorably. It’s a very specific skill, and I’ve worked hard to learn it.
One of the most valuable resources I’ve found for being a sex educator is The Debunking Handbook. (You can download it for free.) (Please download it; it’s awesome.)
Here’s what it has to say about itself:
The Handbook explores the surprising fact that debunking myths can sometimes reinforce the myth in peoples’ minds. Communicators need to be aware of the various backfire effects and how to avoid them, such as:
It also looks at a key element to successful debunking: providing an alternative explanation. The Handbook is designed to be useful to all communicators who have to deal with misinformation (eg — not just climate myths)
I’m going to repeat the really essential part very slowly:
That’s what I did right at the start of this piece (and this one and this one). I offered an explanation to replace the false, bullshit one. Bloodflow to the genitals means one thing; subjective experience means another thing. Genital response = sexually relevant. Subjective arousal = sexually appealing. It’s an explanation that fits the available science; it’s falsifiable (which is a very, very good thing — if it turns out to be wrong, the process of proving it wrong will help us figure out what’s right); and it assumes that women are only as deceptive, crazy, or in denial as men are.
It’s an alternative explanation that fills what the Debunking Handbooks calls “the information gap” left when you tell someone that a myth is, well, a myth.
And it’s what both journalists and researchers are failing to do, over and over again. Everyone is working within the false frame that “arousal nonconcordance indicates that either the genitals or the subjective experience are inaccurate.” And that’s just not true. What’s true is: Sometimes they overlap closely, sometimes they don’t, and that’s okay. Women are not broken, crazy, liars, or deluded. They’re just not identical to men. And not being identical to a man is not, despite what you may have heard, a disease.
So what the Debunking Handbook (PDF — I’m not kidding, you should really download it) says you can do to stop telling the same, incorrect, misogynist story over and over is:
- State what’s true, according to the best available evidence. (Notice how I started this piece.) This is how you establish what will turn out to be the “alternative explanation.”
- Include only the most important substantiating facts, because too much can feel like you’re protesting too much, and use a graphic if you possible can. (Notice I gave you a graphic and some videos.)
- Wave a giant red flag of warning before you repeat the myth (since repeating the myth brings the risk of accidentally reinforcing the myth).
- Fill in any remaining gap left by the removal of the myth. (This is the part where I explained why you kept hearing the same wrong story over and over.)
And again, the most important feature of an effective myth debunking is to START WITH THE ALTERNATIVE EXPLANATION.
If you don’t know what the alternative explanation is, start with a good idea about it. If there aren’t any good ideas about, start by talking about why it’s so hard to come up with a good idea.
Please. Please stop (accidentally) lying about my vagina and the vaginas of all the people I know who have vaginas. You are almost certainly not doing it on purpose; you’re just entrenched in a way of debunking myths (i.e., STATE MYTH IN THE HEADLINE: tiny text that says the myth is untrue, without explaining why) that reinforces them.
Now you know what to do instead.
Go forth and make the world a better place for vaginas.