Sex Differences in Response to Visual Sexual Stimuli: A Review

Abstract

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, previous 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 previously 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. Specifically, men appear more influenced by the sex of the actors depicted in the stimuli while women’s response may differ with the context presented. 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.

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution.

References

  1. Alexander, G. M., & Sherwin, B. B. (1993). Sex steroids, sexual behavior, and selection attention for erotic stimuli in women using oral contraceptives. Psychoneuroendocrinology, 18, 91–102.

    PubMed  Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  2. Alexander, M. G., & Fisher, T. D. (2003). Truth and consequences: Using the bogus pipeline to examine sex differences in self-reported sexuality. Journal of Sex Research, 40, 27–35.

    PubMed  Article  Google Scholar 

  3. Aubrey, J. S. (2004). Sex and punishment: An examination of sexual consequences and the sexual double standard in teen programming. Sex Roles, 50, 505–514.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  4. Bancroft, J. (1978). Psychological and physiological responses to sexual stimuli in men and women. In L. Lennart (Ed.), Society, stress, and disease: The productive and reproductive age–male/female roles and relationships (Vol. 3, pp. 154–163). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  5. Basson, R. (2002). A model of women’s sexual arousal. Journal of Sex and Marital Therapy, 28, 1–10.

    PubMed  Article  Google Scholar 

  6. Beauregard, M., Levesque, J., & Bourgouin, P. (2001). Neural correlates of conscious self-regulation of emotion. Journal of Neuroscience, 21, 1–6.

    Google Scholar 

  7. Chivers, M. L., & Bailey, J. M. (2005). A sex difference in features that elicit genital response. Biological Psychology, 70, 115–120.

    PubMed  Article  Google Scholar 

  8. Chivers, M. L., Reiger, G., Latty, E., & Bailey, J. M. (2004). A sex difference in the specificity of sexual arousal. Psychological Science, 15, 736–744.

    PubMed  Article  Google Scholar 

  9. Costa, M., Braun, C., & Birbaumer, N. (2003). Gender differences in response to pictures of nudes: A magnetoencephalographic study. Biological Psychology, 63, 129–147.

    PubMed  Article  Google Scholar 

  10. Costell, R. M., Lunde, D. T., Kopell, B. S., & Wittner, W. K. (1972). Contingent negative variation as an indicator of sexual object preference. Science, 177, 718–720.

    PubMed  Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  11. Crawford, M., & Popp, D. (2003). Sexual double standards: A review and methodological critique of two decades of research. Journal of Sex Research, 40, 13–26.

    PubMed  Google Scholar 

  12. Feinberg, D. R., Jones, B. C., Law Smith, M. J., Moore, F. R., DeBruine, L. M., Cornwell, R. E., et al. (2006). Menstrual cycle, trait estrogen levels, and masculinity preferences in the human voice. Hormones and Behavior, 49, 215–222.

    PubMed  Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  13. Fisher, T. D. (2007). Sex of experimenter and social norm effects on reports of sexual behavior in young men and women. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 36, 89–100.

    PubMed  Article  Google Scholar 

  14. Gangestad, S. W., & Simpson, J. A. (2000). The evolution of human mating: Trade-offs and strategic pluralism. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 23, 573–644.

    PubMed  Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  15. Gangestad, S. W., Simpson, J. A., Cousins, A. J., Garver-Apgar, C. E., & Christensen, P. N. (2004). Women’s preferences for male behavioral displays change across the menstrual cycle. Psychological Science, 15, 203–207.

    PubMed  Article  Google Scholar 

  16. Gizewski, E. R., Krause, E., Karama, S., Baars, A., Senf, W., & Forsting, M. (2006). There are differences in cerebral activation between women in distinct menstrual phases during the viewing of erotic stimuli: A fMRI study. Experimental Brain Research, 174, 101–108.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  17. Haerich, P. (1992). Premarital sexual permissiveness and religious orientation: A preliminary investigation. Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 31, 361–365.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  18. Hall, K. S., Binik, Y., & Di Tomasso, E. (1985). Concordance between physiological and subjective measures of sexual arousal. Behaviour Research and Therapy, 23, 297–303.

