Debunking Sexual Myths: Genital Response Means Desire

One of the spokes of any anxiety wheel is cognitive distortions: the assumptions, misunderstandings, and expectations we form about love, relationships, romance, parenting, sexuality, and nearly every realm of being human. Because we’re not explicitly taught how our minds and bodies operate – how to understand and attend to our thoughts, feelings, and sensations – we’re left to form our own conclusions based largely on what we see in mainstream media. Since the mainstream seems to know virtually nothing accurate about these aspects of being human, the vast majority of these conclusions are incorrect, which invariably leads to anxiety since reality will rarely align with what we’re told we “should” be thinking, feeling, and experiencing.

In the realm of relationships, as I’ve written about repeatedly on this site, this often sounds like, “I should be wildly attracted to my partner” or “I should just know when I meet The One.” There are innumerable offshoots of these assumptions, and they all stem from the image of love and romance that Hollywood disseminates. Likewise, we form our ideas about sexuality, including how we feel about our bodies, from what we see portrayed on billboards, in magazines, in movies, and, now more than ever, through pornography. None of these channels teach us about healthy sexuality and instead lead many people to compare their sex life, sexuality, and bodies to unattainable and unrealistic images, which then leads to the shame-laced question, “What’s wrong with me?”

Without even knowing the specifics of your sexual story, I can tell you right off the bat that there’s nothing wrong with you. I know this because I’ve heard every variation of sexual concern, both for those in relationships and those who are single, and the conclusion I’ve drawn is never that there’s something wrong. What’s wrong are the expectations. What’s wrong are the images. What’s wrong is what’s being taught and, more importantly, what’s not being taught about this most vulnerable and confusing realm of who we are.

For example, just like we’re never taught that just because you have a thought doesn’t mean it’s true and just because you have a feeling that doesn’t mean you need to act on it, we’re also never taught that just because you feel aroused by a certain idea or situation that doesn’t mean you want to engage in or enact that situation. In other words, there’s a difference between response and desire: you can respond sexually but that doesn’t mean you desire or want the thing that aroused you. Using examples that arise frequently in my work, you can be turned on by certain fantasies but that doesn’t mean you want to live out those fantasies. Or you can feel arousal around certain situations – even disturbing scenarios or situations that don’t align with your sexual orientation  – but that doesn’t mean you want to enact those scenarios. This is what Dr. Emily Nagoski calls arousal nonconcordance in her fascinating book, “Come As You Are: The Surprising New Science that Will Transform Your Sex Life.”* As she explains:

“Genital response, which happens between your legs, is expecting. Arousal, which happens between your ears, includes enjoying.” p. 207

In other words, your body is wired to respond automatically to certain sexual stimuli, but that doesn’t mean you desire that stimulus. As always when working with thoughts, feelings, and sensations, the conclusions we draw based on the initial stimulus are often inaccurate. “Do, absolutely, trust your body. And interpret its signals accurately,” advises Nagoski. A woman after my own heart! How often I’ve written on this site and in my courses on relationship anxiety about the critical space between the thought or feeling and our interpretation of it. Now we bring this same mindset to our sexuality as we explode the common myth that says: if you feel turned on that must mean you want it. Nagoski continues:

“Even in the face of such absurdities [that genital response if about expecting without necessarily any connection to enjoying or eagerness], it’s an incredibly persistent myth. Alain de Botton, in How to Think More about Sex, goes so far as to describe lubricating vaginas and tumescent penises as ‘unambiguous agents of sincerity,’ because they are automatic rather than intentional, which means they can’t be ‘faked.’

“If that’s true, then when your doctor taps your knee’s patellar tendon and your leg kicks out, that must mean you actually want to kick your doctor.

“Or when you have an allergic reaction to pollen, you must hate flowers.

“Or when your mouth waters around a mouthful of moldy, bruised peach, you must find it delicious.

“Don’t get me wrong–you might want to kick your doctor and you might hate flowers and you might enjoy moldy, bruised peaches. But your automatic physiological processes are not how we would know that. No. Automatic physiological processes are, ya know, automatic, not sincere.” p. 209

So let’s add to the list that I often refer to on my site and earlier in this post:

Just because you have a thought doesn’t mean it’s true.

