Arousal Non-Concordance: What It Is & Why It Happens

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Come As You Are" by Emily Nagoski. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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What is arousal non-concordance? Is arousal always accompanied by a genital response?

Arousal non-concordance is the mismatch between what our brains identify as sex-related and what we actually find appealing. To demonstrate with an example, imagine you’re watching a sex scene in a movie. The scene doesn’t appeal to you because you don’t think the actors are attractive. Despite this, you find yourself becoming physically aroused at the sight of sex on the screen.

Here is why non-concordance happens and what to do about it.

Why Non-Concordance Happens

There are times when we feel turned on but experience no genital response, or experience a genital response despite experiencing no pleasure. Why does this happen?

The explanation behind non-concordance concerns the fact that there are multiple components of emotional experience. Nagoski says that in basic terms, we can think of emotions as happening on three levels: physiological response, which is the physical changes (like heart rate, pupil dilation, and genital response) that happen in response to stimuli, involuntary expressive response, which is things like vocal inflection and facial expressions, and subjective experience, which is how we decide we feel at any given moment.

In short, Nagoski concludes, genital response and subjective experience are two distinct aspects of the full emotional experience, which is why they can occur separately. 

Although research supports Nagoski’s claim that emotions are comprised of multiple components, there is no agreed-upon definition for the word “emotion.” In other words, despite a great deal of overlap in scientific opinion regarding which aspects emotions involve, there isn’t consensus about what emotions are

A 2010 study surveying 34 emotion experts revealed that while there were certain things various researchers agreed on—such as that emotion consists of things like neural circuits, response states, and feeling states—there were far more unique characteristics that made it impossible to derive a succinct definition from their responses. This nebulous definition makes it hard to determine whether sexual response is an emotion at all, meaning this three-component framework may not fit sexuality in the way Nagoski suggests.

Individual Differences in Non-Concordance

We’ve learned how non-concordance happens, but how often does it occur? According to Nagoski, research shows that non-concordance is extremely common for both men and women, though there are marked differences in frequency between the sexes. Men experience non-concordance about 50% of the time; for women, that number jumps to around 90%.

(Shortform note: The differences observed between men’s and women’s arousal may be based on a problematic comparison between their genitalia. Many studies have compared the sexes by measuring the response of the penis and the vagina. However, as Nagoski pointed out earlier, the equivalent of the penis is the clitoris—not the vagina. Preliminary research measuring clitoral response suggests that women’s physical response and subjective arousal may align more than previously thought.)

However, Nagoski adds that gender differences don’t account for all of the variation. The frequency of non-concordance also changes from person to person. For example, women with a sensitive SES and less sensitive SIS won’t experience non-concordance as often as the average woman.

(Shortform note: In addition to women and individuals with a more sensitive SIS, sufferers of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD) experience higher levels of non-concordance due to unwanted obsessive sexual thoughts. Their genital arousal is due to the sexual nature of their obsessive thoughts and not their subjective feelings about those thoughts.)

Common Myths About Non-Concordance

Despite non-concordance being remarkably common and varying in degree between people and situations, Nagoski maintains that our culture insists that how we feel and what our genitals are doing are always in sync, and anyone who experiences something different is broken. Specifically, Nagoski focuses on three interrelated things that our culture gets wrong about the relationship between subjective experience and genital response. Let’s look at each of them individually.

Myth #1: Genital Response Signals Pleasure 

Nagoski argues that through various forms of media, and especially pornography, our culture gives us the false impression that genital response automatically equates to sexual pleasure. For example, women and men in the media often say “I’m so wet” and “I’m so hard” to express that they’re turned on. She says that the reason for this misconception is that the standard for sexual experience is based on the average man, who experiences low levels of non-concordance. This creates the expectation that alignment of genital response and subjective experience should be the norm for everyone.

(Shortform note: Although Nagoski bases her argument on the fact that men experience lower levels of non-concordance, some scientists have questioned whether research supporting this claim has found accurate results. They suggest that certain methodological flaws could have misrepresented concordance estimates in both men and women. These include potential issues with the sexual stimuli chosen by researchers, self-reporting measures, assessments of genital arousal, statistical methods, or participant characteristics like age and hormone levels.) 

Myth #2: Women Are in Denial or Lying About Their Inner Desires

Nagoski maintains that what’s even more problematic is the idea that women who experience non-concordance are either in denial or lying about their inner desires. They’re told that their genitals’ response reveals the truth about how they really feel. We see the prevalence of this idea in romance novels, where men insist that a woman likes a sexual experience because her genitals are responding to it (for example “see, you’re wet”), even if she says she’s not enjoying what’s happening. 

What’s more, Nagoski tells us that even some researchers frame non-concordance as women misreporting their subjective experience. For example, after one study, researchers deemed women to be lying because they denied feeling turned on by bonobos having sex despite experiencing a genital response.

The Prevalence of Dishonesty in Sex Research 

While Nagoski condemns the researchers of the study for suggesting that women were being dishonest in reporting their subjective experience of arousal, lying is actually a common phenomenon in research targeting sexual behaviors. Both men and women are frequently untruthful, especially when reporting on how often they have sex or how many sexual partners they’ve had. Particularly noticeable is when women claim to have had virgin pregnancies or young people report STI contraction despite claiming to have had no sexual contact. Why is it that so many people lie when reporting sexual behaviors? In many cases, it’s because they simply want to fit in; both men and women commonly underreport stigmatized behaviors and overreport normalized ones, thinking that their actual behaviors are socially unacceptable. 

