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Two women of different races in bathing suits hanging out and enjoying their drinks together

Desire vs. Arousal.

We’ve been thinking a lot about the idea of desire and arousal this week - what really ‘turns us on’ and ‘turns us off’, and more importantly, the ‘why’ of it all. These triggers are often so unconscious and built up over years of conditioning, that we rarely recognize how our behavior is so deeply influenced by them.

We’re taking things back to Sex Ed 101, with something so obvious, that we rarely consider it: What’s actually going on when you’re moving from thinking about sex, to doing it, to finishing up?

There’s a whole bunch of changes taking place in your brain and body, but we usually don’t even register them.

Let's start at the beginning: Arousal.

That feeling of getting in the mood, being horny or super turned on. Picture this: a steamy make out session that leads straight to you taking your pants off. That’s arousal in action.

It’s almost impossible to talk about arousal without also talking about desire. For those of you wondering if they're the same thing, we’ll cut to the chase: No, they’re not.

Desire is your mind wanting something.

Like having the sudden desire to eat a delicious piece of cake after seeing it on the dessert counter. Arousal, on the other hand, is your body's cues coming into play. Like having a major craving or hunger pang to eat that cake, and feeling your mouth water.

If you just have desire, but no arousal– you may or may not eat that cake, based on multiple considerations. You might think about how far the closest bakery is, or whether it’s going to ruin your fitness goals. But if you’re hungry enough, you’ll go out and get that cake no matter what. That’s arousal and desire working together.

It’s a common myth that you have to experience sexual desire before you can get aroused. In fact, it works the opposite for many people who just think they have low sex drives. They might not actively have sex on their mind, or be able to just “get in the mood”. In cases like that, arousal can actually precede desire. Physical stimulation can lead to wanting to engage in sexual activity, instead of the other way around. That’s why things like physical affection, touching, flirting and foreplay are super important.

Another surprising thing we learned was that a lot of the feel-good chemicals being released in the brain during sex, actually happen in this phase of desire and arousal, rather than when you’re actually having sex. When you’re in this phase of excitement, your body often releases its highest levels of dopamine, proving that anticipation and mental stimulation are truly half the fun (but clearly, worth double the pleasure).

Hold on, there’s still a bit more left here. Here are some questions to reflect on (Take some time and think about these. Be 100% honest, and maybe you’ll even surprise yourself):

  • If you had to list down your top 3 turn-ons, what would they be?
  • Are there any you’re a little embarrassed to admit to?
  • What about your turn offs?
  • Are you more driven by physical or personality traits in others?
  • What about yourself? What do you consider to be your most desirable qualities?
  • Do you believe your turn-ons and turn-offs have changed over time?
  • What comes first for you, before engaging in sexual activity… Desire, or arousal?


This article was an excerpt from Musings003. Sign up so you don't miss out!


While our contributors do research a great deal to give you up to date and relevant content, this is basis publicly available information. Our contributors are not doctors or healthcare service providers and our content does not constitute or act as a substitute for medical advice or diagnosis under applicable laws. All suggestions, advice, points of view etc., are meant for adults in the privacy of their own homes.

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