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Try out PMC Labs and tell us what you think. Learn More. This article reviews what is currently known about how men and women respond to the presentation of visual sexual stimuli. While the assumption that men respond more to visual sexual stimuli is generally empirically supported, reports of sex differences are confounded by the variable content of the stimuli presented and measurement techniques. We propose that the cognitive processing stage of responding to sexual stimuli is the first stage in which sex differences occur.
The divergence between men and women is proposed to occur at this time, reflected in differences in neural activation, and contribute to ly reported sex differences in downstream peripheral physiological responses and subjective reports of sexual arousal. Additionally, this review discusses factors that may contribute to the variability in sex differences observed in response to visual sexual stimuli. Factors include participant variables, such as hormonal state and socialized sexual attitudes, as well as variables specific to the content presented in the stimuli.
Based on the literature reviewed, we conclude that content characteristics may differentially produce higher levels of sexual arousal in men and women. Sexual motivation, perceived gender role expectations, and sexual attitudes are possible influences. These differences are of practical importance to future research on sexual arousal that aims to use experimental stimuli comparably appealing to men and women and also for general understanding of cognitive sex differences.
Sex differences in response to visual sexual stimuli are widely acknowledged, although poorly documented. A common presumption in society and the media is that men respond more strongly to visual sexual stimuli than do women. Pornographic magazines and videos directed at men are a multi-billion dollar industry while similar products directed towards women are difficult to find.
The extent of sex differences and the exact mechanisms producing them are unclear. This review discusses what is known about human sex differences in response to visual sexual stimuli and possible influences contributing to this sex difference. To understand fully sex differences in response to visual sexual stimuli, it is first necessary to present the theoretical construct describing the multiple processes we believe to be involved in producing a response to sexual stimuli. The cognitive contributions to sexual arousal are not completely known, but involve the appraisal and evaluation of the stimulus, categorization of the stimulus as sexual, and affective response Basson, ; Janssen et al.
The physiological component of sexual arousal includes changes in cardiovascular function, respiration, and genital response, erection in men, and vasocongestion in women Basson, ; Janssen et al. The inconsistency between physiological measures and reports of subjective sexual arousal may suggest that physiological changes on their own are not the only events subjects use to assess sexual stimuli.
Additionally, it is unclear whether this discordance is primarily limited to women, as men typically show a greater, although not complete, concordance between their genital responses and subjective assessments of arousal Chivers et al. Thus, we do not yet know the exact relationship between subjective and physical sexual arousal, which is a complex process emerging from multiple cognitive and physiological components.
It is possible that these cognitive and physiological components operate through distinct mechanisms and circuitry, although they likely mutually affect each other Janssen et al. Our theoretical orientation supposes that the conscious and unconscious cognitive processing in the brain, including memory, attention, and emotion, set the internal context for which visual stimuli, as well as the subsequent peripheral physiological responses, are interpreted as sexual. The cognitive framework in which visual sexual stimuli are viewed thus mediates the specific response elicited to visual sexual stimuli.
In a feedback process, subjective sexual arousal from an interaction between cognitive and experiential factors, such as affective state, experience, and current social context, which set the conditions for the production of peripheral physiological reactions, which then feedback to affect cognitive reactions to the stimuli, resulting in feelings of sexual arousal, which in turn affect the extent of physiological arousal.
This integrating process may go through several iterations, increasing arousal with each pass through the cognitive-physiological loop. Whether the initial cognitive mechanisms are conscious or unconscious is unresolved, with some investigators emphasizing the initial physiological response to sexual stimuli as being a primary determinant of psychological arousal Basson, ; Laan et al. There is likely a sex difference in exactly how much cognitions influence subjective sexual arousal, but both men and women determine subjective sexual arousal as the product of physiological sexual arousal within the current cognitive state.
investigations of sexual arousal have focused primarily on subjective or physiological end points, such as erection or genital vasocongestion, and have rarely quantitatively examined the cognitive processing of sexual arousal, including attention and stimulus evaluation. The cognitive component of sexual arousal in response to visual sexual stimuli is a critical aspect of the sexual arousal response in humans needing further investigation. Sex differences are likely to be observed in the factors influencing, and importance of, the cognitive state on overall sexual arousal.
Therefore, it is necessary to examine both the physiological and cognitive aspects of sexual arousal to fully understand sex differences in response to visual sexual stimuli. This review discusses findings regarding sex differences in response to sexual stimuli, including studies measuring both subjective and peripheral physiological measurements of sexual arousal, as well as studies measuring neural activation in response to visual sexual stimuli. The examination of sex differences in response to visual sexual stimuli using different methodologies may further our understanding of the complex interaction between cognitive and physiological processes to produce subjective sexual arousal.
