Having trouble feeling arousal - Ask BISH

Having Trouble Feeling Arousal

“I’m a 19 year old woman and I’m having trouble feeling arousal. This has been an issue for as long as I can remember. I am on some medications that can affect arousal, but they’re necessary, so I don’t know what to do. Watching porn has never turned me on, and reading explicit stuff can sometimes do it for me, but only very specific things and even then it’s not guaranteed. It’s just really frustrating. I try to masturbate and usually it’s either just neutral or not enjoyable enough for me to want to continue. I’ve never managed to orgasm either. Any advice on things to try?”

Hi, great question and thanks for asking me about it. First of all I’m going to talk about the problem a bit and why it’s probably (bad) sex research and (bad) sex education that’s to blame. Then I’ll give you some actual advice. Feel free to skip to that bit. The first bit is interesting but paying attention to the problem won’t help you nearly as much as paying attention to the solution.

Where arousal happens

Some medications can definitely affect how aroused we get. So you could talk to your doctor about this. Some clinicians are better about this than others, but if you think that the meds are causing a lack of arousal they should be able to offer you either a different kind of medication, or a treatment that might help.

But often when people talk about lack of arousal it’s just about what happens in the genitals. Arousal doesn’t just happen in the genitals. A lot of (bad) sex research focuses on what happens in the genitals when someone is turned on. However, being turned on happens within your body and outside your body. I don’t know if you are thinking about your genitals too much (you don’t mention it) but if you are then you might want to forget them.

Remember that arousal depends on: the external world (porn or erotica, in your case); your imagination; how comfortable you’re feeling; what your nervous system is up to; your breathing; the noises you’re making; and how the skin all over your body is responding. All of these things start working together and feeding off each other, which puts your body in a different state. If you want to be super nerdy about this try my Teach Yourself Sex Ed module about Bodies (it’s all free).

You don’t have to feel aroused

Just like a lot of (bad) sex research focuses on genitals and arousal, a lot of (bad) sex education tells us that we should be aroused. You don’t have to experience sexual arousal if you don’t want. Nor do you have to have a desire to have sex. Arousal and desire are there for some people and not so much in others. I’ve also had people tell me that they are too aroused and desire sex too much. This means we have to think about society here too. Clearly there’s a bullshit ‘Goldilocks’ sexuality – that we ‘should’ have just the ‘right’ amount of desire and arousal. Try to ignore that too. There are a lot of (bad) sex educators trying to make a career out of making people feel bad about themselves.

As you are asking me about this and as you’ve been trying to experience arousal, perhaps this is something that you are interested in. I’m just saying that you don’t have to be if you don’t want to. You might also want to think about whether you experience some kind of asexuality.

Sexism

As ever it’s important to also think about how sexism can impact women’s sexual experiences. (A lot of this is actually true for men too). Women receive a lot of shame and stigma for being interested in sex, but also for not being interested in sex enough. Sex education often does not talk about the possibilities for sex to be pleasurable. Then sex positive sex education often tells women that they ‘should’ be experiencing arousal and pleasure and experiencing them in particular ways. All of this can really take us out of our bodies. The ways that our bodies are told to behave (or disciplined) means that many folk (men, women, and non-binary) just find it super hard to listen to their bodies and to be in tune with how they respond.

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A single ‘thing’ isn’t going to ‘make’ you aroused

I think it’s also useful to stop thinking about a single particular thing causing something to happen. It’s just not a useful way to think about sex I don’t think. Enjoyable sensations and feelings emerge from a complex interplay of things. For example, in partnered sex someone might think that it was their ‘expert’ fingers that ‘made somebody come’. That’s unlikely. Maybe it’s more like: what they could smell, how relaxed they were, how sexy they were feeling beforehand, did they have any good sex ed, a sexy fantasy they were playing in their head, how comfortable they felt with the other person, plus the ‘expert’ fingers. Once you get away from the idea of ‘a thing’ causing ‘another thing’ to happen, then I think you’re more likely to have a better time with solo sex.

Advice on how to feel more aroused / feel really good

Here’s the actual advice though. You use the phrase ‘sometimes do it for me’. This shows that there are exceptions. Sometimes you do feel some kind of arousal. You might not feel super aroused but a little bit. So cast your mind back to a time when you were a bit aroused. Whatever ‘arousal’ feels for you (not what you’ve heard ‘should’ happen). Try to relive it in your head in really really fine detail. Second by second. Here are some questions that might help you.

What were you doing before? Can you describe what mood you were in? What were you thinking? What was happening in your body just beforehand? Do you remember any particular feelings, sensations, or thoughts? As you got going, what did you notice? What was the very very first sign that something was feeling good? It could be something very very small. As this thing started to happen, what was happening in your body? What kinds of sensations did you feel and where? Can you describe to yourself what kinds of thoughts you were having? Do you remember what was happening with your breathing? What room were you in? Can you describe to yourself the overall vibe of what was happening at that moment?

It might be the case that there was just this fleeting moment when something felt really good. That’s fine, just really try to relive it and describe it to yourself as best as you can. You might want to make a note of this or even say it out loud to yourself (record yourself if you have a phone for instance) because that makes this approach work even more.

Then notice what feels better

Once you’ve described a time when you felt really good, just spend the next few weeks noticing what feels better. There might be the tiniest moment when you notice something feeling good. If this happens (it might not, which is fine) just gently see what emerges. Instead of making yourself do something, or try to get somewhere (like an orgasm) just keep noticing what’s better. Ask yourself, ‘what’s better?’ and then ‘what else?’ Have a little dialogue with yourself and listen to everything that’s going on around you: your body, your emotions, thoughts, what you’re doing, and the general vibe of what’s happening in the room.

After a few weeks you might just start to notice what’s feeling better. Pay more attention to the smallest signs of arousal (for you) instead of what’s wrong or what isn’t happening. When we notice and describe what we can do (rather than what we can’t) things can start to really improve for us quite a lot.

Hope you find that helpful! I also wrote about Orgasms here if you want to read that one too.

Comment below if you like. I moderate all comments before they appear, just so you know!

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I’ve been a sex and relationships educator since 1999 (with a background in youth and community work). In that time I’ve taught and given advice about sex and relationships with thousands of young people in person and millions online. I’ve worked with many charities, local governments, schools and youth organisations facilitating training and workshops. My two books, Enjoy Sex (How, When, and If You Want To) and Can We Talk About Consent? are widely available around the world. I’m also a member of the World Association for Sexual Health. Justin Hancock

One thought on “Having Trouble Feeling Arousal

  1. Thank you for this excellent answer, Justin! If the person who asked the question would like to read more about this matter, I can recommend the book ‘Come As You Are’ by Emily Nagoski (https://www.emilynagoski.com/). It helped me a *lot*, mainly in letting go of a lot of cultural bullshit. Also, it’s funny.

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