Sex Ed

Genital Arousal and Sexual Desire Aren’t Necessarily the Same Thing

June 12, 2017 by Justin Lehmiller

Scientists who study sexual desire have long been wary of over-relying on self-report data because people don’t always tell the truth on surveys. Some people answer questions about what turns them on and what their sex lives are like in whatever way makes them look best. For example, someone might underreport their sexual desires and experiences in order to appear wholesome, or perhaps because they don’t want to own up to something. To get around this issue, many sex scientists utilize devices that can measure genital arousal under the assumption that “genitals don’t lie.” Among researchers who subscribe to this belief, they have a tendency to let genital data trump self-report data whenever they seem to be saying different things.

While this does make it easy to resolve conflicts between data points, it can sometimes be a very problematic way of thinking, as I explain in my latest article over at Playboy. It turns out that, for heterosexually-identified women, we often see this conflict between genital arousal and self-reported arousal when they view different types of pornography: women’s self-reported arousal tends to be consistent with their sexual orientation, while their genital arousal tends to suggest otherwise. Specifically, the genital data often demonstrate significant arousal in response female sexual imagery, a finding that has been used by many in the media to argue that all women are inherently bisexual.

As I explain in the full article, though, there are several reasons why we should be skeptical of this conclusion and why we should avoid the tendency to draw sweeping conclusions about any one person’s sexual desires based solely on how their genitals are acting at a particular moment in time. While genital arousal and sexual desire often go together, the truth is that they don’t always do so and we shouldn’t necessarily view them as interchangeable, especially among women.

While you’re over at Playboy, check out the Hard Science column to learn more about the science of sex. Some of my other recent articles include:

Want to learn more about Sex and Psychology ? Click here for previous articles or follow the blog on Facebook (, Twitter (@JustinLehmiller), or Reddit ( to receive updates.

Image Source: 123RF/Samantha Craddock

Post Featured Image
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.

Read full bio >