The Difference Between Sexual Desire and Arousal (and How To Increase It!)

Believe it or not, sexual desire and sexual arousal are not the same things - in fact, they’re two completely different concepts. And despite many of us unconsciously blurring the lines between the two, the fact is that the differences do matter. Why? Because understanding their differences can be otherworldly beneficial to your sex life. 

So, let’s dispel the sexual myths and clear up the confusion. What is sexual desire? What is arousal? And how can you increase both?

Sexual Desire

You’ve probably heard the term sexual desire in its most common form: libido. This is the expressed interest in sexual activity, and chances are, you’ve heard the phrases ‘low libido’ and ‘high libido’. The latter simply means you have a strong desire to engage in sex, or you have a high sex drive. A lower libido suggests the opposite, and no one should be ashamed of experiencing either. In fact, it’s healthy to fluctuate between the two throughout your life.

In regard to sexual desires, they typically manifest as having sexual feelings, thoughts, and fantasies. Liken it to when your body sends you messages when you’re feeling hungry.

The strength of your sexual desire can shift depending on a number of things, too. Always relative to factors such as age, relationships, sex, health, and your life circumstances, how you felt in one aspect of your life may be very different to the next. For example, in women, sexual desire can fluctuate massively in accordance with their menstrual cycles. Unhealthy relationships can also affect libido, including feelings of rejection or anger from a sexual partner.

However, one person’s experience is never the same as another’s, and it’s important to keep this in mind. 


This is the physical bit, and how your body responds when it’s aroused. It's your own physiological reaction to sexual stimuli. It’s the excited, turned-on feeling you get when you’re about to have some great sex. 

For some background, two doctors: Dr Masters and Dr Johnson first recorded the genital changes that occur when a person is aroused back in the 1960s and 70s. Basically, when your total level of sexual pleasure (or stimulation) surpasses your arousal threshold, your genitals undergo a number of changes, both subtle and pretty dramatic.

In women, this level of arousal causes increased blood flow to the genitals, which triggers an impulsive vaginal response - a natural lubricant. The vulva also swells and the vagina increases in size. In men, this is the equivalent of an erection, where the penis hardens due to the sponge-like tissue inside of it filling up with blood. 

But you’re probably not thinking about the science behind all this when you’re about to get down to business. Instead, you’re just thinking about how good the physical sensations feel: tingling, warmth, heart-pounding, blood rushing - that kind of thing, right? During this period of arousal, people are completely absorbed in the moment, and not easily distracted.

How To Increase Sexual Desire and Arousal

Let’s face it, there’s nothing better on this earth than getting to experience the otherworldly sensation of sexual desire colliding with arousal. That intimate connection between you and a sexual partner, whether it be a long term relationship or a casual fling is a special moment that is completely indebted to you. But if, for whatever reason, your body seems to be screwing with your sex drive, here are some tried and tested tips that will literally take it up a notch. 

Reducing Anxiety

We all experience anxiety from time to time (some more severe than others), but if it’s taking a toll on your libido and overall sex life, it can start to become more of a problem. Those with high levels of anxiety can probably vouch for this being a barrier, whether it be general life stress or specifically sex-related.

Those with chaotic and time-consuming work schedules or caring responsibilities can also experience anxiety towards sex - perhaps feeling guilty for not having time, or feeling too tired after a long, intense day. And if this anxiety maintains or it’s strictly about sex, it can lead to erection troubles or desire reductions which can put someone off sex altogether. 

There are things you can focus on to reduce anxiety, however. From exercising regularly, practising good hygiene, getting enough sleep, and making time for a favourite hobby, there’s also yoga and mindfulness to consider. For example, in women, breathing exercises and relaxation techniques can relieve stress, and simple yoga positions can boost mood and even release tight hip joints and improve your pelvic muscle tone. 

And while scheduling sexy times in your calendar may not be the most romantic idea, knowing you’ve made time for you and your partner to become intimate can really help to take some of the strain away. 

Understanding Your Body and Its Needs

In the 1990s, sex researcher Rosemary Basson developed a concept known as responsive desire. This is the growing interest in sex that occurs in response to arousal. Basically, when people become mentally turned on after being stimulated externally. 

Many women (especially in long-term relationships) find that this concept is one of the strongest forms of experiencing genuine sexual desire and arousal. Often sparked by physical closeness, touch, or sexual contact and foreplay, Basson wrote: “Once you learn what needs to be avoided in a sexual situation, you can start focusing on the aspects that actually give you pleasure and comfort - therefore giving your brain and body more of an incentive to kick start your libido. ”

But despite this concept existing for a long time, many people are still unaware of it and assume that their sexual desire and arousal levels are low because they don’t spontaneously feel in the mood. And while it may be this way for some, for example, suddenly feeling turned on in the middle of washing up, the notion that this is the norm is a complete myth. By learning your own style and understanding your body’s wants and needs, you can begin to create situations that match the way your libido becomes ignited.

Behavioural Therapy

If looking to avoid pharmacological solutions, many people have turned to behavioural therapy to help increase their sexual arousal. The therapy aims to boost sexual fantasies and focuses on attracting your attention to sexual stimuli. For those in long-term relationships, therapists will try and uncover any communication issues within your partnership, or determine whether your partner does not spend as much time as you need to become sexually stimulated or satisfied.

Introduce Sex Toys To Your Sex Life

There’s often a love-hate relationship with sex toys when it comes to using them in a partnership. Some people think that when a partner introduces them to the bedroom it suggests that they’re not good enough alone, some people think they’re just for solo play, and some people have just never really considered the addition. However, sex toys can improve a sexual relationship, along with arousal and desire in so many ways.

For example, they can boost a couple’s intimacy, inject some erotic fun into your sex life, keep your Kegel muscles toned (which can help improve your sexual pleasure and health), and the big one: keep your libido charged. 

In women, sex toys can increase the elasticity and tone of the vaginal walls, and help to promote and release the natural lubricants and the ‘feel-good’ orgasm sensation. These lubricants can decline due to age or medication side effects, so if this is something that affects you, it’s worth giving it a go. In men, they can help to boost and improve erectile function, as they offer a different kind of sexual stimulation that is not possible during penetrative sex. 

Essentially, sex is about fulfilling the needs of yourself and your partner, so if bringing a sex toy into the mix brings both of you intense pleasure, why wouldn’t you?

Try New Things With Your Partner Even if They’re Not Sexual

Did you know that you don’t have to have sex to increase the intimacy of your relationship? While sex is obviously an important aspect of any romantic partnership, in order to maintain your sexual desire and arousal, true intimacy must be at the foundations. For example, lying in bed with your partner talking about past experiences or future goals and ambitions. Or taking long walks holding hands and just appreciating being in each other’s company.

For couples who pass by each other on a daily basis due to their own busy lives, reconnecting with each other in a non-sexual way can actually help to enhance their sexual experiences. It makes them feel closer to one another, which can be an exceptional turn on when you are in the bedroom, sexually.

Communication is Key

At its core, good sex is all about communication. And now that you’ve understood sexual desire and arousal, you literally can’t go wrong. “It’s vital you keep the channels of communication open to enjoy good sex. Don’t be afraid to say, ‘That really doesn’t work for me.’ Talk about what really DOES turn you on, and allow them to do the same." says Annabelle Knight, Lovehoney's sex and relationship expert (via Cosmopolitan UK). 

We hope you’ve made notes!