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.
Buy single article
Instant access to the full article PDF.
Tax calculation will be finalised during checkout.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Basson, R. (2002). A model of women’s sexual arousal. Journal of Sex and Marital Therapy, 28, 1–10.
Beauregard, M., Levesque, J., & Bourgouin, P. (2001). Neural correlates of conscious self-regulation of emotion. Journal of Neuroscience, 21, 1–6.
Chivers, M. L., & Bailey, J. M. (2005). A sex difference in features that elicit genital response. Biological Psychology, 70, 115–120.
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.
Costa, M., Braun, C., & Birbaumer, N. (2003). Gender differences in response to pictures of nudes: A magnetoencephalographic study. Biological Psychology, 63, 129–147.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Gangestad, S. W., & Simpson, J. A. (2000). The evolution of human mating: Trade-offs and strategic pluralism. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 23, 573–644.
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.
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.
Haerich, P. (1992). Premarital sexual permissiveness and religious orientation: A preliminary investigation. Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 31, 361–365.
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.
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.
Hartley, H., & Drew, T. (2001). Gendered messages in sex ed films: Trends and implications for female sexual problems. Women and Therapy, 24, 133–146.
Harvey, S. M. (1987). Female sexual behavior: Fluctuations during the menstrual cycle. Journal of Psychosomatic Research, 31, 101–110.
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.
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.
Heiman, J. R. (1977). A psychophysiological exploration of sexual arousal patterns in men and women. Psychophysiology, 14, 266–274.
Heiman, J. R. (1980). Female sexual response patterns. Archives of General Psychiatry, 37, 1311–1316.
Holstege, G., & Georgiadis, J. R. (2004). Brain activation during orgasm is basically the same in men and women. Hormones and Behavior, 46, 132.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Kelley, K., & Musialowski, D. (1986). Repeated exposure to sexually explicit stimuli: Novelty, sex, and sexual attitudes. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 15, 487–498.
Kinsey A. C., Pomeroy, W. B., Martin, C. E., & Gebhard, P. H. (1953). Sexual behavior in the human female. Philadelphia: W. B. Saunders.
Korff, J., & Geer, J. H. (1983). The relationship between sexual arousal response and genital response. Psychophysiology, 20, 121–127.
Koukounas, E., & Letch, N. M. (2001). Psychological correlates of perception of sexual intent in women. Journal of Social Psychology, 141, 443–456.
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.
Koukounas, E., & Over, R. (2001). Habituation of male sexual arousal: Effects of attentional focus. Biological Psychology, 58, 49–64.
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.
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.
Laan, E., & Everaerd, W. (1995). Habituation of female sexual arousal to slides and film. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 24, 517–541.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
O’Donohue, W. T., & Geer, J. H. (1985). The habituation of sexual arousal. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 14, 233–246.
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.
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.
Penton-Voak, I. S., & Perrett, D. I. (2000). Female preference for male faces changes cyclically. Evolution of Human Behavior, 21, 39–48.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Reiss, I. L. (1986). A sociological journey into sexuality. Journal of Marriage and Family, 48, 233–242.
Rupp, H., Herman, R., Hamann, S., & Wallen, K. (2004). Sex differences to same and opposite sex stimuli using fMRI. Hormones and Behavior, 46, 101.
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.
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.
Schmidt, G., Sigusch, V., & Schafer, S. (1973). Responses to reading erotic stories: Male-female differences. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 2, 181–199.
Schreiner-Engel, P., Schiavi, R. C., Smith, H., & White, D. (1981). Sexual arousability and the menstrual cycle. Psychosomatic Medicine, 43, 199–214.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Symons, D. (1979). The evolution of human sexuality. New York: Oxford University Press.
Tarin, J. J., & Gomez-Piquer, V. (2002). Do women have a hidden heat period? Human Reproduction, 17, 2243–2248.
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.
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.
Wallen, K. (1990). Desire and ability: Hormones and the regulation of female sexual behavior. Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Reviews, 14, 405–420.
Wallen, K. (2001). Sex and context: Hormones and primate sexual motivation. Hormones and Behavior, 40, 339–357.
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.
Widmer, E. D., Treas, J., & Newcomb, R. (1998). Attitudes towards nonmarital sex in 24 countries. Journal of Sex Research, 35, 349–358.
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.
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
- Sexual stimuli
- Sex differences
- Sexual arousal