Prior studies consistently report that men’s genital responses correspond to their sexual activity interests (consenting vs. coercive sex) whereas women’s responses do not. For women, however, these results may be confounded by the sexual activities studied and lack of suitable controls. We examined the subjective and genital arousal responses of men and women with conventional (22 men and 15 women) or masochistic sexual interests (16 men and 17 women) to narratives describing conventional sex or masochistic sex. The aims of the studies were twofold: (1) to examine whether gender differences in the specificity of sexual arousal previously observed for gender also exist for sexual activity interests; and (2) to examine whether men and women with masochistic sexual interests demonstrate specificity of sexual response for their preferred sexual activities. Surprisingly, the pattern of results was very similar for men and women. Both men and women with conventional sexual interests (WCI) reported more sexual arousal, and responded more genitally, to conventional than to masochistic sex, demonstrating specificity of sexual arousal for their preferred sexual activities. Despite showing specificity for conventional sexual activities, the genital responses of WCI were still gender nonspecific. In contrast, women and men with masochistic sexual interests demonstrated nonspecific subjective and genital responses to conventional and masochistic sex. Indices of genital and subjective sexual arousal to masochistic versus conventional stimuli were positively and significantly correlated with self-reported thoughts, fantasies, interests, and behaviors involving masochism. The results suggest that gender similarities in the specificity of sexual arousal for sexual activity exist despite consistent gender differences in the specificity of sexual arousal for gender.
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.
Subscribe to journal
Immediate online access to all issues from 2019. Subscription will auto renew annually.
Tax calculation will be finalised during checkout.
We note here that we were interested in sexual masochism as a variant sexual interest, not as a clinical diagnosis as described in the DSM-5 or ICD-10 systems (American Psychiatric Association, 2013; World Health Organization, 2010). Sexual masochism is not of clinical purview unless the sexual interest causes the person to experience substantial distress or impairment.
Although it is unconventional to interpret the main effect of activity given the activity × gender interaction, doing so illustrates how sexual activity cues corresponding with sexual interests were associated with subjective sexual response, irrespective of gender.
American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.). Arlington, VA: American Psychiatric Publishing.
Baumeister, R. F., & Butler, J. L. (1997). Sexual masochism: Deviance without pathology. In D. R. Laws & W. T. O’Donohue (Eds.), Sexual deviance: Theory, assessment, and treatment (pp. 225–239). New York: Guilford Press.
Chivers, M. L. (2005). A brief review and discussion of sex differences in the specificity of sexual arousal. Sexual and Relationship Therapy, 20, 377–387.
Chivers, M. L. (2010). A brief update on the specificity of sexual arousal. Sexual and Relationship Therapy, 25, 407–414.
Chivers, M. L., & Bailey, J. M. (2005). A sex difference in features that elicit genital response. Biological Psychology, 70, 115–120.
Chivers, M. L., Rieger, G., Latty, E., & Bailey, J. M. (2004). A sex difference in the specificity of sexual arousal. Psychological Science, 15, 736–744.
Chivers, M. L., Seto, M. C., & Blanchard, R. (2007). Gender and sexual orientation differences in sexual response to sexual activities versus gender of actors in sexual films. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 93, 1108–1121.
Chivers, M. L., Seto, M. C., Lalumière, M. L., Laan, E., & Grimbos, T. (2010). Agreement of self-reported and genital measures of sexual arousal in men and women: A meta-analysis. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 39, 5–56.
Chivers, M. L., & Timmers, A. D. (2012). The effects of gender and relationship context cues in audio narratives on heterosexual women’s and men’s genital and subjective sexual response. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 41, 185–197.
Dawson, S. J., Bannerman, B. A., & Lalumière, M. L. (2011, August). Sex differences in paraphilic interests. Paper presented at the meeting of the International Academy of Sex Research, Los Angeles, CA.
Freund, K., Seto, M. C., & Kuban, M. (1995). Masochism: A multiple case study. Sexuologie, 2, 313–324.
Geer, J. H., & Janssen, E. (2000). The sexual response system. In J. T. Cacioppo, L. G. Tassinary, & G. G. Berntson (Eds.), Handbook of psychophysiology (pp. 315–341). New York: Cambridge University Press.
Harris, G. T., Rice, M. E., Quinsey, V. L., Chaplin, T. C., & Earls, C. (1992). Maximizing the discriminant validity of phallometric assessment data. Psychological Assessment, 4, 502–511.
Hsu, B., Kling, A., Kessler, C., Knapke, K., Diefenbach, P., & Elias, J. E. (1994). Gender differences in sexual fantasy and behavior in a college population: A ten-year replication. Journal of Sex and Marital Therapy, 20, 103–118.
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.
Kinsey, A. C., Pomeroy, W. B., Martin, C. E., & Gebhard, P. H. (1953). Sexual behavior in the human female. Philadelphia: Saunders.
Kuban, M., Barbaree, H. E., & Blanchard, R. (1999). A comparison of volume and circumference phallometry: Response magnitude and method agreement. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 28, 345–359.
Laan, E., & Both, S. (2008). What makes women experience desire? Feminism and Psychology, 18, 505–514.
Laan, E., Everaerd, W., & Evers, A. (1995). Assessment of female sexual arousal: Response specificity and construct validity. Psychophysiology, 32, 476–485.
Lalumière, M. L., Harris, G. T., Quinsey, V. L., & Rice, M. E. (2005). The causes of rape: Understanding individual differences in the male propensity for sexual aggression. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.
Marshall, W. L., Eccles, A., & Barbaree, H. E. (1991). The treatment of exhibitionists: A focus on sexual deviance versus cognitive and relationship features. Behaviour Research and Therapy, 29, 129–135.
