Gender, Sex Q&A

Sex Question Friday: Are Men More Visually Aroused Than Women?

September 13, 2013 by Justin Lehmiller


Every Friday on the blog, I answer people’s questions about sex, love, and relationships. This week’s question comes from a reader who wanted to know whether there is any support for one of the most commonly cited gender differences in sexuality:

Is it really true that men are more visually aroused than women?

The claim that vision is a stronger sexual sense for men than for women gets tossed around a lot in textbooks and in the popular media; however, almost no one bothers to back it up with any data–it is taken for granted that this is something we know about the world, and few people question it because it seems like “common sense.” Men are the biggest consumers of porn, so it must be something about men that draws them to porn, right? Not necessarily. Men’s greater affinity for porn may have nothing to do with having a greater visual appetite. Instead, it may just be the case that most of the porn produced is made by men for men, making it of less interest to women. In addition, there is double standard when it comes to sexual behavior such that women are more likely to be socially penalized for expressing their sexuality. In many cultures and societies, women are expected to control and restrain their sexual impulses (or to not have them at all), which may lead many women to feel as though watching pornography, having casual sex, or engaging in other such behaviors is inappropriate. So maybe men’s interest in porn says less about male sexuality than it says about the nature of porn and how society feels about women’s sexual freedom.

As some support for this idea, consider an experiment in which male and female participants were exposed to different types of pornography (male-male, female-female, and male-female) [1]. While watching each type of porn, physical levels of sexual arousal were assessed through penile strain gauges and vaginal photoplesythmographs, devices that record the amount of blood flowing to the male and female genitals, respectively. Genital blood flow is a pretty reliable indicator of sexual arousal. The results indicated that heterosexual men and women showed equally strong genital arousal when watching male-female pornography in this study. Not only that, but heterosexual women showed almost equally strong genital arousal to all three types of porn they were exposed to, regardless of whether it featured a heterosexual couple, gay men, or lesbians. In contrast, heterosexual men only showed strong genital arousal to porn featuring women in some way.

Results like this suggest that women may be more sexually responsive to visual stimuli than we have previously been led to believe. In addition, women may actually be turned on by a wider range of porn than men! Thus, there is good reason to be skeptical of the notion that men are more visually aroused than women and, more generally, it would be wise not to make too many assumptions about human sexuality just because they seem like “common sense.”

For past Sex Question Friday posts, see here. Want to learn more about The Psychology of Human Sexuality? Click here for a complete list of articles or like the Facebook page to get articles delivered to your newsfeed.

[1] 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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