unwanted arousal: it happens

what science says about those times when your genitals respond to stories of sexual violence

(Hey listen, I talk about sexual violence in this post. So. FYI.)

The answer is:

A thing can be sexually RELEVANT
without being sexually APPEALING.

And the question is:

Why would a person’s genitals tingle or swell, while reading a news story about a sexual assault?

It happens to me, and I do sexual violence prevention for a living.

It happens because: sometimes things are sexually relevant, even when they’re not even remotely appealing. Even when they’re disgusting or appalling or horrifying.

It happens to sex researchers I’ve talked with, too. When they’re sorting video segments for their research studies, they notice that sometimes their genitals respond with sexual arousal, when they’re coding videos that are violent, degrading, or disgusting — even if every other part of them is withdrawing in revulsion.

It might happen to you, or it might not. It’s okay either way. All it means is that the story is cuing the “sexually relevant” signals in your brain, which has nothing in particular to do with whether or not it’s sexually appealing.

See, the sexual response mechanism is actually a pair of mechanisms: an accelerator and a brake. The two function more or less autonomously, which means a stimulus can can activate both the brake and the accelerator at the same time.

When that happens, it doesn’t mean you’re conflicted or contradicting yourself or “in denial.” It means that (1) your brain works and (2) “sex” is multifaceted, ranging from glorious spiritual experiences to acts of appalling violence that use sex as a weapon. Yup.

Example: It happened to me most recently when I began reading this NYT article about a student whose administration responded inadequately when she reported that she was sexually assaulted:


That phrase, that unnecessary prepositional phrase — “from behind” — created in my mind a totally unnecessary, sexually explicit visual.

And my genitals responded.

Fortunately, I’m very familiar with the dual control model and with arousal nonconcordance, so I know that when my genitals respond to a stimulus, all it means is that the stimulus is sexually relevant, even if it’s not appealing.

Arousal nonconcordance is the well-established phenomenon of a lack of overlap between how much blood is flowing to a person’s genitals and how “turned on” they feel. The details are complex and fascinating, but the basic message is this:

There’s about a 50% overlap between how much blood flows to a male’s genital response and how “turned on” he feels — his “subjective arousal;” and there’s about 10% overlap for women’s genital response and subjective arousal.

The overlap between how much men’s bodies respond and how turned on they feel is 50%; in women, the overlap is 10%.

The mistake we make when we think about arousal nonconcordance is to think that a person’s genitals know more about what “turns them on” than the person themself does. Like, the genitals are honest and the person is not.

Which is a silly mistake that becomes obvious once you try to apply it to a nonsexual context.

Like what if…

If I told you my mouth watered when I bit into an apple that was wormy and rotten, would you think, “Well if her mouth watered, she must really enjoy eating wormy, rotten apple”?

Of course not. You’d know that salivation is just an automatic response.

You’d believe me when you said, “My mouth watered, and I was totally grossed out.”

Genital response, too, is an automatic response, unrelated to whether or not we enjoy something.

So when my genitals respond to a story of horror — sexually explicit horror — it means that a story about violence that uses sex as a weapon is sexually relevant, even though it’s not at all sexually appealing.

Don’t get me wrong, there are people who find the stories appealing. There are even people who find the actual actions, the reality, appealing.

But not most people. We’re not in denial. Our bodies aren’t communicating some secret fantasy that we’re too repressed to acknowledge. Nor are we potential rapists. Nor does our bodies’ response mean we secretly “want” to be assaulted.

(If you read a story about a brutal robbery, your heart may start beating faster. It doesn’t mean you want to be robbed.)

Genital response isn’t “desire” — desire is when you’re actively motivated to move toward something, when the accelerator is activated and the brakes are not interfering.

Genital response isn’t even “pleasure” — pleasure is a perception of a sensation, and that perception is context dependent. If someone tickles you when you’re feeling flirty, that can be fun; if that same someone tickles you when you’re annoyed… not fun. Ditto genital response.

Genital response is about “sexual relevance.”

And nothing more.

And don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.