The amazing thing about this model of arousal is how astoundingly obvious it was, and how long it took science to catch up to social beliefs. No less amazing is the fact that every human works this way.
As you’ve realized by now, I’m a huge fan of Emily Nagoski’s work. This blog post focuses on one particular aspect of it: the dual control model of arousal. As in, how do people begin to feel turned on and want sex? Why are there some differences between how men and women experience this? And how can you hack your own arousal?
To begin, sexual arousal works just like every other part of the central nervous system. It’s all got systems of gas pedals and brakes governing its actions. And yet, because of the way that sex is treated as special and unique, scientists didn’t figure out the connection til the late 1990s. There have been plenty of other models of arousal, but none of them have been quite this accurate (Nagoski goes over them in this comic).
So we’ve got the Sexual Excitation System (SES), a.k.a. the accelerator or gas pedal, and the Sexual Inhibition System (SIS), a.k.a. the brakes. Everyone has this dual control model, and everyone’s is calibrated a little differently. The gas pedal notices any sexually relevant stimuli in your environment and sends the message to start arousal, while the brakes pedal notices anything that might impede sexytimes – risk of pregnancy or STI transmission, shame, trauma, performance anxiety – and says “Nope, don’t get turned on.”
This is one area where context becomes really important: we’re all attuned to context differently, but women in particular have received more socialization reinforcing the significance of context to arousal, aswell as more socialization linking sexuality with shame. Bizarrely (to my mind), physiology plays a role as well. Nagoski explains this more in depth in her book Come as You Are: The Surprising New Science that Will Transform Your Sex Life:
The “sexy” category in a little girl’s mind is populated not ith erection-related stimuli but with social stimuli…girls learn what’s sexually relevant not because their genitals do something so obvious and new that they can’t help learning from it, but rather by paying attention to their environment, especially to the other person there with them in the sexually relevant situation. (65)
This type of conditioning, more than any supposedly innate differences between men and women, accounts for more of the disjunctures between male and female sexuality. Remember, we’re all made of the same parts, assembled differently. So knock it off with the crummy, essentializing metaphors comparing women to slow cookers or men to matches or whatever (ok, as a folklorist I’m inherently interested in metaphorical language, but when it’s sexist it bothers me).
People who experience nonconcordant arousal also deal with the contrast between physiological signs of arousal and subjective signs of arousal; just because you’re hard or wet doesn’t mean you’re enjoying the experience of it!
We can’t change how sensitive our accelerators or brakes are; all the science seems to point toward us being born with certain settings. We can, however, rewire what we respond to as sexual stimuli, since we learn what is sexually relevant vs. sexually threatening through experience (direct experience as well as cultural messages).
Similarly, we can work toward becoming aware of what hits our brakes, and thus attempt to lessen the presence of those stimuli in our lives (whether that means removing threats/risks or doing the self work on negative internal states or perceptions). Nagoski’s short answer for how to stop hitting the brakes is:
Reduce your stress, be affectionate toward your body, and let go of the false ideas about how sex is “supposed” to work, to create space in your life for how sex actually works. (68)
These seem like sound goals regardless of whether you’re pursuing them in the hopes of increasing your access to sexual arousal, right? If you’re curious about how your SIS and SES are calibrated, check out Nagoski’s worksheets here.