It is considered an almost forgone conclusion across research disciplines, among pop psychologists of all stripes, and in the general population that men are more “visual” than women when it comes to the way they get turned on. Men, we’re told, are visually aroused, whereas women just need a good sense of humor, and possibly a strong jaw, and they're on board.
This misguided, but pervasive belief can be linked to a host of other gender stereotypes which are further complicated by sexual politics and differences in social power. So arguments which should be challenged, such as the “fact” that men leer more than women do, that they objectify women’s bodies more than women do men’s bodies, and that they just can’t stop watching porn, are explained as somehow being related to a mix of genetics, patriarchy, and simple mindedness.
Challenging these ideas can be a monumental task. Researcher bias being what it is, science rarely offers support for these "counter-intuitive" ideas. What's worse, when research does start to complicate matters, the media, and even smart bloggers who should know better, distort the findings beyond recognition.
Nonetheless, a recent study published in the journal Brain Research is offering the first preliminary but important evidence to dispel the age old myth that visual imagery is more important to men than it is to women. And it's worth considering without hyperbole.
The study, carried out by researchers at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis measured brainwave activity of 264 women as they viewed a series of 55 color slides that contained various scenes from water skiers to snarling dogs to partially-clad couples in sensual poses. The researchers were interested in the speed, strength, and location of brainwave activity of the subjects as they viewed erotic versus non-erotic images.
As they hypothesized, the brainwave activity of participants was markedly different when viewing erotic images versus non-erotic images. But a finding they didn’t expect was that female participant’s response was similar to men. In a prepared statement, lead author Andrey P. Anokhin explained:
"Usually men subjectively rate erotic material much higher than women," he says. "So based on those data we would expect lower responses in women, but that was not the case. Women have responses as strong as those seen in men."
The authors propose that previous findings from other studies which found men to have a stronger response to erotic images than women may have as much to do with research methods, as an actual response by men or women.
This study, which itself carries several limitations, and I would argue more than a few major theoretical flaws, is still one of the first to offer statistically significant empirical evidence that both women and men respond subjectively and significantly to visual erotic material. Which is good news for those of us who believe that our response to sexual or erotic imagery may be a bit more complicated than X or Y.
Anokhin AP, Golosheykin S, Sirevaag E, et. al. “Rapid discrimination of visual scene content in the human brain” Brain Research, 2006 May 16; [Epub ahead of print], accessed June 18, 2006.
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Read more - Erotic images elicit strong response from brain
Photo credit: Washington University in St. Louis