What is arousal?

What is attraction?

What is libido?

What is desire?

And how do you tell the difference?

They’re all different things, but can be awfully similar at times. It really doesn’t help that they can be swirled and mixed together in ways that can be almost impossible to pull apart.

First, the basics.

Arousal is a physical response. When aroused, the genitals get into a heightened state. “Getting wet”, getting an erection, that sort of thing. Sometimes other areas like the nipples join the party. Sometimes you can see it, sometimes it’s a feeling of fullness, heaviness, or warmth. It’s a physical change in the state of your body.

Attraction is an emotional response. It’s a pull towards someone. It’s an externally focused sensation.

Libido is a sense that your genitals would like to be used in some way. Sex, masturbation, whatever. They want your attention and, like a hyperactive puppy that wants your attention, they may not calm down until you do something with them and tire them out. It’s an internally focused sensation, an urge to act.

Desire is your interest in doing something sexual. Maybe with someone else, maybe not, and for whatever reason. It’s a thought, and not really a sensation at all.

Separately, they all seem easy to contain and describe and understand. Arousal is a physical thing, attraction is an emotional thing, libido is downstairs making a phone call, and desire is upstairs making plans.

But then they start joining forces and interacting with each other, and that’s where things get weird.

Attraction can cause arousal. The thought of someone you like in that way makes your nether regions get tingly.

Libido can cause arousal, too. The bits in the no-no zone are all “Notice me notice me notice me! And look here, I’m even getting ready for something! Don’t leave me hanging!”

Desire can cause arousal, too. The thought “Y’know, I think I might be interested in doing a sexual thing” is often enough for the lower realms to say “Well, if you’re interested in doing a sexual thing, that may mean we’re about to do a sexual thing, so I’d better get ready, just in case.”

Arousal can cause arousal, too. Or arousal can just happen on its own. Or arousal can happen because you or someone else has touched or jostled or woken the bits below, intentionally or unintentionally. Or arousal can happen because you’ve seen or read or heard or thought something of a sexual nature, regardless of your interest taking part. Many people, ace or not, experience arousal that is completely unconnected to attraction, libido, or desire. It’s just there.

And then…

Arousal can activate libido. What begins as just a physical thing can sometimes turn into a call to action.

Attraction can activate libido, too. For a lot of people who experience attraction, one of the side effects is that their forbidden zone starts wanting attention more often than before.

Desire can activate libido, too. “Hey, that sexual thing seems like a good idea”, your head says. “Ooh, yeah, I agree”, your genitals respond. “Wanna do something? Now? NOW NOW?”

Libido can activate libido, too. Or libido can just happen on its own. Or libido can turn up because it’s that time of the month or because it’s been a few days or because it’s Tuesday. Many people, ace or not, experience libido that’s completely unconnected to attraction, arousal, or desire.

And then…

Arousal can activate desire. If someone notices their genitals have woken up, “I might as well put them to use” is a common thought.

Attraction can activate desire, too. “I would like to do a sexual thing with that specific person” is a very common thought for people who are experiencing sexual attraction.

Libido can activate desire, too. When the lower decks start calling out for attention, the captain on the bridge can say “Hmmm… Yup, that sounds like a plan.”

Desire can activate desire, too. Or desire can happen on its own. Or desire can be a deliberate decision. Many people, ace or not, experience desire that’s completely unconnected to attraction, arousal, or libido.

And then…

Attraction can happen on its own, too. It’s possible for someone to experience sexual attraction, without becoming aroused, without their private parts begging for attention, and without any thoughts about the best way to get that person into bed.

And then…

Arousal, attraction, libido, and desire can all appear together. Someone feeling attraction may end up getting aroused, and that arousal can trigger desire and libido. Or desire can lead to attraction and arousal. Or libido leads to desire leads to attraction… Simply put, it’s complicated.

So, how can you tell if it’s attraction? One way is to ask the reverse: Is it not attraction?

Arousal is physical. Arousal can be seen or felt. Attraction is not physical and won’t cause any change in your genital region on its own.

Libido is internal. Libido is often accompanied by a sense that it requires genital attention. Attraction is external, focusing on someone outside yourself.

Desire is plan for action. It’s an “I want to do this thing” thought. Attraction is a feeling, a pull toward another.

