Sex Science: Women Like Porn Too (Part 2)

Image courtesy of freedigitalphotos.net

Even if watching porn is as much an attention-getter for women as it is for men, do we watch it in the same way? After all, if genital response patterns vary between the sexes perhaps attention patterns vary too.

As it turns out, that’s exactly the case – with data showing women don’t just physically respond to categories of porn in a different way to men, we watch it differently as well.

A number of research groups have looked into this area. Unfortunately, several of the studies did not use the same images when testing men and women, which makes the results impossible to compare. If you show women photos of naked vs clothed men, and show men pictures of naked vs clothed women, what does that prove? All that will show is whether people prefer to look at nudes (unsurprisingly, yes, that’s exactly what they prefer). It doesn’t answer the question of how men and women respond to the same stimuli. [http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17031585]

A research group in Atlanta set out to do just that. Digital photos of oral sex and intercourse were downloaded from the  internet.Researchers rated the photos for overall attractiveness to come up with seventy-two test images – the ones considered most attractive.Not a bad day’s work in the lab, if you ask me.
[http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17362952]

Both men and women were recruited to look at the same set of photos. Participants were hooked up to tan eye-tracking device while they looked at the seventy-two test images. One interesting feature of this study is that women on hormonal birth control (HBC) were analysed separately from other women.

Hormonal birth control, such as the pill, works by mimicking the state of the body in pregnancy, causing the ovaries to stop releasing eggs. The hormonal fluctuations that would ordinarily be experienced by women are dampened, and they show lower, less variable patterns of sexual motivation than women going through the
natural cycle. If the body thinks it has already conceived, then the factors influencing sexual attraction will be significantly altered. This is something that has already long been noted in studies looking at differences in mate selection. So what did the results show?

The researchers did not find much difference between men and both HBC and non-HBC women in how they subjectively rated each photo on attractiveness, nor did they find differences between men’s and women’s viewing times. This is inconsistent with the common myth that men find visual stimuli more engaging, since if you believed that, you would expect men to spend more time looking at the pictures. But what did differ were the areas of the images on which the men and women were focusing.

When comparing men, women on birth control, and women not on birth control, researchers noticed diverging patterns between the groups.Tracking eye movement over the screen revealed that men spent more time looking at female faces, and were more likely than either group of women to do so.

It was the non-HBC women, not the men, who had a truly roving eye.Those women who were not on birth control and therefore experiencing more natural hormonal infl uence had more first looks towards genitals. They also spent markedly more time looking at genitals, and not only that, were more likely than men to do so
overall.

If you thought you were the mistress of subtlety when it comes to checking out someone’s junk, the game is up. We’ve been sussed, ladies.

What do the differences between the men and non-HBC women tell us? Perhaps it’s because while the external male genitalia convey sexual interest unambiguously, the clues as to whether a woman is turned on are more subtle. It could be that for heterosexual men, looking at the face of a woman is a better way of interpreting the level of sexual excitement than looking at her body. Is she naked and emotionally uninvolved, or is she ‘up for it’? Women who have sex with men, on the other hand, don’t need to see a man’s face to know whether he’s sexually ready, so they don’t spend as much time looking there.

Meanwhile the HBC women’s watching patterns showed that they spent more time than the other groups looking at the clothes of the people in the images and at the background. I tell you, I was surprised to read that. I take birth control myself and watch plenty of porn, and I’m not about to stop looking at a man’s junk
because some… hey, is that a Hungarian goose down duvet? WANT.

Anyway. This of course is problematic, since a lot of young women take the pill (but not unexpected given the nature of hormonal birth control). A further study went into even more detail with women, comparing not just those who were and were not on oral contraceptives, but also measuring responses within those groups
during different phases of the menstrual cycle.[http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20034495]

The results found that participants’ menstrual cycle phase during first exposure to sexual stimuli  actually predicted their interest in sexual stimuli during the next two tests. Non-HBC women who were first tested just prior to ovulation looked longer at the sexual stimuli across all sessions than did women first tested post-
ovulation.

For women on birth control, those first tested during their pill break week looked longer at the pictures even in later sessions than did the women first exposed while still on the active pills. So much for trips to Ikea then…

Neither current test phase nor initial cycle phase influenced subjective ratings. So both groups showed increased interest in sexual stimuli across all sessions if first exposed to sexual stimuli when endogenous estrogens were most likely highest.

Hormones are not the only influential factor, though. Another study sought to examine the role of ‘absorption’ in women watching porn – in other words, how much they identified with the people in it. [http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19253136]

One group was told to imagine that they were active participants in the sex depicted. The second group were directed to observe and assess the erotic film excerpt as spectators. The first group, unsurprisingly, reported greater sexual arousal compared with the latter. They were also more likely to view the stimulus favorably.

With the trend not only for more women seeking out porn, but also for more woman-led (some would even say feminist) porn, this provides an interesting road map of what might make the viewer more interested in, and more likely to respond to, a particular film.

Granted, we’re probably not going to start providing details of our birth control regimes to a friendly local pornographer who will then tailor a bespoke erotic experience… but then again, knowing the likely differences in how your attention will wax and wane could be very useful knowledge indeed. Even if it never leaves your
own bedroom.

Brooke Magnanti is author of The Sex Myth which explores these, and many more fascinating myths about sex

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