Head, Heart and Balls
The penis and sexual arousal
I have been fascinated by the difference between arousal and desire ever since I discovered that sex was quite a dull experience if I wasn't mentally aroused.
(I say mentally aroused because I can still get physically aroused - by which I mean my penis develops an erection - fairly quickly when I'm in bed with a naked woman even if I don't want sex).
We're led to believe that sex is always supposed to be a wonderful experience, so how can it be that sex without mental arousal turns out to be an empty experience?
Maybe before I look at that question I should try to define what I mean by arousal and desire. I'd say that mental arousal was a state of high sexual excitement, where one feels turned on in a kind of primal, urgent way.
It's the state of sexual excitement which develops from being in contact with stimuli that provoke one's deeply instinctual sexual urges.
I find that giving my partner oral sex is one such stimulus for me: the sight, taste and scent of her vulva turns me on in a way that almost nothing else can.
Physical arousal I see as the hard evidence of being aroused - the penis is erect in men, the vagina is lubricated in women.
So what, then, is desire? What is love, too, for that matter - and since we are asking this questions, we might as well ask another - "What makes a man love a woman?" (Read about this here.)
I see this as the product of one's arousal - it's effectively what one wants to do when one is highly aroused: in other words, the way in which one wants to get off. To put it another way, arousal is about feeling sexual desire is about wanting sex.
There's no doubt that being in the presence of a highly aroused woman is extremely arousing for most men. Think of being with a woman who wants sex urgently and is behaving accordingly: legs spread, vulva open and engorged, begging you to put your penis inside her - it's very powerfully arousing, isn't it?
It's not hard to see this in evolutionary terms, because a female mammal who's on heat is ready to ovulate, ready to mate, ready to produce offspring.
It's natural that a male needs to be stimulated quickly and intensely, so that he can impregnate her and increase the likelihood of passing on his genes successfully to the next generation.
But being so flexible in our sexual behavior means that when a man is highly aroused, however that arousal has developed, whether from being with a partner, or just through being horny and full of testosterone, he can do many different things with his desire.
He may discharge his sexual arousal with a willing sexual partner, or he may resort to masturbatory fantasy about women or men with whom he cannot in reality be sexual. He may, for example, desire to have sex with a fashion model or film star - these outlets may become his masturbatory fantasies.
The advent of Viagra has emphasized the difference between physical arousal and desire in men. Medics who prescribe Viagra for impotent men always emphasize that it isn't going to increase their libido or desire.
So if you aren't sexually inclined to start with, Viagra isn't going to increase your desire to have sex. But when you're mentally aroused (feeling sexual), and you want sex (experiencing desire), it will operate on your erectile mechanism to give your physical arousal a boost.
Another insight into arousal and desire comes from a study where a group of women were asked to watch porn films and their resulting physical arousal - as defined by vaginal engorgement and lubrication - was measured.
The women were found to be aroused physically, but they all reported that they didn't experience any mental arousal or desire for sex.
In other words, there is a pretty strong sexual filter operating in women at the mental/emotional level which determines the stimuli they allow themselves to experience as sexually attractive.
This fits with the biological model found in many animal species, where the female chooses which male(s) she will mate with.
The cunning scientists at Pfizer, makers of Viagra, eager to increase women's sexual responsiveness, and, no doubt, sell more Viagra, tried to establish how their product could be used to increase female sexual desire.
Needless to say, they have encountered the same results as the scientists in the study mentioned above: Viagra does indeed increase blood flow and stimulates the physical responses of a woman's pelvic tissues, but it does not make her feel horny - she does not feel more sexual desire.
After many years' research, the scientists gloomily concluded that women often don't have any desire for sex until they are physically in the act of lovemaking, and that getting a woman to connect arousal and desire requires exquisite timing on a man's part and a fair amount of coaxing.
I'd suggest that any man's experience just doesn't bear this out. Women have just as much desire as men - they just show it differently.
And it's promoted by different things - love, romance, sensuality.....
So - back to the question I posed in the first paragraph: why can I be physically aroused and yet not find sex satisfying unless I am mentally aroused as well?
Is it that my brain works in a more feminine way than most men's sexuality? I don't think so. I prefer to believe, based on how hard it has been in the past for me to say "no" to my partner when I didn't want sex but she did, that we've become so stereotyped by popular culture.
We've swallowed whole the idea of the ever-ready penis, willing and able to penetrate female flesh on demand, so much so that men don't feel they can say " no" even when they don't want sex.
In other words, it's an illusion that when a man's in bed with a naked woman and gets an erection, he will always want to have sex.
It's also an illusion that we will always be able to be a powerful, dominant lover, and give a woman fantastic sex - life isn't like that - sex goes wrong, with low desire, or other sexual dysfunctions of one kind or another, and so on.....
I think that unless a man is so flush with testosterone that he simply cannot help but feel horny, he will sometimes find the same things that turn his partner on are necessary to turn him on: intimacy, freedom from stress, relaxation, the absence of anger or tension in the relationship, and, perhaps, more than anything else, love.
Other pages on this site