Information processing

The recent visions on sexual desire and sexual arousal described above align with an information processing model of the sexual response. This model distinguishes between two pathways for information processing. The first pathway mainly involves automatic and subconscious processes. The second pathway involves attention and regulation. Activation of genital sexual arousal (via the automatic pathway) is a largely automatic and fast process, whereas the conscious attribution of meaning to the experience (via the conscious pathway) is comparatively slow. The genital response and conscious subjective experience do not necessarily correspond. In women, there is usually little correlation between genital response and feelings of arousal. Feelings of arousal appear to be more strongly linked to the situational context than to the intensity of the genital response. A correlation between the genital and subjective response may be lacking when a stimulus activates not only sexual associations but also non-sexual negative associations.

According to the information-processing model, biological as well as psychological factors can inhibit the activation of the sexual system. Hormonal disorders, for example, can reduce the sensitivity or  arousability of the sexual system. Cognitive processes (e.g. negative thoughts or distractions) can also inhibit genital or subjective sexual arousal. The information-processing model underlines the importance of the meaning of stimuli. Although there are stimuli that by nature bring about sexual reactions and pleasurable feelings (e.g. touching the genitals), most sexual stimuli probably acquire their meaning through learning processes. Learning about sexual stimuli usually leads to positive sexual associations, but stimuli can also become associated with negative feelings. The potential of stimuli to bring about sexual desire and arousal therefore depends on the individual’s sexual learning history.