I recently read the book by Emily Nagoski “Come as you are” and the overall voice of her book is her intense desire to announce to the world “you need to know this!” I caught that fever when I read the chapter on sexual non-concordance. Here I am carrying the inspiration forward and shouting (in my head) you need to know this!
What is sexual non-concordance?
Sexual concordance is when the genital response and the subjective sexual response; “I am interested in sexy time” are in alignment. Meaning, that there are evident physiological responses; a man has an erection and a woman has vaginal swelling and lubrication, plus the person reports feeling aroused. Sexual non-concordance is when we consciously do not report sexual arousal, but physiologically, our body is responding. Visa versa, we can subjectively report interest in sexual activity but physiologically the genitals are not aroused (Nagoski, 2015). For example, a woman might feel aroused and excited to have sex with her partner, but when she attempts to have sex she experiences vaginal dryness. Similarly, a man might be excited and emotionally aroused but then unable to attain an erection.
How does this sexual non-concordance happen?
There are two ways that we process information; bottom up processing and top down processing. Bottom up processing is referring to our bodies response to outside stimuli that is not in our conscious control. Top down processing is referring to our cognitive appraisal, cognitive control, and attention toward stimuli presented to us. Top down processing is dependent on personal goals, biases, perception, appraisal, and what we believe is appropriate. Top down is an active process and a conscious response to information. As for bottom up, it is an automatic response without our conscious control.
Bottom up sexual arousal is the physiological response to sexually explicit stimuli (something you find sexy), such that there is genital arousal, however, this does not mean that you will be interested in sexy time. Even more, you might not even be conscious of your arousal. Researchers showed a variety of porn scenes to men and women and asked them to rate the porn based on how aroused they felt. The participants reported feeling aroused for only one type of porn but when they measured their physiological sexual arousal (heart rate, vaginal blood flow) they were equally aroused for all the porn scenes. Top down sexual arousal, is the conscious awareness AND interest in sexual arousal. Such that, the person will report the sexual arousal and possibly pursue sexual activity. For example, being touched gently by your partner while you are rushing and trying to leave the house might feel irritating. If you are being touched gently by your partner while relaxing in bed, you will experience the touch as sexually arousing. This means that being aware of sexual information or receiving sexual stimulation is not enough. The top down processing is responsible for the motivation and interest in sexual activity.
Because two systems are at play when sexual arousal and sexual interest occur, there is a potential for miscommunications between the systems. Not only is there miscommunication between systems, sometimes, the top down process suppress and stops the bottom up processing. Once the person is sexually stimulated, he or she must make the conscious decision to enjoy the sexual arousal in pursuit of sexual activity. However, since top down processing is subject to biases, attitudes, and social rules, it can easily interfere with genital arousal and stop sexual arousal despite the desire to be sexually active. As mentioned before, top down processing is our cognitive control over presented information. Even if there is a biological genital response to sexually explicit information, the possibility of sexual arousal is dependent on the mood and the environment. We cognitively need to evaluate the sexual stimulus and the environment as arousing. Hence, there might be blood flow to the genitals and vaginal lubrication (bottom up), but if the conscious mind (top down) is not “in the mood”, or in the right emotional state, sexual activity will not happen.
Sara Schapiro-Halberstam, LMHC, CASAC is a licensed mental health counselor in NYC, where she provides individual counseling and intimacy counseling. You can contact Sara at firstname.lastname@example.org and read more blog posts at www.mwr.nyc