Desire and Arousal – Wanting Sex and Being Turned On

Wanting to have sex is ‘desire.’ Being turned on is ‘arousal.’ Sometimes they happen at the same time, sometimes not. Why?

Arousal and desire are different

When someone really wants to have sex with someone it is called ‘desire’. When someone is really turned on or horny it is called ‘arousal’. Sometimes people feel desire first and then feel arousal, sometimes people feel aroused first and then desire sex. When people are having really enjoyable sex they are usually feeling both desire and arousal at the same time.

So often these two things go together but often they don’t. Sometimes people really want to have sex with someone but they don’t feel aroused (or aroused enough). Sometimes people feel aroused but they really don’t want to have sex…

Arousal with no desire

People can feel aroused without wanting to have sex. Sometimes this can be very inconvenient, particular if their genitals stick out around 5 inches when they are turned on.

Penis erections can happen when someone is feeling really turned on but can also happen at other times. In the morning when testosterone is at a high level (also known as morning glory), or on a bus, or in a classroom, or at work. This can be embarrassing but there are ways that they can be hidden (hands in pockets, sitting down, pulling top down or even wearing two pairs of pants).

Just because you are aroused, doesn’t mean you want to have sex (or are giving your consent to sex)

The same thing happens to the vulva too. Blood rushes into the clitoris causing the vulva to swell and become very sensitive, just like with penises. Also the vagina changes shape and gets wetter. It can be random and happen at any time. It doesn’t mean that we want to have sex. This is one of those examples of genitals being similar.

It’s also very very common. If it happens to you, try to hide it (if you need to) and just wait it out. Be patient and wait for it to go away (and to come back at a better time).

Being aroused doesn’t mean that someone wants to have sex. In the book Fifty Shades of Grey there’s a passage when Christian is trying to convince Ana into doing something she doesn’t want to do. She says no but he says ‘look your genitals are aroused you must want this really’. This is the work of a total sh*t. Being aroused isn’t the same as wanting sex, arousal does not mean consent.

Desire with no arousal

Sometimes when people really really want to have sex with someone (or by themselves) they find that arousal just isn’t happening for them. This can be because of stress, or worry about having sex with someone (worrying about being turned on can prevent us being turned on), the newness of sex, not feeling they have enough private space, having something else on their mind, or anxiety and worry about sex hurting (which it shouldn’t), not being ready for sex … (there are loads of reasons why this happens).

Sometimes arousal and desire come together, sometimes they don’t. If you’re in a situation where you really want to have sex but aren’t aroused enough then firstly try not to panic. Breathe, focus on the sensations going on in your body, what you can feel, touch, hear, see, taste. Take it slowly and talk to each other about how you would like to touch each other to get more turned on. Try snogging for a bit, lots of people find this can help relax them and put them in their sexy zone.

If it really isn’t happening then maybe stop for a bit, put some tunes on, have a chat, or try it another time.

Men and women

Men and women can enjoy (or not enjoy) sex just as much as each other and just as much as other genders too. Their bodies work in very similar ways and they can get turned on and start enjoying sex very quickly. However when men and women start having sex together there can often be a bit of a mismatch. Men can get turned on and enjoy sex more quickly than women. Why? It’s not to do with our bodies but with society.

Men and women are given very different messages about how they should behave when they have sex with each other. This can affect their arousal and desire.

What words or phrases are used to describe sexually active men? What words or phrases are used to describe sexually active women? So who gets status for having sex and who gets stigma? This puts pressure on women to not to be active, powerful and horny when they have sex. It also puts pressure on men to be active, powerful and horny even if they aren’t feeling it and even if it’s not what either of them want. All these messages men and women receive about how to be men and women that have sex can have a serious effect on how horny they get and how much they want to do it.

Why are women called sluts and men not?


Secondly what society says counts as sex for straight couples (ie penis in vagina sex) is often more enjoyable for the penis than the vagina. Which means that for many straight cis-gender couples sexual excitement can look like this. Look how much the woman is enjoying sex at the point where the man is enjoying sex the most. This is certainly not true for all couples and many men and women enjoy penis in vagina sex as much as each other. Also things are changing as more people report having different kinds of sex with each other which is more likely to be mutually enjoyable.

How do we know we’re turned on?

If we are having sexy time then we might start feeling aroused. Signs of arousal are different and very varied for lots of people and can change over time, but they may include: sensitive nipples, a shortness of breath, tingling sensation in different parts of the body (neck, chest, feet) and the genital area (the bits in our pants) becoming swollen and sensitive.

Not everyone feels sexual arousal. Also arousal differs from person to person and from time to time. It’s a very personal thing. So find out what it means for you.

This can include: the clitoris feeling hard, the vagina becoming slippery and relaxed, the labia feeling swollen. If the vagina isn’t aroused enough then entry sex can feel uncomfortable and painful which could result in harm. With many women (with vaginas) their previous experience of painful sex can make them anxious about painful sex which in itself can make sex painful.

Some vaginas may need additional lubrication to keep moist (and that is true for people who have had surgery to help create a vagina) but regularly needing this might be a sign that something isn’t quite working as it could. A trip to a clinic could help with this where they can help you explore whether it’s to do with your body, your relationship or how you feel about sex generally.

The penis can get harder, longer and thicker. The balls can tighten and may feel more swollen. Sometimes erections don’t happen when we really want them to. Even when males are feeling really turned on sometimes they can get the flop. This can happen for medical reasons: but usually it’s a temporary problem that is often caused by not being relaxed. This can be because of stress generally, worries about ‘performance’ (worrying about staying hard can make it harder to stay hard), anxiety about being seen naked or about safer sex. (see above).

Everyone experiences these things differently, so it’s important to remember that. It’s also important to try to figure this out for yourself first without comparing yourself to how turned on you *should* feel. Many people don’t experience sexual feelings or attraction at all and that’s absolutely fine.

Find out more about the clitoris and vagina and what happens when it gets aroused. Also here’s more about the penis and here’s more about hard ons.

© Justin Hancock 2015

8 thoughts on “Desire and Arousal – Wanting Sex and Being Turned On

  1. When a man suddenly has to masturbate, its because something has arroused him, right? I know some men use masturbation as a way to relieve stress or help them to fall asleep. But, if a man masturbates up to 10 times a day, its probably more likely that he is turned on by something, right?

  2. I wish someone had explained this to me when I was an adolescent! It has caused me, and a couple of unfortunate partners, much confusion in the past. I experience arousal a lot and desire a lot but they don’t overlap that much. I can’t think how to explain that to anyone who doesn’t feel the same, but maybe if someone who does is reading this they will know what I mean and know they’re not on their own with it.

  3. Excellent piece. The difference seems really obvious now, but I have to admit I’ve never really thought about it in such clear terms.

    Also, as you mentioned, there may be ways to create arousal. They don’t always work, but often they do. But is there a way to create desire? Seems like it might be a much lengthier process.

    1. I think that people experience these things differently but for most I guess there is a huge overlap. I think they also interplay and that one can kickstart the other. I’ve tried to keep it clear but I think it’s more complex than I’ve stated here. If that makes sense!

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