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Men Aren't 'More Visual' Or More Easily Turned On Than Women Are, Study Finds

Kelly Gonsalves
July 15, 2019
Kelly Gonsalves
Contributing Sex & Relationships Editor
By Kelly Gonsalves
Contributing Sex & Relationships Editor
Kelly Gonsalves is a sex educator, relationship coach, and journalist. She received her journalism degree from Northwestern University, and her writings on sex, relationships, identity, and wellness have appeared at The Cut, Vice, Teen Vogue, Cosmopolitan, and elsewhere.
July 15, 2019

You know that ol' myth that men are "more visual" and get turned on more easily than women do?

Well, a large new meta-analysis of dozens of studies on the theory just called BS.

The paper, just published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences journal, analyzed 61 past scientific studies that in total collected data on nearly 2,000 adults of different sexual orientations. Each study conducted virtually the exact same experiment: They showed men and women a series of erotic images and videos while their brains were hooked up to an fMRI machine. These neuroimaging scans showed the various regions of the brain that were activated in response to the visual stimuli, including the "insula, middle and inferior occipital and fusiform gyrus, amygdala, caudate, claustrum, globus pallidus, pulvinar, and substantia nigra." The researchers referred to this as the "arousal network."

The biggest factor that affected how much of a person's brain got activated? The particular type of sexual content they viewed. The least predictive factor? Gender.

"Following a thorough statistical review of all significant neuroimaging studies, we offer strong quantitative evidence that the neuronal response to visual sexual stimuli, contrary to the widely accepted view, is independent of biological sex," the researchers write. "Our analysis demonstrates that there is no functional dimorphism in response to visual sexual stimuli between men and women."

Just for good measure, the researchers decided to specifically analyze two particular regions of the brain: gray matter volume in the right insula and the anterior cingulate gyrus, two areas that past research has shown are associated with sexual desire in women. The researchers analyzed another 36 studies of men's and women's brains (in nonsexual contexts) and found 80% of those studies identified no differences between men's and women's insula and anterior cingulate brain regions.

So why do we hear so much about how men are more visual creatures than women are?

Some past studies have supported this theory, but the researchers behind this meta-analysis point out that the body of scientific literature on the subject is fairly contradictory—some small studies do identify some difference between men's and women's neurobiological sexual responses, but others repeating similar experiments found no such differences.

Some studies claiming to prove differences between how men and women respond to sexual stimuli were "ambiguous" about the neurobiological mechanisms, the researchers explained—or those gendered findings were instead "largely based on subjective rating of sexual arousal and desire in response to sexual stimuli instead of relying on measurable biological dimensions." In other words, their brains didn't demonstrate a difference, but men self-reported being more aroused and feeling more sexual desire than women reported. That makes it much more a psychological thing than anything biological or natural.

The researchers further argue that "hormonal status, opposing attitudes toward sexual material, differentially pronounced arousal, varying levels of sexual motivation," and other factors might be what really contributed to any perceived differences between men's and women's brain responses to sexual images in past studies. 

"The present study provides comprehensive metaanalytic evidence that the neurocircuitries associated with sexual arousal do not differ in men and women," they conclude. "Visual sexual stimuli induce activation in the same cortical and subcortical regions in both men and women, while the limited sex differences that have been found and reported previously refer to subjective rating of the [sexual content the people were viewing]."

So there you have it: No, men don't have some biological function in their brains making them more responsive to sexual stimuli.

If you still feel like in your bones that the above myth is true, you're probably talking more about nurture than nature: We, as a society, have, of course, artificially created and enforced social norms that dictate men are just naturally more sexual and get turned on immediately by anything even vaguely sexual they observe. These are norms that most men grew up with and have over time learned to adhere to instinctively. The more you repeat a myth, the more power it has.

So maybe it's time we all stop going off about men being more visual and whatnot, OK?

Kelly Gonsalves author page.
Kelly Gonsalves
Contributing Sex & Relationships Editor

Kelly Gonsalves is a multi-certified sex educator and relationship coach helping people figure out how to create dating and sex lives that actually feel good — more open, more optimistic, and more pleasurable. In addition to working with individuals in her private practice, Kelly serves as the Sex & Relationships Editor at mindbodygreen. She has a degree in journalism from Northwestern University, and she’s been trained and certified by leading sex and relationship institutions such as The Gottman Institute and Everyone Deserves Sex Ed, among others. Her work has been featured at The Cut, Vice, Teen Vogue, Cosmopolitan, and elsewhere.

With her warm, playful approach to coaching and facilitation, Kelly creates refreshingly candid spaces for processing and healing challenges around dating, sexuality, identity, body image, and relationships. She’s particularly enthusiastic about helping softhearted women get re-energized around the dating experience and find joy in the process of connecting with others. She believes relationships should be easy—and that, with room for self-reflection and the right toolkit, they can be.

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