The Science Behind Female Arousal, Explained
Here’s What’s Going on in Her Body When She’s Getting Turned On
You lean in for a kiss and brush the back of her head with your hand. You pull her close and kiss her neck. She moans. You whisper in her ear, telling her you’re “so hard right now.” She whispers back — two short words — but you don’t quite catch it.
You know what she was saying, though … right?
Most straight guys have at least some understanding of how female arousal works — that is, what’s going on in their bodies when they’re feeling the same feelings you are — but sex education generally can still be spotty even in the 21st century. And even when you are taught about it, there’s a decent chance that the physiological mechanics of female arousal weren’t given too much attention.
So if you’re not clear on the finer points of what’s going on when she’s into it, well, keep reading.
1. How Women Get Turned On
For something as complex and mysterious as arousal, it can be difficult to know where and when it begins and ends — and that goes double for women.
“Throughout history, women were hugely misunderstood,” says Lina Velikova MD, Ph.D., who writes for the sleep and wellness website Disturb Me Not. “Either they were labelled as nymphomaniacs or as frigid. The fact is: We don’t know a lot about female arousal. In some cases, it’s because women were less comfortable discussing it, or the methods scientists used to test stages of woman arousal weren’t convenient and comfortable for the woman.”
Things have progressed greatly in the past 100 years or so, but unfortunately, there still remains much ground to cover.
“There is no current metric to accurately measure psychological arousal,” says Caleb Backe, a certified health and wellness expert for Maple Holistics. “In fact, it would be nearly impossible to scientifically calculate the countless intricacies involved in the arousal process. Every person has their own individual set of experiences, subconscious desires and external influences which shape their sexual appetite that it would be almost impossible to replicate results and data.”
However, that doesn’t mean we’re working 100 percent in the dark. For the time being, it’s believed that women are less aroused than men by what they see.
“It’s empirically supported that men are sexually aroused by visual stimuli,” says Backe. “Meanwhile, studies have shown that there is a wide divergence between the neural activation of men and women when presented with sexual stimuli. Overall, women are not as consistent as men when it comes to sexual arousal.”
Backe points out how frustrating that can be for guys, especially since “consistency is intertwined in their ability to get aroused.”
“On the other hand, women’s ability to become aroused is heavily influenced by their hormonal, emotional and physical states,” he adds. “Which is why the same move might not work on two different women, or even on the same woman twice if she is in a different physiological state.”
One move that’s unlikely to work? Attempting penetrative sex without foreplay. Because of the importance of the clitoris in female sexual pleasure (more on that later), not only is straight-up penetration unlikely to lead to her climax, it’s not something you should even attempt unless she’s already highly aroused.
“In many cases, the actual act of penetration is less vital to a woman’s arousal than what leads up to it,” notes Backe. “Foreplay and the build-up to penetrative sex can make or break the sexual experience for a woman.”
2. What Happens in a Woman’s Brain When She’s Aroused
The saying that “the brain is the largest sex organ” may be true, but the brain is also incredibly complex and not fully understood by researchers and scientists. Meaning, what we do know about human sexuality may be subject to change as new studies are conducted and new technologies are developed.
“Typically, sexual arousal requires a complex interplay between stimulation of the periphery (e.g., a hand slowly stroking a cheek) and central stimulation (i.e,. the brain has to recognize stimulation as being sexual in nature),” says Dr. Nicole Prause, Ph.D., founder of Liberos, a sexual biotechnology company. “Studies have applied a vibrator to the penis, for example, with little effect until the study participants also were viewing pornography. The brain is a crucial mediator that translates stimulation to generate a sexual response.”
However, she notes that doesn’t make it the ‘sex zone’ by any means. “There is no area of the brain that is specific to ‘sex,’ as this network is also strongly engaged in processing emotions,” says Prause.
Another impact that sex has on a woman psychologically is at the hormonal level.
“Sex can reduce a woman’s stress level,” says Dr. Fran Walfish, a leading Beverly Hills-based couples, relationship and family psychologist. “This is especially so if the woman is relaxed and not constricted during the sex.”
