Ambivalent Affect and Sexual Response: The Impact of Co-Occurring Positive and Negative Emotions on Subjective and Physiological Sexual Responses to Erotic Stimuli

Abstract

This study aimed to clarify the role of positive, negative, and ambivalent (i.e., co-occurring positive and negative) affect in predicting subjective sexual arousal, sexual desire, and genital response. A total of 26 women and 19 men observed three erotic film excerpts and a film excerpt depicting a coercive sexual encounter. Genital responses were recorded throughout the study, and participants rated their mood and subjective sexual arousal and desire following each excerpt. Results showed that positive affect was strongly and positively related to subjective sexual response. Although negative affect was generally a poor predictor of subjective sexual arousal, for women, it was positively associated with genital response in some conditions. Ambivalent affect was consistently associated with relatively high levels of subjective sexual arousal and desire. Results point to the importance of recognizing the role of ambivalent or mixed emotional states when evaluating the relationship between affect and sexual response.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    The term “ambivalent” is used in this article to reflect the co-occurrence of positive and negative affect during or shortly after exposure to emotion-inducing situations or stimuli.

  2. 2.

    Potential participants were selected based on their scores on the SIS/SES questionnaire (Janssen, Vorst, Finn, & Bancroft, 2002), a trait measure of sexual inhibition-excitation proneness, in an attempt to achieve a sample with a range of scores on that questionnaire. Although the present study did not focus on these trait variables, a comparison of our sample with previous samples of male and female college students (e.g., Carpenter, Janssen, Graham, Vorst, & Wicherts, 2005; Janssen et al., 2002) revealed comparable ranges and averages of SIS/SES scores.

  3. 3.

    Although these individual emotions may not consistently reflect the underlying state, or expected valence, specified by the authors (e.g., “interested” or “sensual” may not always be experienced as positive), support for our identification of these emotions as positive or negative comes from the relatively strong bivarate correlations within the sets of items (e.g., “interested” and “sensual” were both correlated with “pleasant” across film conditions, with r’s ranging from .28 to .78 and from .71 to .81 respectively).

  4. 4.

    We also conducted separate analyses for men and women and found a similar pattern of results across genders.

  5. 5.

    Aiken and West (1991) and Judd and McClelland (1989) have recommended using the centered scores (i.e., the mean subtracted from the individual scores) of the predictor variables and their product rather than the untransformed individual scores and their product. Use of the centered scores permits the regression coefficient associated with a predictor variable to be interpreted as the simple effect of that predictor at the mean value of another predictor when their product also is included as a predictor.

  6. 6.

    Some of our non-significant findings may have been a result of insufficient power due to our small sample size. This is particularly true of the analyses on men's genital response (n = 19).

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Acknowledgements

This project was funded in part by a postdoctoral fellowship from The Kinsey Institute for Research in Sex, Gender, and Reproduction awarded to Zoë Peterson. We thank Todd Agee, Jamie Eisenberg, Cynthia Graham, Amy Lykins, Nicole Prause, Sara Upchurch, and Zoran Vukadinovic for their help during various phases of this study. We also thank John Petrocelli for his help with graphing the regression interaction effects and Julia Heiman for her comments on an earlier draft of this manuscript.

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Correspondence to Zoë D. Peterson.

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Peterson, Z.D., Janssen, E. Ambivalent Affect and Sexual Response: The Impact of Co-Occurring Positive and Negative Emotions on Subjective and Physiological Sexual Responses to Erotic Stimuli. Arch Sex Behav 36, 793–807 (2007). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10508-006-9145-0

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Keywords

  • Sexual arousal
  • Sexual desire
  • Affect
  • Ambivalence
  • Vaginal photoplethysmography
  • Penile erection
  • Psychophysiology