Arousal versus Desire

A recent discussion with a woman reminded me that some women do not understand arousal and desire are different things for men.

Desire is a wanting, a longing. I desire an ice cream sundae. I desire to have sex with my wife. I desire to listen to some music.

Arousal is a physiological response to stimuli. The smell of bread makes me hungry. The sight of my naked wife turns me on. Hearing the music played at my father’s funeral makes me sad. 

Arousal is not under our control, and it is not always wanted. Teenage boys experience unwanted and embarrassing erections – sexual arousal they wish was not happening! Things we do not desire and things that disgust us, can arouse us.

Man covering eyes  © Gabe Palmer |

Men are more easily aroused by what they see than women are. The part of the brain involved in visual sexual arousal is two to three times larger in men than in women. Additionally, sexual images more strongly activate several parts of the brain in men (particularly the amygdala and hypothalamus). Finally, men are more aware of sexual arousal than women are. Studies find male reports of how aroused they are match physiological and brain measurements of arousal. Similar studies of women find a great deal of difference between self-perceived arousal and actual arousal of the mind and body. This means men know when something they see arouses them.

In modern society men deal with sexually arousing stimuli daily. Those who want to be faithful to their wife do all they can to avoid arousing sights. We also learn to turn our eyes and our minds away quickly when we see potentially arousing sights. Scantily clad women are an annoyance, not something we desire to see.

If your husband is normal and healthy, odds are he is somewhat sexually aroused many times a week by something other than the thought or sight of you. Even if he hates this, he is powerless to prevent it. However, if his desire is for you alone, he is not dwelling on those sources of arousal.

Bottom line: Desire is a choice, arousal is not.

~ Paul – I’m XY, and I thank God I am near sighted!


Men and Women Differ on Sexual Arousal | Psych Central News 
Men and women differ in amygdala response to visual sexual stimuli [Nat Neurosci. 2004] – PubMed – NCBI 
Imaging gender difference in sexual arousal 

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6 Comments on “Arousal versus Desire

  1. While arousal and desire are different, they are often connected: arousal leads to desire.
    The smell of fresh baked bread makes you hungry, which leads to a desire to eat the bread.
    The music from your father’s funeral makes you sad, which leads to a desire to change the music or perhaps look at some photographs of him.
    The sight of your wife’s naked body turns you on, which leads to a desire to make love to her.
    The sight of a scantily clad woman sexually arouses you, which leads to a desire to imagine having sex with her. By turning your eyes and mind away from her–you choose not to follow your desire.
    The desire itself is not a choice; your response to the desire is a choice.
    A variety of experiences impact our decisions and actions: attraction, arousal, desire, emotions, logic, morals, etc.
    If we desire (want, long for) intimacy with our spouse, we choose actions that facilitate intimacy.

    • I don’t think arousal always leads to desire, if the brain is involved. If you have Celiac Disease, eating gluten is a very bad plan. The smell of bread would make you hungry, but you would have zero desire to eat it.
      I understand that sex with anyone other than my wife is a very bad plan. Bad for her, bad for me, bad for our marriage, and bad for my walk with the Lord. Therefore I have no desire to act on the arousal. What’s more, I don’t want the arousal in the first place.
      What you said is certainly true – if we allow the desire we still can choose how to act on that. However we can learn to not even get to the desire in the first place.

  2. Perhaps urge, or temptation, would be more appropriate terms for what I described. I used desire in the noun form, and you more so in the verb form.

    We all face conflicting desires, or we might say our urges and temptations conflict with our desires. A smoker can desire a cigarette AND desire to stop smoking. A spouse can desire their spouse AND be fighting an urge to think about another person in a sexual context. An alcoholic can stop drinking and desire to stay sober, while at the same time constantly battle the urge to have a drink.

    We live in this tension daily. As Martin Luther put it, “Saint and sinner, blessed and broken” simultaneously.

    I appreciate you taking time to write about this and banter these thoughts about with me. You are making a positive impact on marriages and helping husbands be awesome husbands! Thank you!!!

  3. This is true for women too. In the post I just wrote I talked about a study where men and women were exposed to sexual images, and while the men were only aroused by women or heterosexual sex, women were aroused (physiological) by straight sex, gay sex, male and female masturbation, male and female nudity AND monkey sex. Like, literal monkeys having sex.

    The women reported that they were not aroused, but their bodies indicated a totally different story. That goes back to what you said about being aroused physically even if it’s not necessarily something you would WANT to be aroused by. Don’t think it’s just men who battle unwanted arousal!
    Bonnie @ Love, Marriage and Sex recently posted…What Women Really Want In The BedroomMy Profile

    • I’ve read a lot about those studies, and the various conclusions drawn. Some of the conclusions are pretty weird, IMHO.

      The best suggestion I have seen is that women need to be easily physically aroused so sex does not cause them damage. The rude reality of the world is some men will push for sex when their wife has no interest, and being able to get physically aroused keeps her from physical harm. This makes it little more than a reflex, and not an indication of desire or interest.

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