Do you like peanut butter and jelly sandwiches? Peanut butter goes so well with jelly that we easily think of them together. But they can also stand alone–jelly on an English muffin, peanut butter on a Ritz cracker. You can have them together or separately. Desire and arousal are paired similarly; they can go together or they can be independent of each other. Desire is a psychological process arising in and affecting the mind. Arousal is a physiological process, originating in the body and its systems. Psychological and physiological can blend like PB&J. Most of us know how they work together. What happens when they are independent is what I want to examine. Just as peanut butter can be chunky or smooth, there are different types of desire and arousal. Let’s look at definitions and examples of desire.
- to long or hope for
- a conscious impulse toward something that promises enjoyment or satisfaction in its attainment.
I long for a tropical vacation. I am following a conscious impulse to attain a hot fudge sundae, even though it’s something I should avoid. I also desire connection, presence and loving touch from my partner that promises enjoyment or satisfaction. I am the originator of these desires.
Can my desire affect others? Yes. My desire for a vacation may spark theirs. When I talk about getting tickets, the attractions I will see and the warm sandy beaches I’ll be relaxing on, my desire may excite their mind about a vacation of their own. In relationships we can spark desire in each other. I might be in the kitchen doing the dishes when my partner comes up behind me and whispers in my ear, “You are so hot. I want you.” The last thing on my mind was being physical with him, but now it’s the first thing on my mind. Being desired can spark warm-fuzzies that ignite my own desire. This is responsive desire.
Let’s look at arousal.
Arousal: a state of heightened physiological activity: pounding chest, rapid breathing, flushed face, stirring in the loins.
Sexual arousal: arousal during or in anticipation of sexual activity. Notice “in anticipation of” –sexual arousal may not lead to any actual sexual activity beyond a mental arousal (desire) and the physiological changes that accompany it.
Arousal contingency: Unless things are just right arousal can be disrupted. This is where feeling safety, love, and trust in your partner comes into play.
Sometimes it happens that we skip desire and go straight into arousal. We are back to PB&J, good together but also enjoyable separately. Here is an example from my experience. I’m on a movie date with a new guy, watching the feud between the Vampires and Werewolves in the action sci-fi movie Underworld, chosen specifically for a first date. No hint of romance. Then unexpectedly two- thirds of the way through there is this super-hot sex scene. OMG, uncomfortable! My body parts start stirring, I’m getting aroused from the visual on the BIG screen in front of me. Am I desiring to actually have sex? No. My body is responding to the scene presented to me. This is called arousal non-concordance, a mismatch of arousal and desire where your body responses may not match your mental experience.
This can happen at any time, such as seeing a photo or art piece that sends erotic chills through you, or the not so good experience of non-consensual touch. You are mentally and verbally saying no to the advances of another, but your body is responding yes.
Arousal non-concordance is a mixed message between mind and body, and not unusual in interactions. I may desire you but tonight my body is just not into it. Or maybe my intention is just to cuddle and feel nurtured but my body rushes to arousal. All these reactions are normal, although we tend to believe that one comes before the other and if they show up out of order something’s wrong. It can be confusing to both parties when the words say yes and the body says no or vice-versa.
Knowing these definitions and understanding what you are experiencing, you can decide what to do. Choose to act on them, or not. Honoring what state you want to be in or act upon is your choice.
By Tracy Lee