Here’s a question for those confident in their sexual knowledge: if a man is physically aroused, is he also “turned on”— in other words, is he sexually stimulated in the brain in his head as well as the one down below?
Yes, you say (loudly, in unison, laughing at such a stupid question), and right you are.
Next question: if a woman is physically aroused, is she also turned on in the noggin?
This one, not so simple. Just like women, the answer is significantly more complex.
Jena Pincott, author of Do Gentlemen Really Prefer Blondes?, recently reviewed a study on her blog that attempts to answer why women can show every sign of physical arousal, and yet report that they’re not turned on at all. In fact, studies that have measured physical arousal and subjective response in women have even found that a woman can be subjectively repulsed (by a porn scene, for example) even while showing signs of physical stimulation.
1. A woman’s genital arousal is hidden from view, while a man’s is right out there for everyone, including him, to see. When a man witnesses his own engorgement, the effect compounds. But, as Jena points out, previous studies have shown that even when a woman can see that she’s stimulated, that’s no guarantee that she’ll subjectively report arousal. Just because a woman knows she’s stimulated doesn’t mean she’s turned on.
2. Women may simply edit their self response of feeling sexually aroused to appear more socially acceptable. Answering, “Yes, I am turned on” enhances sexual arousal, while answering, “No, I’m not turned on” interferes with arousal. So it’s possible that women in these studies edit themselves and thus short-circuit their stimulation.
3. Genital response to sexual stimuli may be an “evolved self-protection mechanism.” (For this one I’ll just quote directly.)
Genital stimulation is an automatic reflex elicited by sexual stimuli and produces vaginal lubrication Female genital response entails increased genital vasocongestion, necessary for the production of vaginal lubrication, and can, in turn, reduce discomfort and the possibility of injury during vaginal penetration.
Ancestral women who did not show an automatic vaginal response to sexual cues may have been more likely to experience injuries that resulted in illness, infertility, or even death subsequent to unexpected or unwanted vaginal penetration, and thus would be less likely to have passed on this trait to their offspring….Reports of women’s genital response and orgasm during sexual assaults suggests that genital responses do occur in women under conditions of sexual threat.
That women can experience genital response during unwanted sex or when viewing depictions of sexual assault suggests that women’s vasocongestion response is automatically initiated by exposure to sexual stimuli, whether or not these stimuli are preferred, and without subjective appraisal of these stimuli as sexually arousing or desired.
4. Finally, and oddly, “during processing of sexual stimuli, brain areas associated with emotional inhibition are activated among women.” Maybe that conflicted feeling is another self-protection mechanism warning to proceed cautiously, or perhaps not at all.
The takeaway: Just because a woman is physically aroused does not mean she’s turned on. In Jena’s words: “To really get a woman hot and bothered, you have to start from the top.”
Check out Jena Pincott’s blog here.
Read an interview I did with her on Neuronarrative here.
And here’s a brief post I did on this study a few months back.