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Exploring Sexual Urges: Recognizing Signals, Intentions, and Misattribution of Arousal

During one of my sessions, a client left me with a perplexing question: 'Is there a disorder for people who feel attracted to individuals with disabilities?' Naturally, I got very curious and went deeper into her inquiry. She recounted feeling sexually aroused while observing a person in a wheelchair participating in a marathon. Later, she experienced similar arousal watching a runner without arms. 'I felt really aroused!' she confessed.

Another client confided in me about feeling sexually stimulated while watching horror movies. He expressed discomfort, fearing he had a dark side. 'I also feel something similar when I see violent scenes,' he admitted, overwhelmed with shame and guilt.

I recall another significant case where a client, visibly distressed, hesitantly revealed experiencing an erection while observing his infant play at the playground. 'I guess I’m a pedophile. Can it be cured?' he murmured, seeking clarity and support.

Have you ever found yourself in a situation akin to that of my clients? A scenario where your body responds with inexplicable sensations reminiscent of sexual arousal? Perhaps it happened during a suspenseful movie scene, a thrilling roller coaster ride, or even while delivering a public presentation. Before jumping to conclusions regarding your sexual preferences, it's imperative to comprehend the phenomenon known as 'arousal misattribution.'

Historical Background

Before talking about arousal misattribution, let's acknowledge the evolution of our psychological understanding. For decades, psychological concepts, especially those concerning sexual arousal, were built on flawed premises. Freud often interpreted clients' symptoms and behaviors through a psychosexual lens, attributing many psychological issues to repressed sexual desires. His influence on psychotherapy remains profound. Reflecting on this historical context helps understand the concerns, dilemmas, and emotions faced by my clients and many others grappling with similar circumstances. For decades, we’ve gone in circles about the fear and uncertainty of the root of our sexual impulses, often unaware that arousal isn’t always sexual, and there are many instances that can confuse us about our intentions when noticing our bodies responding in ways that are supposed to be restricted to sexual activity.

Listening to Your Body

Recent developments emphasize the significance of understanding our bodies in psychology. Today, we recognize that comprehending ourselves emotionally necessitates acknowledging our bodies' responses. While our understanding once revolved around thoughts and ideas, neuroscience has illuminated the physiological manifestations of every emotion or emotional response. With practice, we can decipher these bodily signals.

Our brains continuously process our environment, with our bodies actively participating in this dialogue. In 2014, researchers (Lauri Nummenmaa, Enrico Glerean, Riitta Hari, and Jari Hietanen) mapped out how emotions manifest in various body regions. This understanding underscores the importance of recognizing the body's language, facilitating a deeper comprehension of our emotional experiences. More studies have complemented the original ones, reinforcing the idea that distinct emotions trigger specific bodily sensations, and that these maps might be culturally universal, with some studies showing consistency across Western and Eastern populations.

Misattribution of Sensations

Mastering the art of accurately interpreting our body's reactions would undoubtedly be a significant feat, but what's the best approach to truly understanding their significance? Since most of us lack this skill, it's incredibly easy to misinterpret our experiences. Take love in the figure, for example, and compare it to anger or anxiety. In real time, it’d be easy to confuse what’s what, especially if feeling as being in love could easily cause anxiety, making the body mix both activations as one. The classic case of 'butterflies in the stomach' could potentially signify both emotions.

It's no wonder that we get confused between having a romantic desire for someone or understanding we are just having an anxiety response. This confusion can lead to something known as 'arousal misattribution,' where our bodies physiologically respond to various stimuli or situations, and our cognition misconstrue these responses as sexual arousal.

In simpler terms, the physical sensations we experience, such as erections in males or lubrication in females, don't always indicate sexual desire or attraction. Instead, these bodily responses can stem from heightened physiological arousal triggered by emotional, psychological, or physical experiences. This heightened arousal primes our nervous system to be alert and responsive, preparing our bodies for action.

Understanding these diverse emotional responses and their corresponding physiological changes can help demystify the sensations we feel, preventing unnecessary worry, confusion, and distress. For instance, consider the client who felt aroused while witnessing people with disabilities participating in a marathon. Her emotional response likely stemmed from deep admiration rather than sexual attraction. Admiration often involves increased heart rate and enhanced blood flow to brain systems beyond our conscious control, including blood pressure and hormone levels.

