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.

I’m asexual and I masturbate.  I do it because I like it.  It feels good.

I never feel like I have to, there’s rarely even a phone call from downstairs demanding attention.  It’s a bit like deciding to turn on the TV or deciding to eat a piece of candy, it’s just something I want to do at that moment.  I pretty much always have to kickstart the arousal process, because that rarely happens on its own, and even more rarely at a time when I can do anything with it.

On average, I do it once or twice a day, usually once in the morning and again before bed.  I used to do it exclusively in the shower, but now it’s far more common to be at the computer or in bed.  Sometimes it’ll take just a couple of minutes, other times I might stretch it out for an hour.

If I don’t do it for a while, nothing changes:  No spontaneous erections, no nocturnal emissions, no rising lake of libido building up.  Just a slight bit more sensitivity downstairs.  Maybe the skin’s a little softer?  I don’t know.  But no genital explosions from unreleased sexual whatever.

These days, I typically use toys.  Most often, it’s a Fleshlight, but it can be another type of sleeve.  I like the way they feel, and they help to contain the situation for easy cleanup.  Occasionally, I’ll use a vibrator, but those don’t work very well most of the time.  Very rarely, I’ll try something else, but I’ve had very little success outside of my hand or sleeves.

I do not need to be turned on before I start.  It’s rare that I ever feel particularly “turned on”.  Even if I get a spontaneous erection, it’s typically more of a nuisance than something that makes me think “I’d like to do something with that!”.  Since I don’t want to wait around for random arousal to kick in, I usually need some deliberate manual intervention to get started.  Gently tugging, softly pinching and pulling around the frenulum, combined with muscle tensing will usually do the trick.

I would say that libido does not play a role in what I do.  I don’t really think I have one.  Feeling “horny” is a really rare experience, and it’s definitely not a driver of my masturbation, nor is it required.  Most often, I do it because I feel like it, not because I feel compelled to and not because my body is saying “Hey, do this now!”.  Nothing builds up if I don’t do it, and there isn’t any kind of nagging sense of whatever that gets temporarily relieved when I’m done.

As for orgasm, well, the sudden spike in pleasure, the rhythmic pulsing of muscles, and ejaculation are a fairly clear giveaway.  Then again, I have ejaculated without orgasm and orgasmed without ejaculation, so…  And orgasm is a distinctly different sensation than anything else going on.  It usually feels good before, but then there’s a sudden shift to a sort of automatic mode.  There’s a surge in how good everything feels as the orgasm takes over.  I let muscles do their own thing, as there’s pleasure in the tension.  And afterward a drift into relaxation and either oversensitivity or slight numbness downstairs.  It’s much, much more than just a simple muscle twitch.

For me, orgasms are definitely the point.  I don’t do it for stress relief or to get to sleep or to scratch an itch or to avoid wet dreams (does that even make a difference?) or anything like that.  I would have no reason to do it otherwise.

In general, I think the entire topic should be more openly discussed, or at least not be seen as some sort of embarrassing secret.  Lots of people do it, so what?  I think sex toys should be sold in a common drugstore.  (I know some already have vibrating rings in with the condoms, but those hardly count, since they’re typically not good as either cock rings or vibrators.  And the “back massagers” should just come out and say what they’re really for…)  I think people should stop with the harmful myths about hairy palms or eternal damnation or making you go blind, and then stop with the even more harmful myths that masturbation is somehow “artificial” or “replacement” sex for people who can’t get “the real thing”.