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Weird Sexual Science: Erotica, Evolutionary Theory, and Women Who Like Porn


A new study has offered some important ammunition in the fight to make sexuality more complicated. The research, which examined the brainwave activity of women who were viewing erotic and non-erotic still images, found that women’s neuroelectrical impulses are not weaker than men’s when viewing erotic images. One way to interpret these findings is that, contrary to popular belief, women are no less visually engaged than men when viewing erotic images.

While the study is based on assumptions taken from evoluationary theory, it may in fact offer evidence that counters an age old evolutionary myth: that when it comes to sex, men and women are wired differently.

But the evolutionary basis of the study needs to be examined more closely.

The authors suggest that an organism's survival is, in part, tied to its ability to visually distinguish what is going on in front of them to keep itself out of harms way. They also argue that evolutionary processes have had an effect on the way our brains process information relating to the key elements in natural selection; survival (mortality) and procreation (fertility).

Simply put our brains should respond differently when viewing images that make us either think of sex or death. Their study set out to discover if our brains do indeed distinguish these kinds of images. They found that when subjects were viewing images related to sex and or death brainwave activity was significantly different than when they were viewing other kinds of images.

According to the researchers, these findings imply that we do indeed proccess information based on it's evolutionary relevance, but this research, and these implications, are based on a big assumption; that erotic content is biologically relevant because it is "directly relevant to reproduction". There are several problems with this assumption.

For starters, the conclusions of the study rest on an assumption, that erotica is related to reproduction, which has never been tested. The fancy term for this is that it's an a priori argument, or one that is based not on proven results, but on unproven assumptions.

If the researchers really wanted to know if images of reproduction would elicit distinct responses, they should have shown subjects images of people reproducing (and that sounds sexier than that looks!)

Second, they seem to conveniently ignore the nature of almost all visual erotic content; it is distinctly not focused on reproduction. In fact visual erotica, in almost all instances, is demonstrably not about making babies. Sure, there are pregnancy fetish videos, and the unfortunately named "cream pie" pornographic genre, but for the most part, visual erotic material is fantasy material, and the fantasy doesn't include even a hint of reproductive possibilities.

It's puzzling that the researchers did not consider this. It would seem that there are plenty of common human experiences that involve the accidental viewing of potentially reproductive scenes (take for instance the common problem of a child wandering into his/her parents' room in the middle of the night, interrupting a moment of sexual congress).

Mind you, evolutionary psychologists would probably argue that the brain is responding to erotic images on a much deeper level that this. The only problem with this argument (which is actually the only thing that keeps these arguments in business) is that they are impossible to ever prove.

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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