Understanding Arousal Anatomy: From the Ground Up Series

by Melissa Walker, MA, LPC, R-DMT

This year, my monthly newsletter will focus on building a vision of embodied intimacy from the ground up. Each month, you will learn tools to assess and practical skills to apply to your life and relationships. We will visit the complex layers beneath the skin which culminate in the experience and expression of desire and arousal, as well as the inhibition of these often sought-after states. Desire and arousal affects how we interact with the people in our lives through sex, emotional connection & regulation, and even every day problem solving.

This month we explore a few often misunderstood elements of arousal anatomy and the complexity that we take for granted. With knowledge of the actual physiology of arousal, we have the power to understand our unique body and better advocate for what we need in intimacy.

Unfortunately, many of us were instructed in our arousal anatomy using medical (dry) or alternative (unflattering, silly) terminology and fear-based language by facilitators or caregivers who were most likely experiencing discomfort, anger, shame, fear, and many other complex emotions during the delivery of information. Regardless of intention, beyond the “factual” information they passed on, they also passed on a tradition of fear and shame. See, our bodies read the stories of the other bodies around us via the nervous system and complex sensory system that picks up sound, smell, visual cues, and sense of proximity. Our bodies understood that often when a conversation about sex is present, so too is tension, shakiness, recoil, and the release of stress hormones. We may have even been directly punished, verbally or physically, in response to our exploration of our own bodies. In addition, arousal anatomy is often presented inaccurately, sometimes leaving out entire parts of our physiology.

As I offer a relatively brief review about the arousal anatomy of the human body, I invite you to notice your response. Notice sensations, movements, emotions, thoughts, reactions, judgement, etc. that surface as I describe the beautiful, complex layers of erotic physiology. This is an opportunity to learn about the emotional nuance associated with sexuality.

A note on sex and gender: Because gender is a dynamic concept, I will be referring to “people with penises” and “people with vulvas” in recognition of the non-binary nature of the human body. Bottom line is that gender is a complex issue that is a living, breathing conversation and it is in process. To the best of my ability, I hope that my language can be supportive of many different experiences of having an arousal anatomy. For more information on the topic of gender, I recommend the Gender Identity Center of Denver.

  • First off, people with penises and people with vulvas have the same amount of erectile tissue, however, vulvas have a larger proportion of this erectile tissue internally, beneath the labia. Just as people with penises enjoy stimulation of the erectile tissue, which is chock full of sensory-aware nerve endings, so is the vulva! Often, it is believed that the vaginal opening is the source of pleasure. While this can be true, stimulation of the vulva with gradually increasing pressure is often the most pleasurable. This may also be true for people with penises. Always check in with yourself and your partner about pressure, speed, placement and be open to being surprised about what creates the most pleasure.
  • The “G-spot” is also not just a “button. The ”G-spot,” or Grafenberg spot, named after the doctor who ”discovered” it, is actually the tube of erectile tissue surrounding the urethra and contact with this spot can be pleasurable if the erectile tissue of the pelvis is engorged with blood.
  • The clitoris is not just a “button” – the clitoris, a densely nerve-packed organ, has legs which are beneath the labia. The length of these legs depends on the vulva – some are longer and some are shorter. Also, the clitoral head can be different lengths and has about 8,000 nerve endings packed into it.  Also, the clitoris is not simply floating behind the labia over the pubic bone – the clitoris is intricately woven into the less dense erectile tissue, muscles in the pelvis, and even connected to the uterus, if one is present, by two long ligaments which tug on the uterus when the arousal anatomy is in full turn-on mode and during genital orgasm.
  • In addition to the connective tissues and muscles that link all the organs of the arousal anatomy, intricate nerve networks link the arousal anatomy deeply into the nervous system. The pelvic nerves plugs into the vagus nerve and connects to every major organ in the body, from the arousal and reproductive organs all the way up to the jaw. Perhaps you have had the experience at orgasm of feeling your mouth open and soften? This is the orgasmic energy travelling all the way to your jaw! Imagine, conversely, if you feel you experience pain or discomfort or numbness in your pelvis and the effect this may have on your nervous system and ability to communicate – the whole body is linked up into a whole!

This is just a dip into the complex and beautiful arousal anatomy! I will cover this material in full-color detail, facilitate experientials, and much more at my Couples Retreat and Couples Workshop. Details for registration found below!

For more information on the arousal anatomy, visit the Intimate Arts Center. Holistic sex educator Sheri Winston has an abundance of accurate and beautiful information. I credit much of my knowledge to her. Also, Emily Nagoski has a great book called Come as you Are.

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