    PubMed  Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  19. Hamann, S., Herman, R. A., Nolan, C. L., & Wallen, K. (2004). Men and women differ in amygdala response to visual sexual stimuli. Nature Neuroscience, 7, 1–6.

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  20. Hartley, H., & Drew, T. (2001). Gendered messages in sex ed films: Trends and implications for female sexual problems. Women and Therapy, 24, 133–146.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  21. Harvey, S. M. (1987). Female sexual behavior: Fluctuations during the menstrual cycle. Journal of Psychosomatic Research, 31, 101–110.

    PubMed  Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  22. Haselton, M. G., & Gangestad, S. W. (2006). Conditional expression of women’s desires and men’s mate guarding across the ovulatory cycle. Hormones and Behavior, 49, 509–518.

    PubMed  Article  Google Scholar 

  23. Haselton, M. G., Mortezaie, M., Pillsworth, E. G., Bleske-Rechek, A., & Frederick, D. A. (2007). Ovulatory shifts in human female ornamentation: Near ovulation, women dress to impress. Hormones and Behavior, 51, 40–45.

    PubMed  Article  Google Scholar 

  24. Heiman, J. R. (1977). A psychophysiological exploration of sexual arousal patterns in men and women. Psychophysiology, 14, 266–274.

    PubMed  Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  25. Heiman, J. R. (1980). Female sexual response patterns. Archives of General Psychiatry, 37, 1311–1316.

    PubMed  CAS  Google Scholar 

  26. Holstege, G., & Georgiadis, J. R. (2004). Brain activation during orgasm is basically the same in men and women. Hormones and Behavior, 46, 132.

    Google Scholar 

  27. Janssen, E., Carpenter, D., & Graham, C. A. (2003). Selecting films for sex research: Gender differences in erotic film preferences. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 32, 243–251.

    PubMed  Article  Google Scholar 

  28. Janssen, E., Everaerd, W., Spiering, M., & Janssen, J. (2000). Automatic processes and the appraisal of sexual stimuli: Toward an information processing model of sexual arousal. Journal of Sex Research, 37, 8–23.

    Google Scholar 

  29. Jensen, L., Newell, R. J., & Holman, T. (1990). Sexual behavior, church attendance, and permissive beliefs among unmarried young men and women. Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 29, 113–117.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  30. Jones, B. C., Little, A. C., Boothroyd, L., DeBruine, L. M., Feinberg, D. R., Law Smith, M. J., et al. (2005). Commitment to relationships and preferences for femininity and apparent health in faces are strongest on days of the menstrual cycle when progesterone level is high. Hormones and Behavior, 48, 283–290.

    PubMed  Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  31. Karama, S., Roch Lecours, A., Leroux, J., Bourgouin, P., Beaudoin, G., Joubert, S., et al. (2002). Areas of brain activation in men and women during viewing of erotic film excerpts. Human Brain Mapping, 16, 1–13.

    PubMed  Article  Google Scholar 

  32. Kelley, K., & Musialowski, D. (1986). Repeated exposure to sexually explicit stimuli: Novelty, sex, and sexual attitudes. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 15, 487–498.

    PubMed  Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  33. Kinsey A. C., Pomeroy, W. B., Martin, C. E., & Gebhard, P. H. (1953). Sexual behavior in the human female. Philadelphia: W. B. Saunders.

    Google Scholar 

  34. Korff, J., & Geer, J. H. (1983). The relationship between sexual arousal response and genital response. Psychophysiology, 20, 121–127.

    PubMed  Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  35. Koukounas, E., & Letch, N. M. (2001). Psychological correlates of perception of sexual intent in women. Journal of Social Psychology, 141, 443–456.

    PubMed  CAS  Google Scholar 

  36. Koukounas, E., & McCabe, M. P. (2001). Sexual and emotional variables influencing sexual response to erotica: A psychophysiological investigation. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 30, 393–408.

    PubMed  Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  37. Koukounas, E., & Over, R. (2001). Habituation of male sexual arousal: Effects of attentional focus. Biological Psychology, 58, 49–64.

