One of the fun things about being a folklorist who’s also a sex educator is that I get to disambiguate terms that cross between both fields. Context is a perfect exmple, and it’s also a super important concept for anyone who wants to understand how sexual arousal works.
Take, for example, context. In folklore studies we use context to mean the specific social situation in which an item of folklore is performed, created, or transmitted. This includes both the wider cultural context as well as the immediate context, such as the where and when of the performance situation.
However, in sexuality studies, context has a very specific meaning. As Emily Nagoski explains in her book Come as You Are: The Surprising New Science that Will Transform Your Sex Life, context is made of two parts:
- the circumstances of the present moment–whom you’re with, where you are, whether the situation is novel or familiar, risky or safe, etc.
- your brain state in the present moment–whether you’re relaxed or stressed, trusting or not, loving or not, right now in this moment. (75)
The fascinating thing is that our perception of sensation can vary widely depending on our context. The classic example Nagoski gives is that of tickling: if you’re in a context with trust and affection, tickling might feel pleasant. But the same exact sensation, but delivered by a stranger, or when you’re already feeling pissed off? That’s a train ticket to nope-land (and possibly punching/kicking the other person, whether intentionally or because it’s an involuntary reaction when you’re tickled).
While in general men and women are made of the same parts, arranged differently (thus, our arousal patterns fundamentally work the same way), there are some differences in how context impacts us. Nagoski notes: “The evidence is mounting that women’s sexual response is more sensitive to men’s than context, including mood and relationship factors, and women vary more from each other in how much such factors influence their sexual response” (75). Women respond to a variety of contexts, with some individuals finding that a narrow context (often low stress, highly erotic, and highly affectionate) works best for them, and others responding to changing contexts over time.
So long as your context includes consent and pleasure, it doesn’t really matter what it is. No context is inherently any better or worse than any other. A context that worked for you in the past may stop working for you, and that’s okay. And the good news is, even if you feel like your arousal patterns are weird or broken, you’re not broken, and you can always find ways to change up your context. Yes, it might take some work to figure out and then communicate about your ideal context(s), but it can be done.
A word about brain states: Nagoski summarizes a bunch of brain research in her book and in her TEDx talk (transcript here), but the quick takeaway version is that in an environment (a.k.a. external context) where you feel safe and relaxed, almost any stimulation can be perceived as pleasurable. And in an environment where you feel stressed or unsafe, almost any sensation–even those that would normally feel fun/yay/sexy–can provoke an UGH response. Thus, your physical surroundings impact your brain state, and your brain state in turn influences how you perceive physical sensations. It’s all interrelated.
I’ve written about self-care tools designed to help in times of trauma and stress, and my educated guess is that these might also help you alter your internal context to increase your feelings of safety and comfort, in order to access your arousal when you want to. Think of it like a self-hack, since only you know what works for you (though you can also explore these techniques with a partner).
Understanding what context means in regard to sexual arousal, and that individuals respond differently to different contexts, helps make for a more sex-positive view of sexuality. Since we all respond to different contexts, none of us have arousal patterns that are inherently better or worse than anyone else’s. And being secure in that knowledge, and confident in our self-knowledge, helps create a more sex-positive context in the broader world for everyone.