I have never been a particularly scientific person, at least not with any of the physical sciences. I have the most difficult remembering anything scientific that isn’t mitochondria or osmosis. (I know I sound like I’m joking, but other than issues of psychology, I’m science-dumb.)
When it comes to the bigger scientific issues facing the world – I’m interested, but I leave it to the experts. That’s how I stumbled upon the 4 scientific terms that describe the process of arousal – the psychology, chemistry, and even the biology of it. Curious? Let’s take a look at the “short version”.
1. The Dual Control Model
According to Emily Nagoski, a self-proclaimed “sex nerd” with a PhD in human sexuality, explains the Dual Control Model as the illustrative representation of our body’s arousal and desire. Essentially, this model says that human sexual arousal is not a single response system, but a pair of response systems that work to “activate” and “deactivate” your sexual pleasure centers.
The Sexual Excitation System (or SES) is responsible for picking up what Nagoski calls “sexually relevant information”. Generally, these are the things that would make up a person’s turn-ons, such as trust in a partner, seeing or hearing other people having sex, or genital stimulation. There is no one-size-fits-all list, but generally, activating many of these triggers at or around the same time will increase the likelihood of arousal.
However, there is a conflicting system, as well – the Sexual Inhibition System (or SIS). The triggers for a non-arousal response include things like sleep deprivation, anxiety, and a sense of obligation. These are all things that, naturally, turn us off and make us not want sex. Many of these triggers have nothing to do with the sex, but will still weigh against the outcomes.
Nagoski offered a small hack for people struggling to get through this problem, though. Whereas most people may think that activating more of the SES triggers (turn-ons) will improve the chances for sex, this is not scientifically proven to have any benefit. On the other hand, decreasing the number of SIS triggers (turn-offs) has been found to have a much greater effect on a person’s sex drive and overall sense of arousal.
Moral of the story: If you want to put your girlfriend in the mood, you should make sure to put her mind at ease first!
2. Responsive Desire vs. Spontaneous Desire
Emily continued to explain two terms that help define the type of arousal a person can feel: Responsive desire and spontaneous desire. Spontaneous desire refers to desire that comes about out of nowhere – such as when you’re suddenly in the mood, with seemingly no provocation. Responsive desire refers to desire that is set into motion in response to specific sexual stimulation, such as when your partner kisses on your neck.
In most clinical contexts, spontaneous desire is considered to be the “default”. Spontaneous desire is a normal and healthy arousal style, which may result in a higher sex drive. Often those with spontaneous desires will want to experience sex in more contexts, and may have been told by previous partners that they were hypersexualized.
Responsive desire, on the other hand, is clinically medicalized as “low desire”, despite being a completely normal and healthy arousal style. Those with responsive desire may prefer their sexual scenarios to be more detail-oriented, although they often have a less frequent desire for sex. The insecurity over their low sex drive may be a trigger for their SIS (as referenced in section 1, above).
While both are completely normal and healthy, society may condition the “spontaneous” partner to feel rejected while the “responsive” partner is conditioned to think that there’s something wrong with them. But both of these are wrong, according to Emily. “The idea that a functioning sexual desire requires wanting sex out of the blue is bullshit.” This is good news for couples who have fallen out of sync!
Emily advises couples to introduce more non-sexual touching and communication into their relationships, among other suggestions. Rather than looking at your lack of sex as a separate problem, remember that it’s the culminating result of other problems – and focus on fixing those. You will learn which triggers are the worst for your partner, and help her resolve those.
Moral of the story: Emily says. “If you have more physical affection, more trust, more caring, less worry and stress, and less performance pressure, you’ll actually start to respond more readily and have more instances of spontaneous desire.”
3. Arousal Nonconcordance
The third scientific expression that Emily went over was arousal nonconcordance, which is when your mind and your body just don’t agree. We anticipate a genital response when stimulating our partners, but scientifically speaking, the agreement of the biologically female body is often around 10%.
This can result in women being incredibly wet, without the slightest arousal – or “dry as a bone” (in Emily’s words) and mentally ready to go. It’s important that you listen to what your partner is saying in these cases, because her mouth is controlled by her conscious mind, whereas her body is controlled by her unconscious mind.
This shouldn’t stand in the way of a healthy sexual relationship, though – it should only be used as motivation for the two of you to communicate. When you and your partner have the freedom to discuss your desires with one another, it makes it easier for both of you to differentiate between desire and biological response.
Moral of the story: Talk to your partner – her vagina doesn’t always know what it’s talking about.
Whenever I hear the term “meta”, I always think that whatever follows it is going to be something super technological and futuristic. If you get that impression, too, don’t worry – meta-emotions are simply the way you feel about your emotions. Your mood in response to your mood, if you will.
Many relationship problems are a direct result of different styles of affection. One partner might feel that their partner is being emotionally dismissive, but the dismissive partner is actually unaware that there’s a problem in the first place. This can be tricky, because not everyone fully understands the complexity of romantic affection style differences, and some are bound to conflict with one another.
The solution here is to not take your partner’s emotions so personally, but do give them the attention they deserve. If you have a solid understanding of each other’s affection styles, you can try to apply them and find a balanced solution that works for you.
One of the most important things to remember about emotions is that the way you respond to them directly relates to how you handle the problem. In other words, it’s fine to feel bad about something – but you have to accept that you feel bad about it in order to work towards a solution. If you are too busy feeling bad about feeling bad, you can’t possibly fix the problem itself.
Moral of the story: If you’re not trying to fix it, you’re not allowed to complain about it. Complaining and self-doubt are self-fulfilling prophecies that keep you from finding happiness.