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The Impact of Sexual Arousal on Sexual Risk-Taking and Decision-Making in Men and Women

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Sexual arousal has emerged as an important contextual feature in sexual encounters that can impact safer-sex decision-making. We conducted two experiments that investigated the effects of sexual arousal among male and female participants. Experiment 1 (N = 144) examined the impact of sexual around on sexual health decision-making. Sexually explicit and neutral video clips as well as hypothetical romantic scenarios were used to evaluate the effects of sexual arousal on sexual risk-taking intentions. Men and women who reported higher levels of sexual arousal also displayed greater intentions to participate in risky sexual behavior (e.g., unprotected sex with a new sex partner). Experiment 2 (N = 122) examined the impact of sexual arousal on general risk-taking, using the same videos clips as in Experiment 1 and a modified version of a computerized Blackjack card game. Participants were offered a chance to make either a risky play or a safe play during ambiguous conditions. Increased sexual arousal in Experiment 2 was associated with impulsivity and a greater willingness to make risky plays in the Blackjack game. These findings suggest that, in situations where there are strong sexually visceral cues, both men and women experiencing strong sexual arousal may have lower inhibitions and may experience impaired decision-making. This phenomenon may have an impact during sexual encounters and may contribute to a failure to use appropriate prophylactic protection.

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  1. An average sexual arousal score that was below the median was chosen as the cut-off because participants tend to underestimate their physiological experience of sexual arousal when asked to report their subjective sexual arousal level (Chivers, Seto, Lalumiere, Laan, & Grimbos, 2010).

  2. Outcome analyses were also conducted using the full sample that did not exclude participants based on sexual arousal cut-off scores. As would be expected, results were weaker, with means trending in the anticipated direction but failing to reach significance.

  3. A linear regression analysis was also completed for both Experiment 1 and 2, using the full samples (pre-cut-off) to examine sexual arousal as a continuous measure. As expected, the results were weaker when the full sample was used. We chose to use condition as a dichotomizing variable, much like Huberman, Suschinsky, Lalumiere, and Chivers (2013) in order to examine a treatment effect.

  4. However, it should be noted that, from a biological perspective, men are at a lower risk for contracting HIV and some STIs (e.g., gonorrhea and herpes) from heterosexual activity than women (Norris et al., 2004).


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Correspondence to Shayna Skakoon-Sparling.



See Table 1

Table 1 Risky Sexual Decision-Making Scale (Experiment 1)—used with a 10 point Likert scale (1 = not at all likely, 10 = extremely likely)

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Skakoon-Sparling, S., Cramer, K.M. & Shuper, P.A. The Impact of Sexual Arousal on Sexual Risk-Taking and Decision-Making in Men and Women. Arch Sex Behav 45, 33–42 (2016).

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