How does arousal work for women?

For many of us it’s a big mystery! And if we’re going to aim to have mutually satisfying sex–where sex is not just about a man’s physical release, but is about a woman’s pleasure, too–then we need to understand how women feel pleasure.

I’ve written before about orgasm for women:

But today I want to get much more fundamental. I think one of the reasons that women have such a hard time reaching orgasm is because we don’t have the building blocks there yet. We don’t necessarily understand how arousal works.

Last Friday we talked about how, when you’re first married, it’s more important to aim for arousal than it is to have sex, because too often people skip important stages in a woman understanding her body in order to get right to intercourse, but then it’s hard to go backwards. You associate sex with something “blah”, so your body doesn’t crave it, and your husband may not realize that you missed out on something. So I thought it may be useful to do some “sex ed” today and talk about how our bodies work.

Here, then, are 10 things that you may not know about arousal and women:

1. Women have erections, too

We know that the sign of man’s arousal is an erect penis, which is kind of hard to miss. But when women are aroused, the clitoris can go from around 3-4 mm in height to around 8 mm (though some women may be much larger). When women get erect, blood flow increases to the genitals, and the vulva gets engorged to make penetration easier.

2. Women have several physiological signs of arousal

Clitoral erection and genital engorgement aren’t the only signs of arousal. Women’s nipples get erect, and the areola (the darker part around the nipple) can swell by up to 25%. The pupils will often dilate (hence “bedroom eyes”), and she’ll tend to breathe faster and feel flushed.

3. Before orgasm, the clitoris retracts into the hood to avoid direct stimulation

After the arousal period, women will experience what is called “sexual plateau”, where the body is getting ready for orgasm. This usually requires stimulation to push her over the edge. During sexual plateau, engorgement will continue, but the clitoris will actually look less erect because it will retract into the clitoral hood–so it almost appears “flat” against the body. It becomes less about stimulating her directly there and more about rubbing against the whole region. Many researchers believe that the clitoral “roots” extend up into the vaginal wall, and form what we know of as the G-spot. As he makes contact with the public bone during intercourse, it stimulates the whole region and even the interior vaginal wall.

4. Women have several different erogenous zones which can lead to arousal

Some of these zones are more powerful than others, but the ears, neck, mouth, backs of knees, inner thighs and inside of arms can be erogenous zones. So can toes (if you’re not overly ticklish!). We tend to think of the breasts and the clitoris being the biggest erogenous zones, but it’s often better when trying to get aroused to warm up with other things first to help you calm your mind, settle into it, and look forward to what’s coming. Starting right away with the clitoris can be overpowering for some women. Especially for women with sexual abuse in their past, too, warming up with other erogenous zones, or even with a massage, can help overcome some flashbacks or negative connotations. If you want to explore more ways to slow down foreplay and enjoy some of these other erogenous zones, do check out my Sexy Dares!

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5. Women’s sexual response cycle can look different from most men’s

Men’s sexual response cycle usually (not always) looks like this:

desire (libido)–arousal (excitement)–orgasm–resolution.

But for women, it can often (not always) be a little bit different.

arousal (excitement)–desire (libido)–orgasm–resolution.

For some women desire comes first, but for many the feeling that you actually want sex doesn’t really kick in until stimulation has begun. Women tend to be responsive when it comes to arousal and desire, meaning that we tend to respond to stimulation rather than feeling something on our own beforehand.

6. Sometimes (but not always), arousal can be impossible, no matter what stimulation is being provided, if their brain is not “into it”

At the same time, this doesn’t mean that women automatically get aroused with stimulation. It can happen (more on that in a second), but often our brains still have to be positively engaged or else arousal and desire won’t follow. He can be doing amazing sexual moves, but if you’re writing a grocery list in your head, you won’t feel it. This is different from necessarily feeling “turned on” first (or feel desire first). You may not feel in the mood, but if you’re thinking, “I’m going to enjoy this”, and if you start deliberately concentrating on the stimulation and your breathing, arousal often follows.

7. Arousal usually starts in the mind, not the body

That’s why arousal usually starts in our minds, not our bodies. He does something to you, and because you’re paying attention, and because you’re looking forward to this, your body follows. When those two things aren’t there, then arousal during sex is often much more difficult.

But “usually” and “often” are the keyword here. It’s not ALWAYS. In fact, rape victims have been known to orgasm, and some posit that it’s because the heightened state of fear can cause our bodies to react more than usual to stimulation. Just because someone is physical aroused does not mean that they consented. This phenomenon is known as arousal non-concordance–when our subjective experience is different from our physical experience. For many of us, our minds want to be aroused but our bodies don’t follow. For others, our minds DON’T want to be aroused but our bodies take over.

8. The ability to “access” your arousal mechanisms is highly linked to sexual confidence

Because arousal is very linked to getting our brains engaged in the process, our attitudes towards sex and our sexual confidence are highly linked to our ability to get aroused. When we feel ashamed of our bodies, ashamed of sex, or when we feel like sex is only for the guy, then we’re less likely be able to feel aroused. A woman who is sexually confident can often feel “turned on” by life–she goes through her day confident of herself and who God made her; delighting in what’s around her; and when she directs her attention to her sexuality rather than her surroundings, arousal is often not far behind. But when sex becomes an obligation, and sex seems like something distasteful, then the only mechanism she has for arousal is from stimulation, which doesn’t always work.

When a woman feels sexually confident and gives herself positive messages about sex, and then she also gets good stimulation from her husband, arousal is often much easier. But when she only has one and not the other, arousal is often quite difficult.

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9. A woman can be aroused without being “wet”

Women can feel cognitively aroused (she’s enjoying herself and wants sex!), and can even have some engorgement, but not feel overly wet. Some women do not produce as much lubrication naturally as others. Lubrication can also vary depending on the time of the month, with lubrication being much easier right before ovulation and a little harder right afterwards.

For women, too, arousal can be much more linked to what’s going on in the brain than for men. In fact, some women can “think” themselves to orgasm without any stimulation at all. When this happens, women often experience less lubrication than when arousal is focused primarily from stimulation.

If you find that you’re just not able to get lubricated, even when you subjectively feel “turned on”, just pick up some lubricant! It doesn’t cost very much, and it can make the world of difference.

10. When menopause hits, a woman can mentally feel aroused while her body doesn’t necessarily do what it once did

Because of changes in hormone levels, a woman’s body after menopause often has a harder time with lubrication. Blood flow to the genitals is also reduced, and changes in the vaginal wall can make engorgement more difficult. That doesn’t mean that she can’t enjoy sex–it only means that she may need more lubrication and more stimulation first! Use it as an excuse to draw things out and take things more slowly. It can still feel wonderful!

10 things to know about Arousal in Women: How women's arousal works and what are the signs of arousal.

What do you wish you had known before you were married? Let’s talk in the comments!

Sheila Wray Gregoire

Sheila Wray Gregoire

Founder of To Love, Honor and Vacuum

Sheila is determined to help Christians find BIBLICAL, HEALTHY, EVIDENCE-BASED help for their marriage. And in doing so, she's turning the evangelical world on its head, challenging many of the toxic teachings, especially in her newest book The Great Sex Rescue. She’s an award-winning author of 8 books and a sought-after speaker. With her humorous, no-nonsense approach, Sheila works with her husband Keith and daughter Rebecca to create podcasts and courses to help couples find true intimacy. Plus she knits. All the time. ENTJ, straight 8

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