The Impacts of Sexual Arousal and Its Suppression on Executive Functioning

J Sex Res. 2019 Jan;56(1):114-126. doi: 10.1080/00224499.2018.1462885. Epub 2018 May 3.


Suppression of certain types of reflexive emotional responses is thought to temporarily deplete executive functions (EF), as evidenced by poorer performance on measures of EF, but does not deplete other, lower-order cognitive processes. This study examined whether similar decrements in performance on EF tests would occur following suppression of sexual arousal. A sample of 44 male college students underwent baseline cognitive assessment (EF and lower-order cognitive processes), followed by experimental manipulation consisting of exposure to sexually explicit audiovisual stimuli. Sexual arousal was monitored using penile plethysmography. In this study, 21 participants were assigned to a suppression condition and were instructed to suppress sexual arousal during the video, while 23 were assigned to an arousal condition and were instructed to allow themselves to become aroused. Following experimental manipulation, cognition was reassessed. Unexpectedly, results showed EF decrements in the arousal group but not in the suppression group. As expected, only EF was affected by experimental manipulation, with no group differences in lower-order cognitive processes. Thus, the findings suggest that sexual arousal is associated with temporary decrements in EF performance, at least among young, primarily White, male college students. The results contribute to understanding why sexually charged situations are sometimes associated with poor decisions or unsafe/reckless sexual practices.

Publication types

  • Comparative Study
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Arousal / physiology*
  • Cognition / physiology
  • Emotions / physiology
  • Erotica / psychology*
  • Executive Function / physiology*
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Penile Erection / physiology*
  • Plethysmography
  • Sexual Behavior / physiology
  • Young Adult