When we think of sexual arousal, we typically think of something that is primarily pleasant and enjoyable. When we are sexually aroused (or ‘turned on’), we think sexy thoughts, we see sexiness all around us, and we experience delightful sensations in certain parts of our bodies. Everything seems to jive, and this combination of events can make us feel alive and alert. However, this is not the case for everyone, in particular when genital arousal is persistent and unwanted. “What?” you might be asking yourself right now. The process is more complicated than many think. Sexual arousal is actually made up of at least two components, which can (but do not always) occur at the same time. Genital (or what us sex researchers sometimes call physiological) sexual arousal includes feelings of the physical changes that occur when the body is oh-so anticipating sexual activity (e.g., genital fullness or swelling, sensitivity, and/or lubrication—all those sensations ‘down there’ and in other sensitive places). On the other hand, subjective sexual arousal refers to one’s perception of whether they are sexually aroused, ‘turned on’, or ‘in the mood.’ Although subjective and genital arousal typically occur at the same time, sometimes they do not. One striking example of this is when people have what is called Persistent Genital Arousal Disorder (or PGAD). PGAD occurs when only the physical component of sexual arousal is present; that is, an individual’s genitals are excited, but they don't feel in the mood. In fact, individuals are quite bothered by the genital feelings because the physical sensations simply don't go away. Even after an orgasm. Even after many orgasms. Instead of that satisfying feeling that one gets after the intense release of any orgasm, all that women with PGAD may feel after an orgasm are more messages from their genitals telling them to ‘go’ again. And these genital feelings—as you can imagine—are tiresome and bothersome because they simply won’t go away! There is no final release… And they can happen at any time without anything triggering them! Like when you are riding in a car, or travelling on a plane—those vibrations from the car or plane can unfortunately trigger orgasms. Yes, I said ‘unfortunately’ and ‘orgasm’ in the same sentence because the orgasms are unwanted and are not pleasurable. So they are not really ‘orgasms’ as you may think. Talk about a limiting condition; many people with PGAD cannot travel or even work outside of the home due to these symptoms. In this condition, there seems to be miscommunication between the mind and body, in that the body (the genitals) is stuck in this loop of being ‘turned on’ all or most of the time. Although having persistent genital arousal might sound appealing to you at first on account of the tingling genital sensations and orgasms, individuals with PGAD find their symptoms very distressing.
We still don’t know exactly how many women (or men, see below) have PGAD. It is safe to assume that it is more common than one might think. It’s too bad that some women who have the resolve to talk to their doctor about this issue get laughed out of the office (“you are so lucky!” “you have no trouble achieving orgasm!”) or mistakenly diagnosed with something called hypersexuality (which is a condition characterized by high desire/subjective arousal, which remember, is NOT what PGAD is about). Women with PGAD and hypersexuality might sound the same when you hear that both groups engage in a high amount of sexual behavior(s), but the reasons for this high level differs: women with PGAD might be trying to get rid of their feelings of incessant arousal, and women with hypersexuality are acting on their desire to be sexual. The literature is also quite haphazard when it comes to successful treatment for PGAD. Some recommend treatments like zapping your brain with shock therapy (no, this is not a joke) or surgery to get rid of cysts located close to the spinal cord.
As mentioned earlier, PGAD can also affect men as well, but very little research attention has been given to these men. This topic is one area of current research that our SexLab team at Queen’s is focusing on. We feel that it is important to raise awareness about persistent genital arousal so that individuals who do experience the unwelcome and unwanted sexual sensations will be taken seriously.
Queen’s Sexual Health Research Lab: Addressing the Need for More Research
We just launched an online study of women’s experiences with PGAD. We are looking for women who are experiencing any symptoms of persistent genital arousal, including those who are and are not distressed by these symptoms. Although we are currently only recruiting women, we will be launching a study for men in the near future as well.
If you are interested in participating, would like to be notified when the male survey is launched, or would like more information, please contact: Sex.Lab@Queensu.ca
To participate in the survey for women with persistent genital arousal symptoms please visit our Participate page.
Robyn Jackowich BA, MSc Student and Caroline F. Pukall, Ph.D., C.Psych.