However, the flip side is that existing stress can massively cut down on a woman’s ability to become aroused.
“Women experiencing chronic stress produce higher than normal levels of stress-related hormones that may affect the production of female sex hormones,” says Walfish. “Pregnenolone, an essential building block for the production of both sex hormones and stress-related hormones, is diverted from its normal sex-hormone pathway when you are stressed.”
RELATED: Why She Won’t Have Sex, Revealed
3. What Happens to a Woman’s Body When She’s Aroused
While there exists a stereotype that women take longer when it comes to getting aroused, that’s not due to any blood flow issues.
“People usually tend to think women are demanding when it comes to foreplay. However, they are able to become aroused as quickly as men,” contends Velikova. “When a woman becomes aroused, the blood vessels in her vagina dilate. We can notice increased blood flow in the vaginal walls, which enable fluid to go through them — the process we know as lubrication.”
As she’s getting aroused, the most significant bodily changes are happening in her vagina.
“Vasocongestion is probably the most overlooked sign of arousal in women,” says Prause. “[It] simply means blood perfusing into the vaginal walls and structures of the vulva. It is very similar to the process in men, but women do not have the strictures that the penis does that causes rigidity (women just tumesce).”
You might not be super-aware of vasocongestion as a process — and part of that might be on the fact that it’s not a big part of most porn.
“Since vasocongestion is difficult to fake — unlike wetness, where lubricant can simulate a response — you rarely see vasocongestion portrayed in pornography,” notes Prause. “Vasocongestion is really important if you plan on having any type of vaginal penetration because the engorgement helps cause the structures near the vaginal opening to become more rigid to support penetration.”
How can you tell if things are vascongested down there?
“You can tell if a vulva is vasocongested because it will be larger, may feel or look ‘puffy,’ and often becomes darker or red in appearance,” she adds. “You can stimulate vasocongestion with suction devices made to fit over the vulva, but these would not reach deeper structures, like the clitoral bulbs, [which] are part of the engorgement process during sexual arousal, stimulated through central (i.e. brain) activation.”
3. What Arousal Means (and Doesn’t Mean)
If your experience as a guy is traditionally that when you want to have sex, you get an erection, it can be easy to conflate physical arousal with emotional arousal. While it’s true that there’s a fair amount of overlap there, it’s important not to mistake one for the other — particularly when you’re dealing with your partner’s vagina.
Dr. Janet Brito points out that “just because [your partner’s] wet, it does not mean [they] are horny. It just means [their] body is responding functionally.” She goes on to add that “physical arousal does not equate sexual arousal.” Instead, “sexual arousal requires an emotional response. Wetness is not body language for consent, only an explicit ‘yes’ is.”
So just because your partner’s wet doesn’t mean you have the go-ahead to start penetrating them. Also, vaginal lubrication doesn’t mean that your partner did enjoy or consent to sex if they tell you afterward they didn’t. Similarly, the absence of lubrication doesn’t mean your partner doesn’t want to have sex with you; different people’s bodies produce more or less lubrication depending on a number of different factors.
Things like age, diseases, medications, hormonal makeup and time since they last got aroused can drastically impact how wet someone can get. This isn’t particularly different from a man wanting to have sex but struggling to maintain an erection.
Luckily, as with erection pills like Viagra, the existence of sexual lubricants means you can make up for lube that’s not being produced naturally, and still have great sex.
As comforting as it might be to associate the presence or absence of a bodily function — which seems cut and dry — with the presence or absence of consent, at the end of the day, only an enthusiastic “yes!” functions that way.
In the end, though, as much as it can be useful and interesting to know all this, it won’t necessarily make you a better lover.
“[Sex] is the most personal act that two people can partake in and looking to science to answer some questions may be appropriate. But, if you really want your partner to enjoy herself, then communication is key,” says Backe. “She needs to feel comfortable enough with you to be able to tell you if something is not arousing her and what you can do instead.”
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