You just have to know what you’re looking for.
Physical sexual arousal – the sexually aroused body – has been endlessly studied, most famously by Masters and Johnson in the 1960’s. And less rigorously but no less intensely by every sexual couple since the dawn of human self-awareness.
Most couples study the male partner’s erections and the female partner’s state of lubrication carefully, for reassurance about their respective states of sexual arousal. Urban legends rise and fall concerning other putative guides to one’s partner’s level of sexual arousal (see “nipple erection,” “pupil dilation”). But through all of this, we’re in the realm of the sexually aroused body.
The sexually aroused mind has proved harder to study. Research on mental sexual arousal continues to await its Masters and Johnson.
In the meantime, when patients ask me how to recognize arousal, I tell them to look for the following signs:
When we’re aroused, sex grabs our attention. We stop thinking about bills, worries, responsibilities — our entire portfolio of ordinary concerns. Our time sense typically becomes impaired. (People tend to arrive late to meetings when they’re aroused).
If someone gave us an IQ test during peak sexual arousal, we wouldn’t do very well on it. The tester might have a difficult time getting us to pay attention to the questions. Good sex makes us definitely dumber. And great sex can make us downright stupid.
Arousal reduces us to an infantile level. We become, if all goes well, as naturally selfish as a small child. We don’t tolerate frustration very well.
If the phone rings during lovemaking, we get upset. We don’t care who’s calling — or what they want.
When we’re aroused, we don’t want to be bothered by anything — except our sexual needs. We may be deeply absorbed in passionate feelings towards our sexual partner, but we might at that moment not want to hear all about their day. We just want to be treated very nicely and told that everything will be fine.
There are no words for it. Arousal just feels special. And uniquely validating. Sexual arousal appears to evoke our earliest physical and emotional partnerships with the first people who held us, rocked us, pleasured us, and told us we were wonderful.
Maybe that’s why we crave it so much. Maybe it’s a homecoming.
The infantile part of sexual arousal is a complex, contradictory, and sometimes volatile thing. It can be healing, and can also cause much grief. But wouldn’t that just about fit our ordinary experience of what sex is like?
When couples come to see me complaining of a sexual symptom, such as lack of sexual desire, or sexual boredom, or some other dysfunction — I always try to find out whether they’ve been getting aroused. Not just hard – or lubricated. But really aroused. Captivated. Self-absorbed. Infantile. I like to see a few giggles.
Sometimes a couple has been too preoccupied with the physical aspects (for instance, trying to make lubrication or erections occur), and simply never knew to pay attention to the mental aspects of sexual arousal.
But more often, at some point early in the sexual relationship, amidst all the complex and vulnerable feelings stirred up by sexual arousal, someone’s infantile feelings got hurt. And arousal took flight, and never returned.
What does it take to bring it back? It’s not always possible. Sometimes the heart has its reasons for staying away.
But sometimes simple acts of peace – such as listening to each other, being curious about each other’s experience, and daring to be vulnerable again — can make arousal, like Noah’s Dove, return bearing an olive branch.