Seeing Women: Explicit Media & the Science of Arousal

by Ava Mir-Ausziehen at

It has become an utterly taken for granted statement: when it comes to being sexually stimulated, men are more visual than women. Men get turned on by simply seeing something they recognize as sexual, but women ‘need a storyline’, women ‘are into fantasy’, women ‘need developed and loving characters’. This is the assumption of popular culture and especially marketing: porn is for guys, erotic novels are for women. I like to read, but I resent this, and if you like to watch a little smut now and then, maybe you do too.

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I’ve bitched about science before, and how it treats sexuality in certain ways that serve moral and political ends. Scientific research has been asking the visual stimuli question since Alfred Kinsey and his crew began their renegade sex research in the 1950s, and such studies have often reported that men respond more quickly and strongly to visuals than women. The studies that make these claims usually understand sexual arousal as something that is indicated by measurable, empirical qualities. This is one of the main limitations of science – while it is great at doing all sorts of things, it has this requirement of measurability that really gets in the way when we are looking at subjective experiences like arousal.

Read on…

I know there are times I have been super horny without getting wet; I know I have totally creamed my panties when I am not the least bit turned on. People can pop boners for the most random reasons, and then be flaccid when they are incredibly aroused. Yet it is precisely these types of characteristics: erection, vasocongestion, heart rate, pupil dilation and eye tracking, and respiration patterns that are used to measure arousal and justify sweeping claims about the turn ons of men and women. However, as a recent review of this literature admits, “When subjects view sexual stimuli, physiological responses […] are often discordant with self-reported subjective perception of sexual arousal, especially in women […] Thus, we do not yet know the exact relationship between subjective and physical sexual arousal, which is a complex process emerging from multiple cognitive and physiological components” (Rupp & Wallen 2008: 207). In other words: sex is complicated. Thanks for the newsflash, science.

When the same review goes on to argue that the emphasis on physiological markers is short sighted, and that the “cognitive component of sexual arousal” (our thinky-parts instead or our squishy-parts) needs to be investigated, they still insist that “sex differences are likely to be observed” in the importance the role of thinky-parts has in our sexual arousal. Science is so anxious about walking into the wrong restroom; they want to make sure men and women are recognized as two distinct species, and never the twain shall meet.  I would just for once like to see a scientific endeavour that didn’t assume from the outset they would find a difference between men and women, a scientific endeavour that instead played with the idea that there is more diversity within genders than between them.

I was relieved, then, to see that the review spends a considerable amount of time suggesting the observed differences may be biological or evolutionary, but may also be influenced by sociocultural factors: “Historically, Western culture has given men more sexual freedom and constrained women more in the display of sexual motivation or interest in sexual material, a double standard that exists even to some degree today” (Rupp & Wallen 2008: 212), and that these standards influence both how men and women experience arousal and how they report on those experiences. The result is that we get caught in a  perpetual self-fulfilling prophecy, where research makes assumptions based on social gender roles, and then test subjects confirm those assumptions because they are shaped by and conscious of those gender roles, which then appears to confirm the scientific assertion, and the loop goes on…

Sexuality research is really problematic because whether we are conscious of it or not, scientific assertions trickle down into popular culture and become taken for granted assumptions. Hence why people can so easily say, without really thinking about it, “men are more visual than women”. So when I argue that science, especially when it comes to sex, serves the interests of the moral and political status quo, what would that mean for this claim that men are more visual? What is gained and maintained by such an idea? Basically it offers a ‘scientific’ reason to give men more liberty than women to be sexual consumers. It legitimates the social acceptability men enjoy to consume porn, and perpetuates the relegation of women to consuming written erotica (which again, I love, I just wish everyone could enjoy whatever kind of kinky media they wish. How many men would be comfortable reading 50 Shades on the subway? The double-standards do – like myself – go both ways). This  creates an environment where women who openly and unapologetically watch raunchy pornography are, in mainstream discourse at least, seen as crass and less ‘feminine’, even pathological, whereas for boys and men pornography is an inevitable and obligatory rite of passage. At its root, I think, this stems from the idea that men’s sexuality is a physical, reactive, animal-like impulse, whereas women’s sexuality is considered a more tempered and tamed emotional engagement.

The idea of men being more visual, and thus the ‘natural’ spectators of porn, shares a certain consistency with another long-standing assumption that women find pornography demeaning, offensive, and disgusting (and if they don’t it’s because they have ‘issues’). I’ll admit I can be picky, and a lot of the offerings out there are less than appealing to me. And I do occasionally have real concerns that women in some porn flicks are getting a raw deal. Not necessarily that they are being mistreated in a really explicit way, but rather that they, like all of us, are working in a patriarchal culture and have to make decisions within that system, and that these parameters can make it difficult to assert boundaries and establish good sexual and labour contract consent.

This is partly why I find it really intriguing to think about how, regardless of the merit of the visual product, we can be politically or ethically committed in terms of how we view pornography. Oppression is, very often, in the eye of the beholder, or in the act of eyeing, I guess. Let me explain. For one, when we watch porn while silently or unconsciously judging the performers, ‘slut shaming’ them or dehumanizing them somehow, that’s on us. Further, in the same way we critically engage with any media we consume, we can be critical of the porn we watch. As Jane Ward asks regarding being a feminist who likes porn not made by and for other feminists, “can we watch sexist porn and still have feminist orgasms?” (2013: 132). She suggests that to resolve this dilemma, we commit to, as often as we can, consume our porn mindfully. She expands on what this means in her Queer Feminist Pig’s Manifesta (2013: 138-139), and I quote her at length because I think it’s just what we need to both relax a little on what gets us off while still being accountable, responsible, and ethical:

I am interested in my desire. I do not presume it is natural, static, or predictable. I observe its form and shape, not because I want to know how my childhood experiences or social  conditioning might have determined it beyond my control, but because I want to know its relationship to my happiness, my suffering, my creativity, my politics. […] I am responsible for the impact of my sexual desires and sexual consumerism on others and myself. I will be mindful of were and to whom I direct my gaze, with particular attention to matters of consent and dehumanization. I cultivate a private, internal space where I can honor and observe the complexity if my sexuality as it evolves. Though I remain publicly accountable, I provide myself with moments of exploratory freedom, creative license, and orgasmic surprises. I let my sexuality take me off guard. I move into it, even when it scares me.

With that in mind, I wish you some happy viewing.


Ward, Jane (2013). Queer Feminist Pigs: A Spectator’s Manifesta. In The Feminist Porn Book. Tristan Taormino, Celine Parreñas Shimizu, Constance Penley, & Mireille Miller-Young (Eds.). New York: The Feminist Press.

Rupp, Heather A. & Wallen, Kim (2008). Sex Differences in Response to Visual Sexual Stimuli: A Review. Archives of Sexual Behaviour, 37:206–218


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