Sex differences in response to visual sexual stimuli: a review

Arch Sex Behav. 2008 Apr;37(2):206-18. doi: 10.1007/s10508-007-9217-9. Epub 2007 Aug 1.


This article reviews what is currently known about how men and women respond to the presentation of visual sexual stimuli. While the assumption that men respond more to visual sexual stimuli is generally empirically supported, previous reports of sex differences are confounded by the variable content of the stimuli presented and measurement techniques. We propose that the cognitive processing stage of responding to sexual stimuli is the first stage in which sex differences occur. The divergence between men and women is proposed to occur at this time, reflected in differences in neural activation, and contribute to previously reported sex differences in downstream peripheral physiological responses and subjective reports of sexual arousal. Additionally, this review discusses factors that may contribute to the variability in sex differences observed in response to visual sexual stimuli. Factors include participant variables, such as hormonal state and socialized sexual attitudes, as well as variables specific to the content presented in the stimuli. Based on the literature reviewed, we conclude that content characteristics may differentially produce higher levels of sexual arousal in men and women. Specifically, men appear more influenced by the sex of the actors depicted in the stimuli while women's response may differ with the context presented. Sexual motivation, perceived gender role expectations, and sexual attitudes are possible influences. These differences are of practical importance to future research on sexual arousal that aims to use experimental stimuli comparably appealing to men and women and also for general understanding of cognitive sex differences.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Affect
  • Erotica
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Interpersonal Relations*
  • Libido*
  • Male
  • Peer Group
  • Photic Stimulation*
  • Reference Values
  • Sex Characteristics
  • Sex Factors
  • Sexual Behavior / psychology*
  • Social Environment*
  • Visual Perception*