Is My Vaginal Dryness Normal?

Photo: Eylul Aslan
As I lay there naked and mortified, he was running around the flat, erection slowly deflating, looking for anything resembling Vaseline. Every part of my body was ready to get jiggy with it but my vagina seemed to have missed the memo. Why was my 23-year-old vagina suddenly acting menopausal? Could I sneakily use my own saliva to salvage the situation? Did I have, to quote Issa Rae, a "broken pu**y"?
Turns out my pu**y works just fine. As, probably, does yours if you're one of the many women ever to have experienced vaginal dryness. When it happened to me, though, I didn’t know I had no reason to be embarrassed. The fact that I was left feeling like there was something wrong with my body reflects one of the many ways in which female sexuality has, yet again, been neglected.
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We’ve been taught to believe that 'wetness' and 'arousal' (your nervous system’s response to sexually relevant stimuli) are one and the same. That if your knickers aren’t sopping wet before sex then there must be something wrong with you. The truth is, though, that genital response is not always a measure of desire in women. That the two might not be in tune with each other is totally normal; it’s called 'arousal nonconcordance'.
“Arousal nonconcordance is a mismatch between how turned on a person feels and how their genitals are behaving,” sex educator and author of Come As You Are, Emily Nagoski tells Refinery29. “It's nearly universal; almost every woman will, at some point, experience it, just as almost every man experiences erectile issues.”
It's a common belief that a woman's wetness depends on how aroused she is but lack of vaginal lubrication doesn't necessarily mean you're not turned on, much like trouble getting an erection doesn't mean a man’s not horny – your genitals are simply doing their own thing, regardless of your wishes.

Literally everyone with a vagina should be using lube during any penetration they experience.

“We tend to believe that women are 'ready' when they're wet and 'not ready' when they aren't, but that's just not how it works,” says Nagoski. “Forty years of research contradict the cultural assumption that how our genitals are behaving has some clear relationship with how turned on we feel.”
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Female sexuality has been contextualised in reference to how male bodies work and because of outdated, patriarchal science, we tend to assume that the way men’s bodies function is the way women’s bodies should. Female sexuality is, as Nagoski puts it, "men's sexuality lite: basically the same, but not quite as good.”
In her book, Nagoski explains that men are more concordant than women, ie. their mind and their genitals are more in sync. There’s about a 50% overlap between what a man’s genitals are doing and how turned on he is, so if he’s pitching a tent in his pants it’s safe to assume he’s ready to go. For women, however, there’s only about a 10% overlap, and that’s because our genitals tend to respond to any sexual stimuli, whether it’s the prospect of sex with your SO or watching two monkeys mate on Planet Earth. It doesn’t mean you have a weird fetish; it simply means those images are sexually relevant.
“Genital responses aren’t necessarily more reliable reflections of women’s sexual desires than her self-reported feelings of arousal,” says Karen Gurney, clinical psychologist and psychosexologist. “Narrow sexual scripts can also be responsible and this is a problem really linked with our societal ideas about what sex should be like.”
We tend to think of female anatomy and arousal too simplistically and mechanically, when in reality it’s not so cause-and-effect. Female and male sexuality operate differently from one another, and that’s okay.
The language we use to talk about sex also drives our perception of arousal. When we say “I’m so wet” as a euphemism for “I'm aroused” it can be easy to assume that the two are interchangeable – and the fact that men are turned on by wetness doesn’t help, either.
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How many times has a man murmured “You’re so wet!” in approval during sex? How many songs refer to a woman’s vagina as an 'ocean'? With disgusting expressions like ‘dry box bitches’ floating around the manosphere, it's understandable why we might feel inadequate if we're not slippery for sex 24/7.
“Know that it's normal,” says Nagoski. “I can't count the number of women I've talked to who felt 'broken' because they needed lube to make sex comfortable, and yet literally everyone with a vagina should be using it during any penetration they experience.”
While your body does not exist solely to please your partner, it’s totally understandable that you’d want to do so. However, this doesn't mean your partner should take offence at your perceived lack of arousal. Staying dry is not a reflection of how tingly they make you feel.

Just like every guy has at some point experienced a rogue boner, sometimes your vagina is ready to par-tay when there are no balloons or confetti in sight.

Nagoski also points out that dryness is relative: “How wet is wet enough? Wetness where? And when? The amount of wetness most bodies create is just not enough for penetration that lasts more than a few minutes, so really everyone engaging in penetration should use lube.”
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Arousal nonconcordance means we might feel turned on in our minds but our genitals might not respond in the way we expect; the opposite is true as well. Just like every guy has at some point experienced a rogue boner, sometimes your vagina is ready to par-tay when there are no balloons or confetti in sight.
Think of a gynaecological examination: just because my vagina is being probed doesn’t mean I’ll want to have sex. It might be sexually relevant but it’s not sexually appealing, because I’m too preoccupied with the cold metal object being shoved up my cervix to think sexy thoughts. If a woman is wet or swollen it doesn’t mean she’s in the mood for sex – it's your vagina being pragmatic.
Understanding arousal nonconcordance is especially important when it comes to sexual assault. It’s not uncommon for rape victims to experience arousal, or even orgasm, when being sexually assaulted, but neither of those responses indicates pleasure, let alone consent. So it becomes problematic when we understand wetness entirely as active, consensual desire because it means orgasm and arousal can be (and have been) used as evidence in court that the violation was consensual.
Our bodies simply respond. Whether the stimuli is sexual or not, they do so uniquely with or without your mind’s permission. “When it comes to arousal nonconcordance, I wish we would treat it the way we treat every other reflexive physiological response,” says Nagoski.
“If I bit into a wormy apple and my mouth watered, would anyone say, 'But you must have really liked that wormy apple, because your mouth watered'? No. And if I don't flinch when I hear thunder but told my friend I felt afraid, would they say, 'You can't be afraid; you didn't flinch'? When it's not sexual, it's easy to see how silly and dismissive it is to suggest that a person's physiological reflex tells us more about a person's experience than the person can. All we have to do is apply the same principle to sex.”
In the end, getting wet is just a bodily function. Would you consider yourself any less of a woman for producing fewer tears than everyone else? Didn’t think so. Female genitals have a mind of their own so it’s important not to make too many assumptions about what’s going on with our sexual partners based only on what we see. If your partner has a vulva, their genital response (or lack thereof) might say something different from what they’re actually feeling. “Genital responses are not more reliable reflections of women’s sexual desires than her self-reported feelings of arousal, or what she describes herself as being sexually attracted to,” says Gurney. So when in doubt, just ask.
Dry sex is uncomfortable on both a physical and an emotional level, and feeling comfortable is essential to good sex. Luckily we live in a world where this amazing thing called lube exists for the purpose of increasing our sexual pleasure, so don’t be embarrassed to reach for a helping hand. Pride and misunderstanding of female sexuality shouldn’t get in the way of an enjoyable sex life. Your fully functioning pu**y deserves better.
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