The best documented sex differences in response to sexual stimuli use subjective ratings of sexual arousal and interest in response to sexual stimuli. When presented with the same stimuli, men and women often report different levels of sexual and positive arousal, as well as ratings of sexual attractiveness of the actors, depending on characteristics of the stimuli.
Most studies where men and women rate levels of attraction to sexual stimuli have not, however, systematically characterized details of the stimuli that may produce sex differences in sexual arousal or attraction Bancroft, The few studies that describe specific aspects of sexual stimuli that men and women differentially prefer find a range of attributes that can affect response in men and women.
Women who viewed clips from erotic films made by women or men reported higher levels of sexual arousal to the woman-made films Laan et al. However, their subjective response was not reflected in their physiological response as they showed similar genital response to both woman- and man-made films. This discordance may reflect that these women also reported more negative emotions, such as aversion, guilt, and shame, in response to the man-created compared to the woman-created films. These negative emotions may result from the fact that man-created films involved no foreplay and focused almost exclusively on intercourse while the woman-created film had four of minutes devoted to foreplay.
It is unclear whether this reflects a response by the women to male-and female-created films, or a greater comfort with depictions of foreplay than intercourse. This could only be resolved by using films of similar content, but made by men or women. The observed disconnect between psychological and physical arousal may be related to the negative emotions causing the female subjects to invoke other cognitive mechanisms, such as social acceptability of the portrayal of sexuality, resulting in an inhibition or censoring of subjective report, but leaving their physiological response unaffected.
Men had higher ratings compared to women for all of the videos, but had their highest ratings for male-chosen films. Women reported lower levels of sexual arousal across all of the films than did men, but reported higher levels of arousal to female- than male-selected films. This difference was comparatively small and men still had higher ratings than women even for women-selected films.
Together, these data demonstrated that men responded more to visual sexual stimuli than did women, and this sex differences was strengthened if the stimuli were chosen by a male. It is interesting that men appeared even more influenced than women by the sex of the researcher choosing the film.
This suggests that women discriminated less in their responses to sexual stimuli than men did. Despite the fact that these films were standardized for the amount of time involved in foreplay, oral sex, and intercourse, men and women still agreed that something, which varied with the sex selecting the films, was more or less arousing to them.
Men, however, rated the attractiveness of the female actor and the ability to observe the woman important in their arousal to the film in addition to imagining themselves in the situation. Therefore, it appears that men and women have different strategies when viewing visual sexual stimuli Symons, ; however, the specific characteristics of the stimuli that may enhance or detract from the ability of subjects to utilize their preferred strategies remain unknown.
A possible characteristic of sexual stimuli that men and women may attend to differently is the physical context or nonsexual details of the stimuli. Although all participants spent the majority of their viewing time looking at the genitals, female faces, and female bodies in the photos, women using hormonal contraceptives looked more often at the background of the photos and clothing than did men. This is consistent with another recent eye-tracking study in which men and women rated sexually explicit photos as equally arousing despite differences in their gaze patterns Lykins et al.
Inconsistent with the Rupp and Wallen study, however, this eye tracking study did not find a sex difference in attention to the contextual elements of erotic stimuli. However, the Lykins et al. Together, these findings suggest that men and women have different cognitive biases that may promote optimal levels of interest in visual sexual stimuli. However, until future eye tracking work uses simultaneous measurement of sexual arousal, it is not entirely clear what elements of visual sexual stimuli enhance sexual arousal in men and women.
Evidence from studies examining habituation to sexual stimuli offers further evidence that men and women evaluate sexual stimuli using different strategies. Eighty-five percent of the female subjects said that as the trials repeated they paid more attention to both context-related and nonsexual details of the stimuli, such as background information or cues about the relationship of the actors. It is possible that, in general, women may pay more attention to contextual and nonsexual details of sexual stimuli than men do.
The presence of contextual elements in visual sexual stimuli may even allow lead to heightened arousal in women, as supported by the fact that women reported more subjective erotic reactions to commercial movies that men did. Kinsey et al. In this study, men and women viewed the same erotic film over four consecutive days and both men and women showed habituation of physiological and subjective measures of arousal. On the fifth day, subjects were presented with either a film depicting the same actors engaged in novel sexual activities or a film of new actors engaged in the behaviors observed in the original films.
Men reported levels of subjective arousal on the fifth day equal to that on the first only for films where new actors engaged in the ly seen sexual behaviors. These data were interpreted as suggesting that men show a preference for sexual stimuli with new people, whereas women respond better to stimuli suggesting the stability and security of a consistent partner. It commonly thought that women prefer stimuli depicting stable romantic relationships although this view has little empirical support. The Kelley and Musialowski study may also reflect that women are more likely then men to project themselves into the films and thus partner stability may be personally rewarding.
