Sex Therapy

Arousal & Desire: Defining Our Terms

March 18, 2022

I’m Alana.
For nearly a decade I have been working with partners and individuals, just like you, on their journey to a stronger relationship, a more fulfilling sex life, and finding their true sexual selves.
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One thing I’ve noticed in conversations about sex is how often people are conflating arousal with desire. Many of us are (mistakenly) under the impression that when you’re aroused, you want sex, or if you want sex then your body is totally ready for it.

That’s Not Always The Case

image of couple's feet on the beach


Let’s start by defining our terms:

Arousal is the physiological process by which the body prepares for sexual activity.

This includes increased blood flow to the genitals, which produces erections for men and results in the swelling of the labia and clitoris for women; your heart rate increases, your pupils dilate, your skin gets flushed, etc.

Desire is a psychological process of strongly wanting or wishing for sex or sexual contact.

It’s when you find yourself so attracted to your partner that you want them to stop making dinner and get down there on the kitchen floor with you. Or you make eye contact with an attractive stranger and you get those little tingles all over.

image of couple laughing in bed

The primary difference here is that one process is physiological (it’s automatic, your body starts the process when it gets the right cues that it’s “business time”) and the other is psychological (it starts in the brain as a thought process and it’s totally subjective).

Don’t get me wrong, they are absolutely related. But because arousal and desire can happen separately and operate independently of one another we have a couple of options when sex gets put on the table.


First Option?

​You’re good to go! Why are you still reading this article?

Second Option?

​Maybe you’re getting a bunch of cues that sex is about to happen. Your body naturally starts the process to give you an erection or lubricate the vaginal canal, but that doesn’t necessarily mean you’re going to feel turned on by those cues and want to bang whoever or whatever is sending you those cues.

Third Option?

​You’re in the right head space, but maybe your body isn’t on the same page. You want to have a sexual interaction, but your body isn’t ready or prepared for it.


If you find that there have been times when the second and third options are wreaking havoc in your sex life it’s helpful to check in with yourself and your partner on which one it is.

See, when these two processes get mixed up or molded together it means we have a harder time seeing the forest through the trees. You won’t know how to address the problem because you haven’t taken it apart to see what, specifically, is out of whack.

Is it your desire or is it your arousal?

I’ll be talking about how to address both in future posts so stay tuned! In the meantime, start becoming aware of the differences between the two and how each process plays out for you and your partner.

– Alana

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