All of these are completely possible without attraction, even when another person is involved. Arousal can happen with someone else in the absence of attraction because you’re in or you’re observing a sexual situation, or because your genitals are being stimulated in some way, or for a number of other reasons. Libido can happen with someone else in the absence of attraction because you’re in or you’re observing a sexual situation, or because some stray thought woke the beast, or for a number of other reasons. Desire can happen with someone else in the absence of attraction because “I would like the sexy times with that person” is a thought that can have many origins, including, but not limited to, “This person is my partner”, “I would like an orgasm now”, “I want to try something”, or “Well, I guess they’re here, so…”

Attraction is external and directed. It’s specific. There is something about a specific someone that triggers a response. It may be unclear what that something is and it may even be unclear what the response is.

Think of it like magnetic attraction. Say you have a magnet, and you want to lift that magnet off the ground. There are many ways you can do that. You can pick it up with your hand, lift it with a string, slide something under the magnet and raise it that way. None of those are attraction. But when you wave another magnet over the one on the floor, it will leap skyward on its own.

The complicated swirl of thoughts and sensations are different for everyone and for every situation. For one person, being “turned on” means strictly physical arousal, and being “horny” is synonymous with libido. For another, turned on means a combination of attraction and arousal, while horny is desire and libido. For someone else, horny and turned on are equivalent synonyms for any and all of those feelings.

Hell, even the basic definitions presented here aren’t the same definitions that everyone else will use. Most people don’t bother pinning down the nuances and separating out what’s what, so they’ll flag desire as libido, connect attraction and arousal as one thing, and so on. This can cause a lot of confusion, especially for ace people. When other people talk about attraction, they may be describing the combination of varying levels of arousal, libido, or desire, because, for them, arousal, libido, or desire are all components of what they call attraction. But for an ace trying to figure out what attraction specifically is to figure out if they feel it? That conflation doesn’t help.

In the end, only you can determine what it is that you’re feeling.

For as long as I can remember, I knew I wanted nothing to do with sex. It seemed incredibly gross and confusing to me, and I just didn’t understand the appeal. At age 15, I looked up LGBTQ+ terminology to be a better friend to my queer friends, and I found the word “asexual”. Immediately marveled by my connection to the word, I almost decided to use it for myself right away. I asked myself, though, if I was just a late bloomer – for this reason, I decided to wait until I was 18 to officially start using “asexual” as a descriptor for myself. Three years later, and I wore the purple, gray, white, and black proudly.

However, there was one experience I had that felt a little… out of place. Ever since I was nine or so, I got this weird feeling… down there, whenever I saw someone physically struggling. (After some exploration, I learned that this was only the case for healthy, able-bodied people who had no respiratory or muscular problems.) When I saw someone out of breath, when I saw someone’s muscles tremble under weight, especially I felt someone’s muscles tremble under my own weight, I got that feeling. It felt cruel, but although I kept this information to myself, I did not repress it. I have no idea how many nights I spent fantasizing about situations that would cause me to get this feeling again – I didn’t understand it, but I liked it.

I never knew what to call it, but once I learned new sexual words (horny, turned on, aroused), I started using those. I think “aroused” is the right word so far, but I’m still not sure. I think what all of this is is a fetish, but again, I honestly have no clue.

Later on, once I started getting crushes on people, I realized that the feeling was stronger when they were the ones physically struggling, but it would be years later before I knew what demiromantic meant, or that that was me. I am currently in a relationship, and my partner is almost exclusively the subject of my fantasies, but I am nervous to talk about anything related to this with them. They’re ace as well, and I’m worried they will be uncomfortable with this information. For now, I’ll stick with the fantasies, and consider myself lucky when I see them out of breath after a play fight or see their arms tremble when lifting a piece of furniture.

Arousal is not a strict binary state.  It seems like everyone treats arousal like you’re either completely turned off or that you’re fully wet and/or erect or whatever.  But it’s not so much an on-off light switch as it is a dimmer knob.  There’s an in-between area, too.

Arousal is a synonym for awakening, so you can sort of think of this in-between area as that half-asleep grogginess where your alarm intrudes on your dream and you’re sort of awake and sort of asleep.  If you use three-coffees-in wired as your benchmark of awakeness, you’re still asleep, but if you use deep delta wave level sleep, you’re totally awake.

