are anger and sexual arousal exactly the same?

The short answer is no, but the long answer includes why anyone would think they might be.

So this was on Twitter today:

Fear & anger produce the exact physiological response as sexual arousal. Thats why all the ‘fight & fuck’ stories. –

— Susie Bright (@susiebright) June 2, 2013

To which I responded:

@susiebright @learnpleasure Oh that’s SO not true. Arousal is arousal, but dude, motivational system MATTERS. It… I’ll write a blog post.

— Emily Nagoski, PhD (@enagoski) June 2, 2013

Here is that blog post.

Arousal is arousal.\ Arousal, to biological psychologists, refers to activation. “GO” signals in the central nervous system, as opposed to “STOP” signals. “GO” can refer to “avoidance” GO, such as fear (run away!) or disgust (get away!), or it can refer to “approach” GO, such as sexual desire (go get it!) or anger (go kill it!). And they’re all accompanied by the activation of physiology, which is limited to, ya know, the stuff a body can do.

Now, the physiological response is DEFINITELY NOT IDENTICAL: anger doesn’t give you an erection (until afterward, which is probably a result of a thing called opponent processing and has nothing to do with actual sexual stimulation) and sexual arousal doesn’t make you want to kill something.

But if by “the exact physiological response,” you just mean stuff like increased heart rate, blood pressure, respiration rate, galvanic skin response, stuff like that, then sure. It’s exactly the same. Arousal is arousal.

But that’s not what anybody who knows what they’re talking about means. Because:

Motivational system matters.\ Arousal can be generated by an enormous range of stimuli, by a number of motivational systems. (Motivational systems may also be called “emotional systems.”)

One of your motivational systems is, of course, the dual control mechanism of sexual excitation and inhibition, which responds to sexually relevant stimuli (go!) and threats (stop!) Another is the stress response system, which responds to all manner of potential threats with GO (fight or flight) or STOP (freeze) responses. Another is the attachment system, which responds to attachment cues and makes you feel in love and stuff. And lots more. All of them are functioning all the time, responding to different kinds of cues. They interact too, suppressing or activating each other. It’s awesome and fascinating and the subject of Chapter 3 in that book I keep saying I’m writing.

The key bit here: Different kinds of cues. Which result in different kinds of responses.

Sexual cues generate sexual responses: go fuck that! Predator cues generate fear responses: run!! Enemy cues generate fight responses: kill! Overwhelming force cues generate freeze responses : FREEZE. Attachment cues generate affection responses: snuggle! They share the basic activation response of heart rate etc, but have specific and different other responses. (See Archaeology of Mind for details on this complex and fascinating subject.)

Not “exactly the same.” In fact, sometimes just the opposite – especially “avoid” versus “approach.” And even two “approach” emotions, like lust and rage, are really different. Imagine if someone mixed up the two!

Motivation system matters.

So WHY all the fight-and-fuck stories?\ Because STORIES ARE ABOUT CONFLICT.

Conflict is what holds our attention. It arouses us! And two kinds of arousal at once arouses us more! And in stories, the activating “threat” that generates fear or rage is imaginary, not real.

The essay in which Susie say this thing about the responses being the same actually TELLS US why the stories, when in real life it doesn’t work:

What is activating in imagination may or may not be activating in real life. Susie writes,

I love to imagine being a submissive, degraded, punished damsel in gang-bang distress, but in real life I can barely take the softest spanking. I’m a S/M tiger in my dreams, but a wuss between the sheets. I know how much the flavor of S/M, the threat of pain, can create sexual tension, how small, silky fetishes can create just as much psychological action as chain restraints.

Susie’s typical here. In real life, fear for most people (not all) is a giant sexual brake-slammer. (For a rare few it’s sexually activating.) But! In the absence of anything your brain perceives as a genuine threat – say, in a fantasy or A STORY – stress plus erotic stimulation generates the “ironic effect” and we get a reactance response – what you are told you mustn’t do, you desperately want to do.

There’s so much more to this. But that’s the short version of why anger and arousal are not at all the same, and yet why they get conflated.