    PubMed  Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  38. Krug, R., Plihal, W., Fehm, H. L., & Born, J. (2000). Selective influence of the menstrual cycle on perception of stimuli with reproductive significance: An event related potential study. Psychophysiology, 37, 111–122.

    PubMed  Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  39. Kwan, M., Greenleaf, W. J., Mann, J., Crapo, L., & Davidson, J. M. (1983). The nature of androgen action on male sexuality: A combined laboratory-self-report study on hypogonadal men. Journal of Clinical Endocrinology and Metabolism, 57, 557–562.

    PubMed  CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  40. Laan, E., & Everaerd, W. (1995). Habituation of female sexual arousal to slides and film. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 24, 517–541.

    PubMed  Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  41. Laan, E., Everaerd, W., van Bellen, G., & Hanewald, G. (1994). Women’s sexual and emotional responses to male- and female-produced erotica. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 23, 153–169.

    PubMed  Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  42. Laan, E., Everaerd, W., Van der Velde, J., & Geer, J. H. (1995). Determinants of subjective experience of sexual arousal in women: Feedback from genital arousal and erotic stimulus content. Psychophysiology, 32, 444–451.

    PubMed  Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  43. Lykins, A., Meana, M., & Kambe, G. (2006). Detection of differential viewing patterns to erotic and non-erotic stimuli using eye-tracking methodology. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 35, 569–575.

    PubMed  Article  Google Scholar 

  44. Lykins, A. D., Meana, M., & Strauss, G. P. (2007). Sex differences in visual attention to erotic and non-erotic stimlui. Archives of Sexual Behavior, doi: 10.1007/s10508-007-9208-x.

  45. Money, J., & Ehrhardt, A. A. (1972). Man and woman boy and girl: The differentiation and dimorphism of gender identity from conception to maturity. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  46. Murnen, S. K., & Stockton, M. (1997). Gender and self-reported arousal in response to sexual stimuli: A meta-analytic review. Sex Roles, 37, 135–153.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  47. O’Donohue, W. T., & Geer, J. H. (1985). The habituation of sexual arousal. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 14, 233–246.

    PubMed  Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  48. Palace, E. M., & Gorzalka, B. B. (1992). Differential patterns of arousal in sexually functional and dysfunctional women: Physiological and subjective components of sexual response. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 21, 135–159.

    PubMed  Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  49. Park, K., Seo, J. J., Kang, H. K., Ryu, S. B., Kim, H. J., & Jeong, G. W. (2001). A new potential of blood oxygenation level dependent (BOLD) functional MRI for evaluating cerebral centers of penile erection. International Journal of Impotence Research, 13, 73–81.

    PubMed  Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  50. Penton-Voak, I. S., & Perrett, D. I. (2000). Female preference for male faces changes cyclically. Evolution of Human Behavior, 21, 39–48.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  51. Peterson, Z. D., & Janssen, E. (2007). Ambivalent affect and sexual response: The impact of co-occurring positive and negative emotions on subjective and physiological sexual responses to erotic stimuli. Archives of Sexual Behavior, doi: 10.1007/s10508-006-9145-0.

  52. Pfaus, J. G., Kippin, T. E., & Genaro, C. (2003). What can animal models tell us about human sexual response. Annual Review of Sex Research, 14, 1–63.

    PubMed  Google Scholar 

  53. Ponseti, J., Bosinski, H. A., Wolff, S., Peller, M., Jansen, O., Mehdorn, H. M., et al. (2006). A functional endophenotype for sexual orientation in humans. NeuroImage, 33, 825–833.

    PubMed  Article  Google Scholar 

  54. Redoute, J., Stoleru, S., Gregoire, M., Costes, N., Cincotti, L., Lavennes, F., et al. (2000). Brain processing of visual sexual stimuli in human men. Human Brain Mapping, 11, 162–177.

    PubMed  Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  55. Reiss, I. L. (1986). A sociological journey into sexuality. Journal of Marriage and Family, 48, 233–242.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  56. Rupp, H., Herman, R., Hamann, S., & Wallen, K. (2004). Sex differences to same and opposite sex stimuli using fMRI. Hormones and Behavior, 46, 101.

