What does arousal feel like?
Sexual arousal is composed two different phenomenon that do not necessarily occur at the same time: psychological arousal and physiological arousal.
Physiological arousal refers to unconscious bodily changes that occur as a result of or in preparation for sexual activity. Physiological arousal can occur even in cases there isn't consent, or (in particular with respect to erections) as a response to non-sexual arousal. Examples common to both sexes include:
- an accelerated heart rate and/or blood pressure;
- faster breathing;
- heightened sensitivity, in particular to touch;
- pupil dilation;
- erect nipples.
Some effects are particular to people with male anatomy:
- an erect penis;
- emission of pre-ejaculate.
Some effects are particular to people with female anatomy:
- feeling hot or flushed;1
- engorged sexual tissues (e.g. nipples, vulva, clitoris, vaginal walls);
- vaginal lubrication.2
Psychological arousal on the other hand, refers to self-reported feelings of arousal and/or the desire to participate in sexual activities (alone or with partners). While physiological arousal correlates with psychological arousal, it is not uncommon for them to occur separately .
In particular, it is not uncommon for a man to get an erection without being psychologically aroused. Mechanical stimulation alone can result in an erection – for example, male rape victims may report having an erection. There is also "nocturnal penile tumescence", which is a largely unexplained effect where men get an erection during (or shortly after) sleep without any apparent cause.
Some forms of physiological arousal can also occur as a response to non-sexual arousal – for example aggression or excitement. This is particularly the case when it comes to erections.
- This can also occur in men but it's less common and usually less intense. A female sex flush can extend over the chest and upper body.
- There are several other forms of vaginal wetness that are not related to lubrication or arousal. You can read more in this article.
-  Chivers, M.L., Reiger, G., Latty, E., & Bailey, J.M., (2004). A sex difference in the specificity of sexual arousal, Psychological Science 15(11), 736–744.