Research conducted in our laboratory and in other laboratories has revealed that (1) women’s genital responses to visual and auditory stimuli are strongly affected by the presence of sexual cues, but that (2) specific sexual cues (e.g., gender of actors, the presence of sexual violence) often have little impact on the magnitude of the responses—that is, similar genital responses are observed to very different sexual stimuli. In addition, (3) women’s genital responses do not strongly correspond with self-reported sexual partner and activity preferences, or (4) with self-reported sexual arousal during the presentation of sexual stimuli. Taken together, these facts represent a puzzle, especially considering that men’s genital responses are highly affected by specific sexual cues and strongly correspond to stated preferences and self-reported sexual arousal. One hypothesis to explain female low cue-specificity and low concordance (relative to men) is the preparation hypothesis: Women’s indiscriminate genital responses serve a protective function. That is, they do not indicate or necessarily promote sexual interest and motivation, but rather prepare the vaginal lumen for possible sexual activity and therefore prevent injuries that may occur as a result of penetration. We review evidence for and against this hypothesis. We conclude that the evidence is favorable but not entirely convincing, and more work is required to reach a firm conclusion. We offer directions for future research.
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Genital responses are typically measured with vaginal photoplethysmography for women and penile plethysmography for men. The two measures are quite different, a topic we discuss below. In this Target Article, we specify the type of genital measure used in a given study when it is not one of these two.
Here and elsewhere we use the sexual orientation terms used by the authors cited.
Of note, evolutionary adaptations do not solely involve automatic, unlearned, and unconscious mechanisms.
We are not aware of any evidence supporting this explanation.
The finding that women reported some sexual arousal to stimuli describing non-sexual violence lends further support to the idea that women are not concealing their sexual arousal to sexual stimuli when self-reporting.
Velten, Margraf, Chivers, and Brotto (2018) reviewed other studies in which manipulations directing attention toward or away from sexual stimuli affect sexual responding.
Although low cue-specificity was replicated for heterosexual women across the three studies, the design of the experiment involving homosexual participants (i.e., no neutral comparison) left open the possibility that homosexual women’s appraisals were also affected by male stimuli, but to a lesser degree than the female stimuli. If homosexual women associated both genders with sex (unlike the heterosexual men, whose performance did not differ between male and neutral stimuli), this would be consistent with other studies that demonstrate that both heterosexual and homosexual women are less cue-specific relative to men.
Tryon (2016) wrote that “no single study should ever be trusted” (p. 236), in the sense that a single study cannot on its own be sufficient to establish a fact.
Using vaginal thermoconductance, Fisher et al. (1983) observed responses during REM sleep that were similar to penile erections.
In a clever study, Watts, Holmes, Raines, Orbell, and Rieger (2018) reported that six female heterosexual twins displayed low genital specificity for gender cues, but that their homosexual identical co-twins were more cue-specific (but not as cue-specific as five male heterosexual and their homosexual identical co-twins).
With regard to concordance between physiological responses and self-reported arousal, there is a wide variation in concordance scores within groups of women, from very large negative correlations to very large positive correlations (e.g., Bouchard, Chivers, & Pukall, 2017; Handy & Meston, 2018; Suschinsky & Lalumière, 2011b; reviewed in Suschinsky, Dawson, & Chivers, 2017), making us wonder if describing women as having lower concordance than men is appropriate.
Bossio, Suschinsky, Puts, and Chivers (2014) indirectly assessed test–retest reliability of cue-specificity in a sample of 22 naturally cycling heterosexual women. Women were presented with videos of male and female exercise, solitary masturbation, and intercourse during two phases during their menstrual cycle (i.e., the follicular or fertile phase and the luteal or non-fertile phase). Bossio et al. (2014) found that the women’s genital responses were cue-nonspecific for gender for both testing sessions, regardless of testing order, providing some evidence for the stability of cue-nonspecificity at the group level.
In a study of the anatomy of the vulva, Yang, Cold, Yilmaz, and Maravilla (2005) wondered “[w]hat significance the engorgement of vascular structures has to female sexual function” (p. 770).
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Funding for some of the empirical research described in this article was provided by a Discovery Grant from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (M.L.L.), and graduate scholarships from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (M.L.S.), the Ontario Trillium Foundation (S.J.D.), and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (K.D.S.). A brief version of this paper was given at the Puzzle of Sexual Orientation Conference at the University of Lethbridge, Alberta (July 2015). We thank Andrea Ashbaugh, Meredith Chivers, Gail Hepburn, Danny Krupp, Vern Quinsey, and Michael Seto for providing helpful suggestions on the article.
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Lalumière, M.L., Sawatsky, M.L., Dawson, S.J. et al. The Empirical Status of the Preparation Hypothesis: Explicating Women’s Genital Responses to Sexual Stimuli in the Laboratory. Arch Sex Behav (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10508-019-01599-5
- Sexual concordance
- Preparation hypothesis
- Genital responses
- Sexual arousal