    Google Scholar 

  57. Rupp, H., & Wallen, K. (2007). Sex differences in viewing sexual stimuli: An eye-tracking study in men and women. Hormones and Behavior, 51, 524–533.

    PubMed  Article  Google Scholar 

  58. Schmidt, G. (1975). Male-female differences in sexual arousal and behavior during and after exposure to sexually explicit stimuli. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 4, 353–365.

    PubMed  Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  59. Schmidt, G., Sigusch, V., & Schafer, S. (1973). Responses to reading erotic stories: Male-female differences. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 2, 181–199.

    PubMed  Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  60. Schreiner-Engel, P., Schiavi, R. C., Smith, H., & White, D. (1981). Sexual arousability and the menstrual cycle. Psychosomatic Medicine, 43, 199–214.

    PubMed  CAS  Google Scholar 

  61. Slob, A. K., Bax, C. M., Hop, W. C. J., Rowland, D. L., & van der Werff ten Bosch, J. J. (1996). Sexual arousability and the menstrual cycle. Psychoneuroendocrinology, 21, 545–558.

    PubMed  Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  62. Steinman, D. L., Wincze, J. P., Sakheim, Barlow, D. H., & Mavissakalian, M. (1981). A comparison of male and female patterns of sexual arousal. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 10, 529–547.

    PubMed  Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  63. Stoleru, S. G., Ennaji, A., Cournot, A., & Spira, A. (1993). LH pulsatile secretion and testosterone blood levels are influenced by sexual arousal in human men. Psychoneuroendocrinology, 18, 205–218.

    PubMed  Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  64. Stoleru, S., Gregoire, M., Gerard, D., Decety, J., Lafarge, E., Cinotti, L., et al. (1999). Neuroanatomical correlates of visually evoked sexual arousal in human men. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 28, 1–21.

    PubMed  Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  65. Suzuki, T., Kinoshita, Y., Tachibana, M., Matsushima, Y., Kobayashi, Y., Adachi, W., et al. (2001). Expression of sex steroid hormone receptors in human cornea. Current Eye Research, 21, 28–33.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  66. Symons, D. (1979). The evolution of human sexuality. New York: Oxford University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  67. Tarin, J. J., & Gomez-Piquer, V. (2002). Do women have a hidden heat period? Human Reproduction, 17, 2243–2248.

    PubMed  Article  Google Scholar 

  68. Tuiten, A., Van Honk, J., Koppeschaar, H., Bernaards, C., Thijssen, J., & Verbaten, R. (2000). Time course effects of testosterone administration on sexual arousal in women. Archives of General Psychiatry, 57, 149–153.

    PubMed  Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  69. van Anders, S. M., & Watson, N. V. (2006). Relationship status and testosterone in North American heterosexual and non-heterosexual men and women: Cross-sectional and longitudinal data. Psychoneuroendocrinology, 31, 715–723.

    PubMed  Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  70. Wallen, K. (1990). Desire and ability: Hormones and the regulation of female sexual behavior. Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Reviews, 14, 405–420.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  71. Wallen, K. (2001). Sex and context: Hormones and primate sexual motivation. Hormones and Behavior, 40, 339–357.

    PubMed  Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  72. Waynforth, D., Delwadia, S., & Camm, M. (2005). The influence of women’s mating strategies on preference for masculine facial architecture. Evolution and Human Behavior, 26, 409– 416.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  73. Widmer, E. D., Treas, J., & Newcomb, R. (1998). Attitudes towards nonmarital sex in 24 countries. Journal of Sex Research, 35, 349–358.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  74. Wincze, J. P., Hoon, P., & Hoon, E. F. (1977). Sexual arousal in women: A comparison of cognitive and physiological responses by continuous measurement. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 6, 121–133.

    PubMed  Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

Download references

Author information

Affiliations

Authors

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Heather A. Rupp.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Cite this article

Rupp, H.A., Wallen, K. Sex Differences in Response to Visual Sexual Stimuli: A Review. Arch Sex Behav 37, 206–218 (2008). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10508-007-9217-9

Download citation

Keywords

  • Sexual stimuli
  • Sex differences
  • Sexual arousal