The science of sexual arousal
Psychologists are gaining new insights into sexual arousal with the help of innovative research methods
By ETIENNE BENSON
April 2003, Vol 34, No. 4
Print version: page 50
Men and women experience sexual arousal very differently, not only physiologically but psychologically, according to researchers who are studying arousal using an array ofnew and refined methods.
Those methods are making it possible for researchers to understand the causes of real-world problems, such as sexual dysfunction and high-risk sexual behavior (see pages 54 and 58). But they are also giving researchers the means to explore basic questions about the nature of sexual arousal and how its different components--such as physiological arousal and subjectiveexperience--are related to each other.
"It's easier to get funding for research that focuses on, let's say, AIDS-related sexual behaviors, than for research on the very fundamental question of what sexual motivation and sexual arousal really are," says Erick Janssen, PhD, a psychologist at the Kinsey Institute for Research in Sex, Gender and Reproduction at Indiana University. "But in the long run,those basic questions have to be answered before we can move on to explain other, related behaviors."
Cognition and arousal
One active area of research concerns cognitive factors that influence sexual arousal. In the mid-1980s, Boston University psychologist David Barlow, PhD, and his colleagues conducted a series of studies to examine the relationship between anxiety and sexual arousal. They foundthat men with and without sexual problems reacted very differently to anxiety-inducing threats of mild electric shock.
Men who reported having no trouble getting and maintaining erections, says Barlow, "would believe that they were going to get shocked if they didn't get aroused, so they would focus on the erotic scene." The result was that the threat of shock actually increased sexual arousal.But men who had sexual problems responded to the threat of shock very differently, says Barlow. "Their attention would be so focused on the negative outcomes that they wouldn't be able to process the erotic cues," he explains.
Since those initial studies, Barlow and his collaborators have been trying to tease apart the factors that distinguish men with and without sexual problems. One of the keydifferences, he says, is that men with sexual arousal problems tend to be less aware of how aroused they are.
Another difference has to do with how men react to instances when they can't become aroused, says Barlow. "Males who are able to get aroused fairly easily seem unfazed by occasions where they can't get aroused," he notes. "They tend to attribute it to benign external events--it wassomething they ate, or they're not getting enough sleep--not as characteristics of themselves." In contrast, men with arousal problems tend to do just the opposite, thinking of every instance of difficulty as a sign of a long-term internal problem, either physiological or psychological, he says.
At the Kinsey Institute, Janssen and John Bancroft, MD, the institute's director, have been developing atheoretical model and a set of measurement tools that define sexual arousal as the product of excitatory and inhibitory tendencies. Last year, they published papers in the Journal of Sex Research (Vol. 39, No. 2) describing the Sexual Inhibition and Sexual Excitation Scale--a new questionnaire that measures individual differences in the tendency to become sexually inhibited and excited.
Earlyresearch on the model suggests that while a single factor accounts for all of the variation among men in their tendency to become sexually excited (SES), there are two inhibitory factors--one that represents inhibition due to the threat of performance failure (SIS1) and one that represents inhibition due to the threat of such performance consequences as an unwanted pregnancy or a sexually transmitted...
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