Sexual Desire and Sexual Arousal - Same or Different?

As a sex therapist, I’ve noticed that a large part of my work is devoted to providing psycho-sexual education to my clients. This should probably come as no surprise given the dearth of quality information out there about sexual functioning accompanied by the fact that most people feel highly uncomfortable talking about sex.  In my opinion, sexual problems stem partly from misinformation about basic physiology and a lack of clarity about how sex actually works.

 So, in a bid to dispel some sexual myths and to provide a more accurate picture of sex, I’m using this blog to provide information which I hope readers will find useful. I want to start off with clearing up the confusion between sexual desire and sexual arousal.


Sexual desire (or libido as it is commonly known) is having an interest in engaging in sexual activity. A high level of desire or drive simply means you want sex a lot. Sexual interest manifests typically as having sexual thoughts, feelings or fantasies. It is having an appetite for sex similar to the messages we get from our bodies indicating a desire for food.  Low sexual desire generally shows up as a consistent lack of sexual fantasies and disinterest in sexual activity.

 Men seem to have a greater and more constant libido than women although this is a generalisation.

Sexual desire can ebb and flow depending on a number of variables. It is always relative to other factors, such as your age, sex, health, relationships and life context. Women’s desire for instance, fluctuates with their menstrual cycles. For many individuals, sexual desire is severely affected by relationship problems. If you feel angry or rejected by your partner, your libido may diminish or disappear. But, it is important to note that the same things can affect different people in different ways. Although sexual interest wanes for some people when they are deeply involved in their work, others (typically men) use sex as a stress relief from work and as a way of rejuvenating themselves.

 For both men and women, sexual desire does lessen with age, the height of sexual interest for both males and females being in adolescence and the twenties. The production of testosterone, which largely controls sexual appetite decreases over time. Along with this decline, sexual desire tends to diminish over the years although there can be a resurgence at various times especially with the introduction of a new partner.

 But people don’t have sex just to satisfy their sexual urges. Both men and women are motivated to have sex in the absence of any specific sexual desire. They engage in sex in order to please their partners, to prevent argument or to avoid feeling guilty.  For some individuals sex is often equated with love. Such people may not know how to get physical affection, to express love or feel loved except by having sex. Although such individuals are really seeking to get their emotional needs met, they are often experienced by their partners as being over-sexed.

 A New Model of Female Sexual Desire

Physician Rosemary Basson has suggested that women (in an established relationship) have a lower biological urge for the release of sexual tension than men. While a man’s sexual desire is usually energised by physical drive, according to Basson, a woman’s motivation to have sex comes from a number of potential gains that are not strictly sexual. Because of a wish to experience emotional closeness, bonding and affection, a woman (who starts off being sexually neutral) seeks sensual contact and stimulation which may then lead to her experiencing sexual desire. Under this model, women’s sexual desire is viewed as a responsive rather than spontaneous event which develops after initial sensual contact.


Sexual arousal describes how excited or turned on you get when you anticipate sex or engage in it. In the 1960’s and 1970’s, Drs Masters and Johnson first documented the changes that occur in people’s genitals when they become aroused. When a person’s total level of stimulation (i.e. level of sexual pleasure) exceeds their arousal threshold, their genitals go through a number of dramatic and subtle physical changes.

 For women, becoming highly aroused increases blood flow to the genitals triggering a spontaneous response in the vagina that releases a natural lubricant. Numerous other changes include vagina enlargement and swelling of the vulva.  In the same way, men get an erection when two spongelike tubular spaces within the shaft of their penis are engorged with blood. This is the equivalent of a woman’s lubrication response.

 Arousal feels good. Physical sensations commonly associated with feeling sexually aroused include warmth or heat, tingling, blood rushing and heart pounding. When people are highly aroused they are narrowly focused and not easily distracted. Their attention is absorbed in what they are doing and going to do.

 Having said this, it is quite common for both men and women to experience issues with arousal. Arousal problems for women include partial or total lack of physical response, surfacing as lack of vaginal lubrication or genital swelling and/or discomfort or pain during sex. Men’s sexual arousal problems include difficulty getting and maintaining an erection sufficient for completion of sexual intercourse. 

 Difficulties with sexual arousal often arise from a lack of subjective arousal. Although one might expect subjective arousal to happen automatically when your genitals respond, this doesn’t always occur. So, what do I mean by “subjective arousal”?  It is essential to understand the difference between physical and subjective arousal especially if you have problems with becoming or staying sexually aroused.

 Physical vs. Subjective Arousal

Physical or genital arousal refers to the physiological changes to do with arousal, that is, how your body is responding (e.g., increased heart rate, blood flow, vaginal engorgement, erection etc.). Subjective arousal has to more do with what you are feeling (or not) about what your body is doing. High subjective arousal typically manifests as sexual excitement, passion, enjoyment and pleasure during sex. In other words, feeling turned on. The two often go together but they are best thought as separate. This is because you can have physical arousal without subjective arousal and vice versa.

 Arousal problems can involve the absence of physical or subjective arousal and excitement. Limited subjective arousal and enjoyment usually accompanies lack of physical response, but you can have one issue and not the other. For instance, you may have no difficulty getting your body to respond physically but may feel little or no subjective (emotional) arousal. In that instance, your subjective experience and what your body is doing, does not match.

 A common example is to do with erections. As a male, you may wake up in the morning with an erection but not feel sexually turned on. Conversely, it’s also possible to be very sexually aroused and not have an erection.  For men, the most important thing to understand is that an erection does not necessarily mean that you are sexually excited or aroused.

 An important part therefore of resolving problems with sexual arousal involves getting your mind and body in synchrony that is, working together.


Although they are closely related, sexual arousal and sexual desire are best viewed as separate. For instance, you can have a desire for sex whether or not you are aroused. Sexual desire problems cause and result from arousal problems. Arousal problems reduce sexual desire because repeated problems with subjective arousal, lubrication and erections can kill your eagerness for sex. Likewise, low sexual desire increases your chance of arousal difficulties because you are less likely to be aroused when you are not involved or interested in the experience. Once a desire problem and an arousal problem become intertwined, it makes the situation more difficult to sort out.

 If all this sounds rather complicated, that’s because sex (which is commonly considered to be natural and spontaneous) is anything but simple. Your ability to enjoy sex and to resolve sexual issues is based on a sound understanding of how your body works.

 To learn more about sexual desire and sexual arousal, please refer to the following books:

-        Schnarch, D. Resurrecting sex: Resolving sexual problems and rejuvenating your relationship. Scribe Publications, 2002.

-        Zilbergeld, B. The new male sexuality. Bantam, 1999.