Just because you have a feeling doesn’t mean you have to act on it.

Just because you feel aroused doesn’t mean you want the object or situation that stimulated the arousal.

Who experiences sexual nonconcordance? Everyone. Literally every human being on the planet. Hollywood knows this. Advertisers know this. And the porn industry especially knows this and exploits it as much as possible. It’s our job to take back our power, which we do through accurate information.

This is just one of the myths we’ll be debunking in Sacred Sexuality: A 40-day course to heal body shame and ignite desire. Alongside bathing you in accurate information that stems from a mindset that sexuality is sacred, healthy, natural and beautiful, we’ll also be excavating your early blueprints around sexuality so that you can pull the shame stories out by the root so that you can begin to reverse the mindset of shame that you’ve absorbed from the culture and from your personal history. For the singlemost important element in feeling more alive and free in your body, whether single or coupled, is to approach yourself with kindness. As Dr. Nagoski writes on her site:

“I can also tell you that worrying about your sexual functioning is among the most efficient ways to disrupt your sexual functioning. I know it can be difficult to allow yourself to turn toward your sexuality with kindness, curiosity, and patience if it’s not behaving as you would like it to, but it turns out that’s the perhaps the most efficient way to maximize your sexual wellbeing. Trust your body. Listen to it with kindness, curiosity, and patience.”

I really like this woman.

This is exactly what you’ll learn in the course. Together, you’ll learn how to turn toward your body with kindness. In a safe group format, you’ll learn to explore these secret pathways with curiosity and rewire the cultural conditioning that equates desire with the unavailable partner. With gentle guidance, you’ll discover the poetry that lies hidden in the folds and plains of your body, your source of wisdom, joy, and aliveness. Miracles happen when we correct the cognitive distortions that cause anxiety to fester and heal the shame that obstructs open-heartedness. Without anxiety and shame in the way, our bodies become free and open channels from which to experience and express healthy and joyful sexuality.

This third round of Sacred Sexuality begins on Saturday, June 23, 2018. This is the last week to sign up and I look forward to seeing you there.

***

* I haven’t read Dr. Nagoski’s book cover to cover so I can’t recommend it quite yet, especially for anyone suffering from relationship anxiety as I don’t know if it contains potential spikes. But from what I’ve read so far it seems excellent. Thank you to the course member who recommended it. 

19 comments to Debunking Sexual Myths: Genital Response Means Desire

  • Maria

    Hi there Sheryl,

    If we have taken this course once, do we have automatic enrollment in the next?

    • No but you should have received an alumni discount code about two weeks ago. If you didn’t receive it please email me directly using the contact form above and I’ll have my assistant send you the code.

  • Rosie

    Thank you so much for this, Sheryl. This gives proof to feelings I’ve had for almost the entirety of my marriage (3.5 years), though I have experienced the other side of the same coin. My husband has gone through the whole cycle of feeling bewildered, frustrated, disappointed, and on rare occasions even angry when I try explaining that LACK of genital response does not equal lack of desire, interest, etc. I see now that he is simply over influenced by everything he has seen in mainstream media, and therefore can’t synthesize the fact that I rarely (ie almost never) initiate sexual contact when already in a state of arousal, like he does… Because that just isn’t the order in which it happens for me! So my question is: how can I make him understand that neither of us is “wrong”?

    • She talks about this in the book. It’s completely normal and it might be helpful for you to read that section to your husband so that you both understand what’s happening physiologically. It’s close to the pages that I quoted above.

  • Eleonora

    Wow, thank you for a fantastic and important blog post!

  • Anonymous

    Hi Sheryl… this article spiked me. I want my partner but I don’t feel like I want him and I don’t feel desire. I want to. But I justify that since I physically will respond (not always) but sometimes more so, it means I do and I just have mental blocks to desiring him. Maybe only a small handful of times I felt some desire after being physically turned on. Which is hard for me in general. But mentally I just don’t feel desire. This just feeds my gay spike. And you know my story. I think another thing to keep in mind is that we have many different “truths”. And it’s a choice on which one you decide to choose and then actively grow and work on. Do you think the same can be applied to my situation? I believe technically I’m bisexual But feel more desire towards women, but I really don’t ever want to leave my partner and struggle with RA. I love him and choose him. Although I doubt everything (even outside of RA). But my lack of desire truly concerns me. I want to grow it with him. I’ve taken this course, but I need to revisit it. We are also in EFT and I’m seeing a wonderful therapist for RA.