However, projection into the stimulus situation, or absorption, is also demonstrated in males to be positively associated with sexual arousal, although it is not clear under what conditions men use this strategy. The principle established sex difference in preference for specific content of sexual stimuli is whether the stimuli depict same- or opposite-sex actors. Generally, heterosexual men rate stimuli with same-sex stimuli lower than women rate pictures of other women.
When undergraduate men and women were presented photos of men and women masturbating, men reported a ificantly less favorable reaction to photos of men than of women Schmidt, By contrast, women rated photos of both sexes comparably. Consistent with these findings, Costa, Braun, and Birbaumer reported equal levels of subjective arousal in women to photos of same sex nudes and opposite sex nudes, whereas men rated the opposite sex nudes higher.
Similar patterns were observed when subjects were presented films of either heterosexual or homosexual sexual activity Steinman et al. Men showed a ificantly lower level of self-reported sexual arousal to films depicting two men than they did to heterosexual or lesbian films. Women, in contrast, did not show a difference in reported sexual arousal between heterosexual or female homosexual films. In these studies, both men and women spent more time looking at the female compared to the male actor in photos depicting heterosexual intercourse.
When men and women watched films of homosexual or heterosexual sex, male genital measures and subjective reports showed that men responded highest to films depicting sex with a member of the sex that they were attracted to. This stimulus specificity was true for all the subjects from a sample that included heterosexual men, homosexual men, and male-to-female transsexuals. For women, to the contrary, genital sexual arousal did not differentiate the sex of the actors engaged in sexual activity. Chivers et al. In summary, based on the literature described above, limited sex differences have been found in the contexts that evoke responses to sexual stimuli.
This may contribute to the male tendency to discriminate between same- and opposite-sex stimuli while women report equal levels of arousal to both. Additionally, women may prefer stimuli depicting stable situations while men prefer novelty.
The underlying cause of the sex differences in stimulus preference is unclear. However, given the similarities across species in which many males demonstrate a preference for novel females to maximize reproductive success Symons, , one could hypothesize an evolutionary underpinning for this sex difference in novelty preference.
Additionally, these sex differences may reflect biologically based reproductive strategies in which female reproductive success is increased if she has a reliable long term mate to help care for the young, sociological influences, or a combination of both. What is most important about these studies is the suggestion that men and women evaluate the same sexual stimuli differently.
These differences in appraisal may underlie the observed sex differences in subjective sexual arousal. If men and women evaluate stimuli differently from the outset, ultimately, sex differences in sexual arousal would be expected and may simply reflect this initial difference in stimulus evaluation.
The next section provides evidence that the sex differences observed from subjective reports of sexual arousal may be the product of sex differences in the cognitive processing of stimuli, reflected in differences in neural activity. Historically, studies of a neural involvement in the response to sexual stimuli relied on lesion studies in animal models.
Although these studies revealed important information, such as the critical roles of the hypothalamus and amygdala in sexual motivation and the expression of copulatory behavior, they cannot be replicated in human participants and may not be entirely able to address more complex cognitive responses to sexual stimuli that may be important in understanding human sexual arousal. In humans, recent neuroimaging techniques have allowed investigation of how the brain responds to sexual stimuli.
Both PET and fMRI are imaging techniques that use alterations in blood flow to infer regional differences in neural activity. PET, because it uses the accumulation of radioactive tracers, is more clearly linked to neural activity and, unlike fMRI, can detect both increased activation and deactivation of neural activity. With fMRI, it is only known that activity has changed, but not the direction of the change. Both techniques rely upon the assumption that a change in blood use by the brain implies increased neural activity although the exact mechanisms underlying this relationship are unclear.
Imaging studies show that, in response to sexual stimuli, both men and women show increased activation in many similar brain regions thought to be involved in the response to visual sexual stimuli, including the thalamus, amygdala, inferior frontal lobe, orbital prefrontal cortex, medial prefrontal cortex, cingulate cortex, insula, corpus callossum, inferior temporal lobe, fusiform gyrus, occipitotemporal lobe, striatum, caudate, and globus pallidus.
Recent studies looking specifically for sex differences in response to the same set of sexual stimuli found that, in response to erotic films, men and women showed many areas of overlap in response to sexual stimuli in the anterior cingulate, medial prefrontal cortex, orbital prefrontal cortex, insula, amygdala, thalamus, and ventral striatum Karama et al.
A study by Hamann, Herman, Nolan, and Wallen , using fMRI and still pictures, found a similar sex difference in hypothalamic activation in response to sexually explicit images of heterosexual activities. Men also showed higher general activation in response to sexual stimuli than women in the amygdale even though men and women did not report different subjective levels of arousal to the photos.
It is important to distinguish whether the sex differences observed in neural activation reflect differences in cognitive processing between men and women in response to sexual stimuli or simply differences due to inherent morphological or physiological sex differences.Woman looking sex Van
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Women’s Sexuality: Behaviors, Responses, and Individual Differences