Morokoff, P. J. (1986). Volunteer bias in the psychophysiological study of female sexuality. Journal of Sex Research, 22, 35–51.
Petersen, Z. D., Janssen, E., & Laan, E. (2009). Women’s sexual responses to heterosexual and lesbian erotica: The role of stimulus intensity, affective reaction, and sexual history. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 39, 880–897.
Richters, J., De Visser, R. O., Rissel, C. E., Grulich, A. E., & Smith, A. M. (2008). Demographic and psychosocial features of participants in bondage and discipline, “sadomasochism” or dominance and submission (BDSM): Data from a national survey. Journal of Sexual Medicine, 5, 1660–1668.
Rupp, H. A., & Wallen, K. (2007). Sex differences in viewing sexual stimuli: An eye-tracking study in men and women. Hormones and Behavior, 51, 524–533.
Seto, M. C. (2008). Understanding pedophilia and sexual offending against children: Theory, assessment, and intervention. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.
Seto, M. C., Lalumière, M. L., Harris, G. T., & Chivers, M. L. (2012). The sexual responses of sexual sadists. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 121, 739–753.
Spape, J., & Chivers, M. L. (2011). The role of prepotent sexual features in heterosexual women’s nonspecific sexual arousal. Los Angeles, CA: International Academy of Sex Research.
Steinman, D. L., Wincze, J. P., Sakheim, D. K., Barlow, D. H., & Mavissakalian, M. (1981). A comparison of male and female patterns of sexual arousal. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 10, 529–547.
Strassberg, D. S., & Lowe, K. (1995). Volunteer bias in sexuality research. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 24, 369–382.
Suschinsky, K. D., & Lalumière, M. L. (2011). Prepared for anything? An investigation of female genital arousal in response to rape cues. Psychological Science, 22, 159–165.
Suschinsky, K. D., Lalumière, M. L., & Chivers, M. L. (2009). Sex differences in patterns of genital arousal: Measurement artifacts or true phenomena? Archives of Sexual Behavior, 38, 559–573.
von Krafft-Ebing, R. (1906). Psychopathia sexualis (12th ed.). Burbank, CA: Bloat.
Wiederman, M. W. (1999). Volunteer bias in sexuality research using college student populations. Journal of Sex Research, 36, 59–66.
Wolchik, S. A., Braver, S. L., & Jensen, K. (1985). Volunteer bias in erotica research: Effects of intrusiveness of measure and sexual background. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 14, 93–107.
World Health Organization. (2010). International statistical classification of diseases and related health problems (10th rev.). Retrieved 31 July 2013 from http://apps.who.int/classifications/icd10/browse/2010/en.
Many thanks to the study participants for their invaluable contribution to this research. Thanks also to Ray Blanchard, Heather Hoffman, Tom Hollenstein, Martin L. Lalumière, and Kelly Suschinsky for their comments on an earlier version of this article. This research was supported by a Queen’s University Senate Advisory Research Council grant awarded to the first author, and a Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council grant awarded to the last author (PI: Lalumière, M. L.). These data were presented at the following meetings: Society for Sex Therapy and Research, Boston, MA, April 2010; The University of Lethbridge Workshop, The Puzzle of Sexual Orientation: What Is It and How Does It Work?, Lethbridge, Alberta, Canada, June 2010; World Congress of the International Society of Sexual Medicine, Seoul, Korea, September 2010; International Academy of Sex Research, Los Angeles, CA, August 2011; Canadian Sex Research Forum, Ottawa, ON, September 2012; Canadian Psychological Association, Quebec, PQ, June 2013. We dedicate this article to the memory of Dr. Kurt Freund; as promised, we finally did this study.
Appendix 1: Examples of Masochistic Sex Story Used in Study 1
You are in a room with this tall, menacing woman. She is wearing stiletto heels and a tight black leather dress that shows off her figure. The woman is wearing a leather mask. You are sitting on a hard, wooden chair with a gag across your mouth and your hands bound tightly behind your back. You can barely breathe and you can’t move your hands at all. The cords dig painfully into your wrists. Your shoulders and neck ache from the strain. The woman leans toward you. She slaps you in the face, hard. Your cheek stings from the impact. You’re breathing fast and your heart is racing. You feel yourself getting aroused. She slaps you again, scratching your face with her sharp, dark-red fingernails. The woman picks up a small black leather whip from a table. She begins striking you with it, using all her strength, drawing blood with each blow. You moan and struggle against your bindings but you can’t get free.
Note: This story was presented without the sentence, “You feel yourself getting aroused” in Study 2 as a “masochism only” stimulus.
Appendix 2: Example of Masochism and Sex Story Used in Study 2
You are in a room with a tall, stern-looking man. He is wearing a tight shirt and pants that reveal his powerful, muscular build. You are naked, kneeling and holding the master’s leather glove above you. Your shoulders ache with the strain. Slowly, he pulls the tight leather gloves over his broad hands. The man orders you to look down at the floor and slaps you hard across the face when you hesitate for a moment. Your cheek feels hot and stings as you quickly look down. He tells you that you will be punished for your hesitation. He twists both of your nipples hard and the pain radiates through your body. He slaps you several more times, hard, and you struggle against the shackles, trying to stop your moans. He cups your face roughly with his gloved hands. His pants are unzipped and you feel his hard cock pressing into your mouth slowly but insistently. You moan as you feel his hardness thrusting deep into your throat.
About this article
Cite this article
Chivers, M.L., Roy, C., Grimbos, T. et al. Specificity of Sexual Arousal for Sexual Activities in Men and Women with Conventional and Masochistic Sexual Interests. Arch Sex Behav 43, 931–940 (2014). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10508-013-0174-1
- Sexual arousal
- Sexual masochism
- Gender similarities
- Gender differences