Feeling the heat: sexual arousal in men and women

sexy_black_girl.jpgNew Scientist reports on research recently presented at the Canadian Sex Research Forum that suggests that men and women take about the same time to reach the maximum level of sexual arousal.

The researchers, led by Tuuli Kukkonen, used a thermal imaging camera to measure increased blood flow in the genitals while participants were watching erotic films.

Although the report doesn’t say, it’s common in these sorts of studies for the male and female participants to be shown different films, as males and females tend to be maximally aroused by different types of erotica.

Both the film shown to males, and the film shown to females, will likely have been rated by members of the same sex for how arousing it is, and the films will have been chosen to match the levels of arousal for men and women.

What the report doesn’t say is that the researchers seemed only to have measured physical arousal.

This is important, as we have known since the eighties that while men typically feel psychologically aroused when they’re physically aroused, women can be physically aroused while not feeling psychologically turned-on in the slightest.

In other words, women can show physical arousal without feeling sexy at all. This rarely happens with men.

In fact, a recent study reported that physical arousal in females seems a relatively automatic response to viewing any sort of sexual activity, gay, straight, male or female, despite the fact that the reported level of psychological arousal varied considerably.

Women in this study even showed some physical sexual arousal when watching a video of mating chimpanzees, despite reporting that they felt less sexy than when watching neutral videos of landscapes and scenery.

Why there is such a marked difference in feeling sexy and being aroused in women is still a mystery, but it is something that needs to be borne in mind when interpreting any study (and particularly, any news story) that talks about ‘sexual arousal’ as a single type of experience.

Unfortunately, Kukkonen and colleagues’ study seems to have been widely and uncritically reported as suggesting that women get ‘hot’ in about the same time as men do, when in fact, the picture is far more complex.

Link to NewSci story ‘Women become sexually aroused as quickly as men’.

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