Let’s talk about sex. That’s what Dr. Kelly Suschinsky, a post-doc researcher at Queens University in the SageLab has been doing since 2005, when she began researching human sexual arousal.
"Because sexuality can be such an important component of people’s lives, it is crucial to better understand various aspects of it, including basic information such as the sexual response." says Suschinsky. "Until very recently, models of sexual response which have informed decisions about what is "healthy" versus "dysfunctional" have been based mostly on research conducted on men."
It turns out that when it comes to human sexual arousal, it isn’t black and white, especially for women. The story for heterosexual males is pretty straightforward. Overall, researchers have found that straight men are aroused by sexual stimuli that involves their preferred partners: women. In contrast, heterosexual women are less specific, responding to straight, gay, or lesbian sex.
Why are straight women, but not straight men, aroused by a wide variety of sexual stimuli? This is a question that has long intrigued Dr. Suschinsky. It turns out a dark reality may have played a role in driving this response. Sexual arousal is accompanied by physiological genital responses, such as increased lubrication. These responses evolved in women to help reduce the risk of injury during sex. Being sexually aroused to a wide variety of stimuli could help protect female genitalia against injury incurred during sex-whether consensual or not. Dr. Suschinsky explains: "The preparation hypothesis suggests that women’s genital responses….. should occur in the presence of any sexual stimulus, functioning to prepare a woman for a sexual encounter." Dr. Suschinsky sought to test the preparation hypothesis when she was studying at the University of Lethbridge.
She recruited healthy heterosexual participants who listened to consensual or non-consensual, violent or non-violent, and sexual or non-sexual stories. Two measurements were taken in response to the stories. Subjective emotional arousal was assessed by simply asking participants how turned on they felt while listening to the stories. Assessment of genital arousal required a different approach. For males, genital arousal was measured using penile plethysmography, a technique where a rubber gauge is placed mid-shaft on the penis, and changes in circumference are measured (above right). Female genital arousal is assessed using vaginal photoplethysmography, which measures blood flow changes as a function of changes in light (above left). The participant inserts the device into the vagina, similar in shape and size to a tampon.
“The results of the study do support the preparation hypothesis." Dr. Suschinsky concludes. "Women showed relatively similar levels of genital response to a variety of sexual stimuli, including consensual and non-consensual sex, whereas men showed their greatest genital responses to consensual sexual stories."
Men stated they were most turned on by the consensually sexual non-violent story, and this was reflected in their genital arousal as well. While women reported the same story to be the most arousing, their genital arousal was similar among all the stories that contained sexual content-whether violent, consensual, or otherwise. This suggests that women’s subjective sexual arousal and genital arousal don’t always go hand in hand, like men’s do.
Dr. Suschinsky believes her research will have far-reaching implications for women's sexual health. "More and more research is showing that women and men respond differently, and that there is even substantial variation within each gender…. [T]his variation is important to consider when we define what is a sexual dysfunction and when we try to develop effective treatments for such difficulties."
Sexuality being such an important part of the human condition, its remarkable how little research has focused on women's sexuality, Dr. Suschinsky remarks. Happily, she reports "...that this is changing. It's exciting to study something that is so important to so many people. "