Does Physiological Arousal Equate to Sexual Desire in Women?

Is the physical experience of arousal enough for women to feel sexual desire?

Posted Nov 02, 2018

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Fascinating research on the experience of sexual attraction in women shows that we may not consciously recognize which sex partners most strongly arouse us. While straight and gay men seem to accurately detect their sexual attraction toward women and men (respectively), straight women and lesbians often experience objective sexual arousal to potential partners of both genders (Chivers et al., 2004). But is the physical experience of genital arousal enough for women to feel sexually attracted to a potential partner? Or do women need to feel subjective feelings of sexual attraction as well?

In a previous post, I discussed research performed by Chivers and colleagues (2004) assessing sexual fluidity. These researchers presented heterosexual men and women, as well as gay men and lesbians, with different sexual films. One film depicted two women; one featured one man and one woman; and the last involved two men. The researchers measured participants’ self-reported, subjective sexual arousal as well as objective genital arousal. The results for men's sexual arousal were consistent; gay men exhibited more subjective and objective arousal to the film involving two men, and straight men experienced more subjective and objective arousal to the film involving two women. The authors’ findings regarding women's arousal, however, were surprisingly inconsistent. Although lesbians reported more subjective feelings of arousal to the film with two women, and heterosexual women reported that they were most strongly aroused by the film involving one man and one woman, both lesbian and heterosexual women were equally physiologically aroused by all three films. The researchers interpreted these results to imply that women’s sexuality is more fluid or flexible than men’s; however, none of the researchers suggested that women are inherently bisexual. 

But is the experience of physiological arousal sufficient for women to feel sexually attracted to a partner? Other research raises questions about whether objective or physiological arousal is sufficient to stimulate feelings of sexual desire in women, and whether women respond differently to physiological sexual arousal than men do. For example, Gillath and colleagues (2007) exposed both men and women to “prime” photographs of naked people as well as neutral photographs. These prime photographs were presented at a speed intended to make them subliminal; that is, the photographs were presented too fast for participants to consciously recognize what they had seen. After the subliminal primes, participants were then shown target photographs of attractive members of the other sex, and they were asked to indicate their sexual arousal to those target photos (the people in these target photos were also naked, although no genitals were visible). 

The researchers found that men’s self-reported sexual arousal was not influenced by the subliminal sexual or neutral prime photographs; men were equally aroused by the women in the target photographs regardless of the preceding subliminal prime. However, women actually experienced less subjective sexual arousal following the sexual prime photographs, both relative to the neutral photographs and relative to their male counterparts. These authors suggest that the sexual prime may have led to negative thoughts or feelings for women. They also suggest that a photograph of an unfamiliar naked man (while potentially physiologically arousing) might be perceived as threatening or dangerous for women. The authors speculate that women’s conscious evaluations of their own subjective sexual arousal may be more important than their objective levels of physiological arousal when perceiving sexual stimuli (Gillath et al., 2007).

This interpretation is supported by a review of the literature conducted by Baumeister (2000). Baumeister contends that because women invest more time and energy in producing offspring than men do, women’s “default” response to sexual requests may be negative. Therefore, women should be expected to refuse most sexual advances. Men, however, might have a default positive response to sexual requests. Even if men's default response is positive, heterosexual sex would occur only when a woman changes her response from “no” to “yes.” This default negative response for women might be especially likely when the sexual advance comes from an unfamiliar man. Baumeister also suggests that factors such as culture, education, and religion have stronger effects on women’s sexual desires than on men’s. 

Furthermore, Spieling et al. (2004) suggest that for a person to experience sexual emotions, both the physiological/genital arousal and the subjective experience of sexual arousal are necessary. These authors also state that women may be more likely to inhibit or check their physiological sexual responses than men. Schachter and Singer’s (1962) classic theory of emotion suggests a similar interpretation. According to these theorists, the experience of an emotion depends not only on physiological arousal, but also on the cognitive label which we apply to those feelings of arousal. Therefore, women may not experience genital arousal as sexual desire unless they also experience subjective sexual arousal for a particular partner.

Although women’s feelings of sexual attraction may be more fluid or flexible than men’s, women may be just as likely as men to only experience subjective feelings of sexual attraction to certain sex partners.


Baumeister, R. F. (2000). Gender differences in erotic plasticity: the female sex drive as socially flexible and responsive. Psychological Bulletin, 126(3), 347.

Chivers, M. L., Rieger, G., Latty, E., and Bailey, J. M. (2004). A sex difference in the specificity of sexual arousal. Psychological Science, 15(11), 736-744.

Gillath, O., Mikulincer, M., Birnbaum, G. E., & Shaver, P. R. (2007). Does subliminal exposure to sexual stimuli have the same effects on men and women? Journal of Sex Research, 44(2), 111-121.

Schachter, S., & Singer, J. (1962). Cognitive, social, and physiological determinants of emotional state. Psychological Review, 69(5), 379.

Spiering, M., Everaerd, W., & Laan, E. (2004). Conscious processing of sexual information: Mechanisms of appraisal. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 33(4), 369-380.