Sex Q&A

Sex Question Friday: Pain and Pleasure, Pregnancy without Penetration, and How Straight People Respond to Gay Porn

February 10, 2012 by Justin Lehmiller

Every Friday on the blog, I answer a few burning sex questions submitted to me by actual college students. This week, we’re going to talk about why some people mix pain with pleasure, whether you can get pregnant without ever having sexual intercourse, and whether heterosexual men and women become sexually aroused when watching gay porn.

What about masochism in BDSM enhances sexual pleasure scientifically?

Masochism refers to a tendency to experience arousal in response to physical or psychological pain administered during sexual activity. A relatively large number of people seem to enjoy at least mild forms of masochism, such as receiving “love bites” or light spankings while engaging in foreplay [1]. In these cases, the pain administered tends to be more symbolic than anything and does not result in much actual discomfort. It is a small minority of people who receive pleasure from very intense forms of pain, such as humiliation, electric shocks, and brutal beatings. However, for persons who enjoy more severe pain, they do not necessarily find such pain consistently arousing—it’s not like they get excited every time they jam their finger in a door or stub their toe. It is the pairing of pain with sexual activity that they enjoy. So why do some people like to mix sexual pleasure with pain? We don’t know for sure, but many psychologists believe masochism can be explained by learning theory. That is, people may learn an association between pain and sex through experience (e.g., consider a child who is spanked or slapped repeatedly when caught engaging in masturbation). Another possibility is that receiving pain may be a way of relieving feelings of guilt for people who believe sex is immoral (i.e., masochists may feel that they need to be “punished” for engaging in sinful sexual activity).

Can a woman get pregnant without actual penetration?

Although it is unlikely that a woman could get pregnant without having sexual intercourse, it is possible. For example, if a man masturbates himself and then uses that same hand to masturbate his partner, or if a couple rubs their genitals against each other while naked, there is a chance that semen may come into contact with the vaginal area, thereby creating a potential opportunity for pregnancy. To make the risk of pregnancy as low as possible, couples either need to avoid sexual activities that introduce semen to the interior or exterior of the vagina or take appropriate precautions (i.e., using condoms or birth control).

Why is lesbian sex arousing to watch for heterosexual men, but gay male sex isn’t necessarily arousing for women?

You are correct that lesbian pornography is sexually arousing to heterosexual guys. In fact, heterosexual men seem to show just as strong (if not stronger) genital arousal when watching lesbian porn compared to straight porn! However, your suspicion about women’s response to gay porn is not actually supported by research. In fact, women show almost equally strong levels of genital arousal in response to male-male, female-female, and male-female porn [2]! Thus, in terms of genital arousal, heterosexual women seem to get turned on by all kinds of porn, whereas heterosexual men are only into porn that involves women in some way. This research suggests that men and women have fundamentally different sexual arousal patterns, such that men (regardless of their sexual orientation) are really only into their desired gender, whereas women are sexually responsive to a wider range of targets.

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[1] Gross, B. (2006). The pleasure of pain. Forensic Examiner, 15, 56-61.

[2] Chivers, M. L., Rieger, G., Latty, E., & Bailey, J. M. (2004). A sex difference in the specificity of sexual arousal. Psychological Science, 15, 736-744.

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Written by
Dr. Justin Lehmiller
Founder & Owner of Sex and Psychology

Dr. Justin Lehmiller is a social psychologist and Research Fellow at The Kinsey Institute. He runs the Sex and Psychology blog and podcast and is author of the popular book Tell Me What You Want. Dr. Lehmiller is an award-winning educator, and a prolific researcher who has published more than 50 academic works.

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