    If there have been times where I connected to enjoying it, does that mean desire? My partner also has a add time being vulnerable and open and he didn’t grow up learning about connecting to feelings. So EFT and all of this is a slow process. But the last time I enjoyed it, I did feel like we were at the same place experiencing a silent close essence to essence connection. I felt zero expectations for sex to happen. It just did and it was wonderful, although still some slight disconnect. Does this just all sound like anxiety?

    • Yes, it all sounds like anxiety and also completely normal. The fact that you’re starting to experience essence to essence connection is excellent.

    • anon

      I feel the same as you, in terms of struggling to feel genital response (equating arousal with proof that I do love my husband, am not gay, etc.). I want to enjoy sex with my husband more often but I rarely ever feel any interest. I also am on an antidepressant and have a toddler (so I’m EXHAUSTED). There are definitely times I’ve enjoyed it (a lot) but the majority of the time I have a really difficult time feeling aroused enough to enjoy sex. It makes me feel like that means I don’t really love my husband if I’m not feeling sexually aroused/interested by him. I even went so far as to google/spiral into an “am I aesexual / aromantic” last week.

      • Also 100% normal and I discuss it in the course. Most women have responsive instead of agentic arousal, meaning that they need their partner to initiate. And with a toddler and being on an antidepressant your arousal brakes are on full tilt, which would make it VERY difficult to become aroused. This has nothing to do with how much you love your partner.

  • Sarah

    So well said, and important! I know a huge thing for me was realizing how many different types of sex you have with the same person when you’re in a long term relationship. Sex can be exciting, satisfying, adventurous, arousing….but also a little tedious by turns (especially after a day of chasing children), quick, or just sort of unsatisfying. It was so anxiety provoking for a while! I remember telling my husband once that sometimes just felt like he’d asked me to go do dishes as I was about to fall asleep. Like, I guess I could but I don’t really want to. His response was “yeah I get that.” Which was a really different response than I was expecting. Now we approach sex more like our sex drives are ultimately our own responsibility, and neither party has to engage unless we want to. It’s been really freeing for me to put aside “I shouldn’t have sex unless I’m feeling super into it” and rather check in with myself and think “yeah, not tonight” or even “I can have sex, but I don’t have to love it/orgasm/engage in lots of foreplay.” It’s been a long road getting here though. I so wish media and even people in marriages would speak about sex in a more realistic way!

    • Brilliant, Sarah. This is what it looks like to free ourselves from the restraints of “shoulds” and “have-tos” that plague so many people.

  • alina

    Thank you, this is a very wonderful post, one that defuses my fears and fills me with relief. I am so happy to see you referencing Emily Nagoski’s book. I think I may have recommended it to you back during the first round of Sacred Sexuality, but I’m sure others have as well! It warms my heart to see your thoughts on her work, and makes me feel understood and protected by a pack of brilliant thinkers! (I am currently reading Women Who Run With the Wolves by Clarissa Estes, so I’ve been thinking a lot about “packs” : ) )

  • Angela

    Hi Sheryl,
    I feel that what you say is the most accurate and realistic information i have read in a long time, especially today when i feel so grounded and awaken and alive. I enjoy reading your blogs, that are so helpful and life changing. I feel my rewiring is working with the work i do from your courses and the daily tools, I am committed to wholeheartedly. Our minds and souls are a temple, i feel its so important to nourish it with truth waters.. even on my bad days.
    Thank you so much Sheryl ❤️😘🤗

  • J

    Hello! Is it still possible to sign up for the course? I tried last week and it seems the sign-up option already had closed. If not, do you know when the next one will be? If all of our lives, we are building ourselves and learning lessons, i feel like this may be one of my next lessons (unleashing my sexual self from the various bounds of society/raising/etc)

  • Anony

    Sheryl, what if there’s enjoying there too in the mind? This could be so freeing, but I’m stuck on the idea that there’s enjoyment there too.