Nagoski argues that this serious misunderstanding becomes especially dangerous when applied to instances of rape. Put simply, if this myth were true, then the response of a woman’s genitals during sexual assault would mean that she actually likes what’s happening to her. Modern politicians have even used this line of reasoning to argue against abortion. Nagoski provides the example of Republican representative Todd Akin, who in 2012 claimed that “If it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut the whole thing down,” implying that a rape resulting in pregnancy isn’t a “true” rape. Therefore, pregnant rape victims shouldn’t be allowed to get abortions, as they weren’t “really” raped.

(Shortform note: The reasoning behind Todd Akin’s claim dates back to a 13th-century British legal text, which stated that a woman could only get pregnant if she had an orgasm during sex. But how do those two ideas connect? At the time, people believed that a woman could only orgasm if she consented to and enjoyed sex—though as we will discuss later, we now know this to be false. If that were true, then the logical argument is that if a woman manages to get pregnant from a sexual encounter, it couldn’t have been rape, because pregnancy presupposes orgasm, which presupposes consent.)

Nagoski states that in reality, like all other physiological responses, genital response is simply the body’s automatic reaction to a sex-related stimulus. It says nothing about our subjective feelings about something. For example, just because your eyes water while cutting onions, that doesn’t mean you feel sad.

(Shortform note: Nagoski isn’t the only sexuality expert who recognizes the need to emphasize this fact and dispel misinformation about genital response and subjective experience. For example, in working closely with patients, one sex therapist realized that many sexual problems stem from a lack of knowledge about basic physiology and the mechanics of sex, like the reality of genital response. To combat this issue, she uses her blog as a platform to provide people with accurate information about a variety of issues related to sexuality, including the difference between sexual desire and arousal.)  

Myth #3: Non-Concordance Is a Problem to Fix

The fact that our culture treats non-concordance as an abnormality has earned it the reputation of being associated with sexual dysfunction. In short, Nagoski explains, people believe that because non-concordance and sexual dysfunction are both linked to low desire, that means non-concordance is indicative of issues with sexual functioning.

Despite their apparent correlation, one doesn’t cause the other. We know this based on how context affects each. According to Nagoski, both healthy and sexually dysfunctional women will experience sexual inhibition. The difference, however, is that a healthy woman’s sexual response will only be inhibited when an unfavorable context activates her SIS, potentially causing non-concordance. On the other hand, a sexually dysfunctional woman’s sexual response will be inhibited regardless of the context. In other words, Nagoski concludes, non-concordance isn’t an issue of functioning. It occurs only in cases where certain contexts reduce a healthy person’s desire for sex

Although this and other myths perpetuate the idea that non-concordance is abnormal or even nonexistent, Nagoski assures us that in reality, it’s a normal part of everyone’s sexual experience. 

Are Non-Concordance and Sexual Dysfunction Related?

Nagoski’s primary argument against linking non-concordance to sexual dysfunction is that correlation doesn’t equal causation. In other words, simply observing an apparent relationship between the two isn’t enough evidence in and of itself to claim that non-concordance is a problem of sexual functioning. While her argumentation is logically sound, researchers aren’t actually sure about whether the link is purely correlative.

Although many studies have examined the relationship between non-concordance and sexual dysfunction, their combined results are inconclusive. Specifically, some studies determined that women without sexual dysfunction experience higher concordance, some studies found no significant difference between groups, and one study concluded that women who specifically deal with sexual arousal disorder experience lower concordance.

In short, although there still isn’t enough evidence to prove a causative link, it would be misleading to claim that non-concordance and sexual dysfunction are related by nothing more than correlation—at this point, we simply still don’t know.

Addressing Non-Concordance With Your Partner

Because misinformation about non-concordance is so prevalent in our culture, Nagoski suggests that women may need to explicitly address it within their relationships. This can be tricky because the beliefs many of us have about non-concordance are so deeply ingrained. To aid in the process, Nagoski offers women several recommendations for opening up a dialogue with their partner:

Reassure them that non-concordance is normal and that you’re perfectly healthy. (Shortform note: Although Nagoski doesn’t elaborate on how to provide this reassurance, one strategy could be to point out that men also experience non-concordance, like when they have erections in inappropriate situations or while sleeping.)

Let them know about the many other signals, aside from genital response, they can use to assess whether or not you’re enjoying yourself, such as faster breathing, muscle tension, and verbal communication. (Shortform note: While raising this issue within the context of your relationship is undoubtedly a good place to start, it could have even more impact as a part of the general cultural dialogue about consent. Not only is genital arousal not a reliable sign of pleasure, but it’s also not a non-verbal invitation to continue engaging in sexual behaviors.)

Assure them that needing lubrication is normal and doesn’t speak at all to their sexual performance—it’s simply a result of your genitals not being on the same page as your feelings. Suggest that you buy some lubrication together and keep it handy, reframing it as a bonding experience that encourages curiosity and play. (Shortform note: Nagoski doesn’t suggest specific ways that couples can introduce lubrication into their sex lives, but other sources offer some helpful tips. You can try using flavored lube for oral sex, using lube in the shower, or using it during manual stimulation to make the experience easier and more enjoyable.)

Arousal Non-Concordance: What It Is & Why It Happens

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Here's what you'll find in our full Come As You Are summary:

  • Why women should change the way they talk, think, and feel about their sexuality
  • A look at the misinformation and harmful cultural messaging surrounding sex
  • A discussion around the individual experiences of arousal, desire, and orgasm

Darya Sinusoid

Darya’s love for reading started with fantasy novels (The LOTR trilogy is still her all-time-favorite). Growing up, however, she found herself transitioning to non-fiction, psychological, and self-help books. She has a degree in Psychology and a deep passion for the subject. She likes reading research-informed books that distill the workings of the human brain/mind/consciousness and thinking of ways to apply the insights to her own life. Some of her favorites include Thinking, Fast and Slow, How We Decide, and The Wisdom of the Enneagram.

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