The Empirical Status of the Preparation Hypothesis: Explicating Women's Genital Responses to Sexual Stimuli in the Laboratory

Arch Sex Behav. 2022 Feb;51(2):709-728. doi: 10.1007/s10508-019-01599-5. Epub 2020 Feb 5.


Research conducted in our laboratory and in other laboratories has revealed that (1) women's genital responses to visual and auditory stimuli are strongly affected by the presence of sexual cues, but that (2) specific sexual cues (e.g., gender of actors, the presence of sexual violence) often have little impact on the magnitude of the responses-that is, similar genital responses are observed to very different sexual stimuli. In addition, (3) women's genital responses do not strongly correspond with self-reported sexual partner and activity preferences, or (4) with self-reported sexual arousal during the presentation of sexual stimuli. Taken together, these facts represent a puzzle, especially considering that men's genital responses are highly affected by specific sexual cues and strongly correspond to stated preferences and self-reported sexual arousal. One hypothesis to explain female low cue-specificity and low concordance (relative to men) is the preparation hypothesis: Women's indiscriminate genital responses serve a protective function. That is, they do not indicate or necessarily promote sexual interest and motivation, but rather prepare the vaginal lumen for possible sexual activity and therefore prevent injuries that may occur as a result of penetration. We review evidence for and against this hypothesis. We conclude that the evidence is favorable but not entirely convincing, and more work is required to reach a firm conclusion. We offer directions for future research.

Keywords: Category-specificity; Cue-specificity; Genital responses; Preparation hypothesis; Sexual arousal; Sexual concordance.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Arousal* / physiology
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Laboratories*
  • Male
  • Men
  • Sexual Behavior / physiology
  • Vagina / physiology