Similarly, the client aroused by horror or violent scenes likely experienced fear, activating survival circuits and accelerating heart rate and blood flow, which can increase blood flow into erectile tissues, causing an erection.

My third example, the one of the client aroused while watching his child playing is not too different but instead of fear, it talks about an intense feeling of love, pride, and happiness. Look at the figure of the emotions again and you’ll see that all three are similar and depict a lot of activity throughout the body. When experiencing strong positive emotions like happiness, the sympathetic nervous system gets activated, leading to an increase in heart rate, which may trigger the release of stress hormones. This results in greater cardiac output, pumping more blood per minute, and enhancing blood flow. This would explain the unrelated erection that’s completely disconnected from sexual desires.

Differentiating Emotional States by Identifying Neurochemicals

Given the similarities in nervous system activation among several emotions, distinguishing between them may seem challenging. However, the chemicals involved can provide insight into the differences.

Sexual attraction often triggers the production of hormones like testosterone and estrogen, preparing individuals for potential reproduction.

Conversely, emotions like attraction, love, admiration, or joy are linked to the brain's reward system, engaging neural pathways responsible for processing 'reward.' The production of dopamine and norepinephrine during these moments can induce feelings of giddiness, energy, and euphoria, not necessarily related to sexual activity.

Besides these three, attachment may play a role in experiences like those shared by the infant’s father. A special hormone — oxytocin — fosters a sense of closeness with others, a bond that is essential for mammals to experience a sense of belonging. Oxytocin is released during non-sexual social interactions, such as hugging, cuddling, and positive social interactions with friends and family but it’s also released strongly during sexual encounters. This release reinforces social bonds and enhances feelings of trust, empathy, and connection. However, its production may become strongly associated with feelings of pleasure and intimacy, and therefore, sexual activity and orgasms. It’d not be difficult to separate the two if there is awareness and reflection.

By understanding and distinguishing between different emotional states, including their physical manifestations and felt experiences, we can avoid misattributing our arousal. Remember:

Arousal of the genitals does not necessarily indicate sexual attraction or desire.
An erection does not necessarily imply a desire to have sex.
A lubricated vagina does not necessarily indicate that the person wants sex or is consenting to have sex.

With this understanding, feeling aroused should not be a cause for alarm. If we accept these sensations for what they are, it becomes easier to move past them. Such experiences are common to all of us, and with awareness, we can process them to uncover their true meaning. To prevent them from becoming problematic, avoid dwelling on the arousal or the emotions it may trigger, such as shame or other negative feelings, desires, perceptions, or thoughts. Instead, acknowledge their presence, explore their origins, and ensure they do not interfere with your actions. Recognize that your physical reactions may be linked to certain emotions stemming from your personal experiences or associations, or they may be automatic responses programmed into your nervous system without your conscious volition. This automatization could easily be replaced by awareness, contemplation, and decision making. It’s crucial to remember that while attributing these reactions to sexuality may seem the most obvious explanation, there are many other possibilities to consider.

To prevent these sensations from becoming problematic, it's crucial not to fixate on the arousal or the emotions it may evoke, such as shame or other negative feelings, desires, perceptions, or thoughts. Instead, acknowledge their presence, delve into their origins, and ensure they don't impede your actions. Recognize that your physical reactions may be linked to certain emotions stemming from personal experiences or associations, or they may be automatic responses programmed into your nervous system without your conscious volition. However, this automatization can easily be replaced by awareness, contemplation, and decision-making.

It's essential to bear in mind that while attributing these reactions to sexuality may seem like the most obvious explanation, there are numerous other possibilities to consider. While grappling with these feelings may pose challenges if we dwell on them, indulge in them, or attempt to suppress them, observing them and allowing them to pass, much like watching a bird gracefully flying by, can foster a healthier connection with our emotions and physical responses. Understanding and accepting the workings of our humanity pave the way for a more balanced relationship with ourselves.

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1 Comment

Tom Lorio
Tom Lorio
Mar 26

Thank you for this - concerns like this do come up with clients and this is an excellent resource.

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