Often, people will pass from one end of the arousal continuum to the other fairly rapidly.  But sometimes, they’ll end up in this middle ground and bounce around there for a while, drifting between more aroused and less aroused.  Maybe it will fade away, maybe not.

There’s also (at least) two distinct components to arousal.  There’s the physical response (where the blood flows to various bits and fills them up, and things like self-lubrication may occur), and then there’s sensitivity (where the area reacts to touch more or in a different manner).  These two usually go hand-in-hand, but it’s possible to experience any combination.

(Content Warning:  Genitals and explicit discussion of masturbation beyond this point, but no images or illustrations.)

One thing I’ve seen many asexual people say about masturbation is that they don’t know where to begin.  It might not be something they discover, they may have avoided any discussion about it, and websites that talk about it are typically not very ace-friendly.  If you’re curious, but don’t know where to start, here’s a short ace-safe introduction to a common technique.

And remember, if you don’t want to, you don’t have to.  Not everyone wants to masturbate, not everyone likes to, so if it’s not your thing, it doesn’t have to be your thing.

Okay, let’s begin:

First, find a safe and comfortable space.  Lockable doors, free of interruptions, etc.  Comfy chair or a bed might work, but many people will use the bathroom or shower.  (The shower has the added benefit of making it easy to wash your hands or clean up when you’re done.)

Second, remove clothing to provide access to your genitals.  This step is actually optional.  It can make it easier to proceed if you’re not wearing anything down there, but it’s not required.  Some people will masturbate through their clothes for various reasons.  It’s not uncommon.

Third, start touching your genitals or the area around them.  Often, people will focus primarily on the clitoris or penis.  (A clitoris is a sort of pencil eraser thingy (of varying size) hiding near the front of the folds of skin down there, while a penis is a usually floppy sort of tube thingy (of varying size) that’s hanging out down there.)  However, other places like the thighs, scrotum, lower stomach, or labia might also respond to touch.  Even the nipples might work.

If it hasn’t already happened, you may start to notice physical arousal in the genitals.  It’s perhaps most noticeable in a penis, which goes from a floppy sort of tube thingy to a larger, somewhat more rigid sort of tube thingy.  The clitoris also may grow larger (and peek out of the folds of skin it’s hiding in) when aroused, and there may be a noticeable sensation like warmth or fullness or even wetness in the vagina.

If you’re not sensing some form of arousal, try different types of stimulation.  Use more pressure or less, go faster or slower, push, pull, pinch, try a different area, etc.  Basically, change it up somewhat.

It is very important to note that there isn’t an instant-on pleasure switch downstairs.  At first, it may not feel much different down there than touching your arm.  Sensations can gradually and subtly change, and may range from numbness to awareness, to over-sensitivity, to exquisite pleasure, to discomfort, to heightened sensitivity, and anything in between or on the sides.  There’s no One True Right Way™, and it’ll feel different and proceed differently for everyone.  Masturbation isn’t something that’s instinctive, it’s something that has to be learned and experimented with, and this can be particularly difficult for aces, because we may not experience the same sorts of things that might be useful to non-aces for figuring things out.  You may not come across a formula that works the first couple (dozen) times you try.  And that’s perfectly okay and quite common.  Even many non-ace people have to figure out what to do.

Anyway, assuming you’re sufficiently aroused (and what that means is up to you), you’ll likely want to start focusing more directly around the genitals.  Some of the most common masturbation techniques are fairly repetitive hand motions.   If you have a penis, try wrapping your hand around it (like you’re holding a handle) and sliding your hand up and down.  (Some sort of lubricant might be helpful here, particularly if you’ve been circumcised.  Something like hand lotion will usually work well.)  If you have a clitoris, try placing a few fingers on it and rubbing in small circles.  Vary the speed, pressure, the amount of movement, etc., until you find something that works.  Those aren’t the only ways to do it, so if they don’t work, experiment with something else.

Once you’ve begun those repetitive motions, continue until done.  “Done” can mean a number of things.  Many people proceed until they have an orgasm, but some people stop when they get bored or tired or sore, some people keep going until they have multiple orgasms, and some people stop when they just don’t feel like doing it anymore.  Masturbation is yours and yours alone, so it’s up to you to decide when you’re done.