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In the Mood for Love

Women more likely than men to experience physical arousal without thinking that they’re aroused, study finds

January 27, 2010

Men and women often have different feelings and attitudes about sex. Now it turns out that they even differ in how they decide whether they are sexually aroused or not.

For a man, there’s not much difference between physical arousal and a subjective feeling of arousal. If he’s physically aroused he’s probably subjectively aroused, and vice versa.

Women, on the other hand, are much more likely than men to experience physical arousal without feeling subjectively aroused, according to new research co-authored by Teresa Grimbos, a PhD student in developmental psychology and education at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education.

This difference had been noted in a number of previous studies of sexual response. In those studies, researchers showed subjects pictures or other sexual stimuli, and asked them about their arousal. They also measured blood flow or some other physical response of the genitals. Women were much more likely than men to report feeling no arousal even when the instruments reported that they were physically aroused.

But it wasn’t clear what was going on. It was possible that there was a problem with the techniques used for measuring physical arousal, or even with the way subjective arousal was measured.

The new research, led by Meredith L. Chivers of Queen’s University and published in the Archives of Sexual Behavior, analyzed 132 different studies which included 2,505 women and 1,918 men, to tease out whether methodological problems were responsible.

The researchers concluded that the effect was real. Men really do experience an agreement between physical and subjective arousal more often than women do.

Although it’s not clear why, the researchers speculate that men might simply find sensations of their own physical arousal much more obvious. Discovering that they are physically aroused, they are more likely to feel subjectively aroused as well.

The researchers also provide a possible evolutionary rationale for the difference. A man who was immediately and unconflictedly aware of his own arousal would likely have more sex with more women, resulting in more offspring.

A woman, with a much higher investment in each child, was better served by keeping a cooler head. She could make a better choice about a mate’s desirability if she wasn’t immediately carried away by sexual desire.


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