This article on things to know about sex originally appeared on Blood + Milk.
Every few years, “new” research about cis women’s sexuality splashes across headlines. “All women are bi!” it proclaims, giving a half-assed summary of the research that goes something like this:
Researchers hooked people’s genitals up to a machine that measures physical arousal—how hard or wet they get. They show each participant a bunch of videos: action films, documentaries, animal mating videos, and different types of porn. Lo and behold! People with penises only get hard while watching porn that matches their sexuality. Meanwhile, people with vulvas get wet for all sorts of porn, including—*gasp*—the videos of animals fucking.
The popular narrative stops there, concluding that all women are bi. The truth goes deeper.
The clickbait not only conflates gender with genitals but also leaves out that many of these studies also measure participants’ subjective arousal, or how turned on they say they feel. This is where the research gets really interesting.
The overlap between physical and subjective arousal isn’t the same for all people
For people with penises, there’s a large overlap between when they feel both physically and subjectively aroused—they match around 50 percent of the time. Their penises respond most to porn that matches their sexual orientation and preferences and they report the highest levels of arousal to it.
For people with vulvas, the correlation is smaller: only about 10 percent. Their vulvas respond similarly, no matter what type of porn they’re shown or if it matches their sexual orientation or desires. They’ll report varying levels of arousal depending on their sexuality and preferences.
In all cases, participants’ genitals only responded when they saw sex on the screen
It’s not that vulvas are less discriminating. In fact, compared to other markers of arousal like heart rate, which goes up whether you are scared, anticipatory, or aroused, genitals are quite discriminating! They only activate when presented with sexual stimuli.
But vulvas do respond more readily to any sort of sexual stimuli, whereas penises are more likely to respond only to sexual stimuli that matches their orientation and preferences.
Your genitals notice what’s sexual. Your brain knows what you find sexy.
Your brain constantly searches the environment for sexy things and signals your genitals to respond. This is somewhat protective for people with vulvas, as the natural lubrication process helps prevent small tears and therefore, infections.
You can recognize something as sexual without being into it. Just like your stomach rumbles when you’re hungry and smell food, even if you don’t like the cuisine. The body part says “this is relevant to what I do” while your brain decides if you actually like it.
Arousal non-concordance is when your bits and your brain don’t agree
The fancy term for this phenomenon is “arousal non-concordance.” It’s when your body says one thing and your brain says another.
Arousal non-concordance is part of the reason why context matters so much for great sex: you notice what’s sexual, decide if you like it, and decide whether or not it’s a good time to get it on. It’s worth noting that stress or trauma can impact any of these processes.
The concept of arousal non-concordance already exists in popular culture. We talk about the plight of teenage boys who get hard from basic stimulation like a bump on the bus, even if they’re embarrassed. We complain to friends about that time we were so into it but our boo complained, “you aren’t wet!” Lawyers assert that it couldn’t have been sexual assault because “she was wet.”
Yes, this concept has some big implications.
When in doubt, trust your brain
Trust whether something feels good or not. Trust if you feel bored, in pain, uncomfortable, or triggered. Trust if something will bring you to orgasm. Regardless of what magazines or romance novels or romcoms tell you.
This isn’t an easy process in a society that constantly belittles your feelings and experiences. But trusting your brain is a worthy endeavour, the benefits of which spill over into all aspects of your life. If practicing this trust when it comes to sex feels too vulnerable or overwhelming, build your strength with smaller steps. Advocate for the type of food you want when going out with friends or your partner. Ask for help at work. Take time for self care, even when the dishes in the sink are dirty.
Listen to your partner’s words, not (only) their genitals
If they say they’re turned on, but they aren’t wet? Grab some lube (and maybe drink some water). There’s nothing wrong with you or them. It’s just our bodies. Same goes if you love someone with a penis. If they’re into it but not hard, enjoy other forms of sex. Your beau is aroused but they say they aren’t into it? Stop, celebrate that you learned something about each other’s desires, and try something else.
It can be that simple—if you’re ready to do the work and ditch what society has taught you about bodies, sex, and relationships.
Knowing about arousal non-concordance impacts so many aspects of sex and relationships, from consent to having better orgasm
It reminds us of the importance of talking about sex with the people you’re having it with. When you and your beau(s) are both on the same page, you’re more likely to have the intimate, exciting, and fulfilling sex you crave.
*Using language like this acknowledges that not all people with certain genitals are the gender that was assigned to them based on those genitals. Some men have vaginas, some women have penises, and some people with vaginas identify as neither male nor female.