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The Triggers of Sexual Desire: Men vs. Women

Part 1: Are male brains hard-wired to see females as sex objects?

Key points

  • For men, erotic stimuli immediately activates the parts of their brains related to getting an erection.
  • Because men are sexually stimulated visually, many adult sites targeting men focus on body parts.
  • Unlike women, men's sexual arousal can exist totally independent of a relationship.
tatchai, photographer/123RF free image
Source: tatchai, photographer/123RF free image

Neuroscientists have much to teach us about the what’s and why’s of our sexual preferences. On the basis of personal experience, you might be able to guess some of their findings. Still, the results of their research on the nature and origins of our erotic interests aren’t always intuitive. So there’s a good chance that major gaps exist in your understanding of where your sexual interests actually come from. In fact, it’s fairly likely that some of your tastes, or tendencies, have puzzled you all along.

This particular segment of my multi-post coverage on the subject of human sexual desire will itself be divided into two parts. Here I’ll be discussing the fundamentals of male erotic predilections. In the next part, I’ll take up the quite different psycho-neurological cues that propel most women’s sexual desire.

As in the other sections of this extended series, most of my points will be based on Ogi Ogas and Sai Gaddam’s A Billion Wicked Thoughts: What the World’s Largest Experiment Reveals About Human Desire. This most ambitious of undertakings—comprehensive and scholarly, yet at the same time quite accessible and entertaining—is unusually thorough, both in summarizing its own exhaustive research and discussing the findings of scores of other scientists who’ve pondered this ever-controversial topic.

Men are visual

To begin with, it’s essential to note that the literature specifically studying men’s arousal patterns (gay as well as straight) has repeatedly emphasized their sensitivity to visual cues. As soon as the lust-inspiring image registers in their brain, they become turned-on—not only physically but psychologically, too.

Exposure to such erotic stimuli immediately activates the parts of their brain related to getting an erection. And, as Ogas and Gaddam suggest, “Men’s greater sex drive may be partially due to the fact that their sexual motivation pathways have more connections to the subcortical reward system than in women.” [Or, in short] “men’s brains are designed to objectify females.”

Frustrated women have frequently (and cynically) complained that men’s brains are located between their legs. But the authors’ more scientifically grounded viewpoint seeks to elucidate the strategic—and frankly, unwilled—connection between the male’s brain and his genitals. (See also my earlier two-part post, “The Testosterone Curse.”)

It’s, therefore, no coincidence that many adult sites targeting men zero in on body parts. Ogas and Gaddam (the computational neuroscientists that they are) cite to point out that of their 100 top-rated images no fewer than 23 exhibit close-ups of female anatomy without a face.

Although unquestionably, the dehumanizing implications of such calculated cropping are saddening, many of the authors’ characterizations are nonetheless laugh-worthy. For instance, alluding to one website’s presentation of female body parts, they observe: “The site looks like a Victoria’s Secret catalog passed through a paper shredder.” And they’re forced to conclude (lament?) that “men’s brains scrutinize the details of arousing visuals with the kind of concentration jewelers apply to the cut of a diamond” (p. 47).

Ogas and Gaddam continually make observations about male sexual desire that indirectly suggest the perpetual war between the sexes—unless, I would add, that at some point both men and women realize that however at variance their sexual instincts may be, they are just that—instincts. If, as the authors state, a virile man’s libido can instantly be set off by one or more visual cues—that, in turn, compel him to take direct (orgasm-related) action, then how could he not view women as vehicles of (or receptacles for) his unruly lust?

Surely, none of these animal-like behaviors warrant being viewed as admirable. Still, the evolutionary imperative so deeply embedded in a male’s organism—the demand that his attention focuses on what’s linked to perpetuating the species—makes such innate impulses, if not laudatory, at least sympathetically understandable.

Male desire can exist independent of a relationship

Additionally, the authors talk about male desire as “a solitary affair.” That is, the single-minded pursuit of sexual arousal can exist totally independent of a relationship. “Getting off” has precious little to do with emotional intimacy. A man can sit alone, half-mesmerized before his computer screen, as he intently clicks on images and videos in his hunt for what will immediately ignite his libido.

Unlike his female counterpart, he gives little or no thought to actually sharing his erotic predilections or experiences with friends. And searching for stimuli that will engender or enhance sexual excitement (and ultimately create a most pleasurable dopamine release) is quite apart from any tender feelings, or craving for a genuinely intimate human attachment. Literally, and symbolically, it’s masturbatory—sex for one.

When, in the next post, I take up female sexual desire, I’ll show how women are far less turned on by erotic images than by particular kinds of relationships (as they’re typically dramatized, or exaggerated, in romance novels). Such fictive relationships can inflame their imagination with a strange sort of romanticism—however outrageous or hazardous their fantasies might be (at its extreme, think blood-sucking, yet love-stricken, vampires).

The cartoon metaphor used by Ogas and Gaddam to depict the male brain’s desire software is, of all people, Elmer Fudd—the comically ludicrous “wabbit hunter.” To the authors, Fudd is “solitary, quick to arouse, goal-targeted, driven to hunt ... and a little foolish” (p. 61). Or two-dimensional: The very emblem of a man whose “trigger-happy” brain forever resides between his legs. But with Fudd, it’s his rifle, not his phallus, that propels him ever forward. Eternally outmaneuvered by the ingenious Bugs Bunny, he yet resolutely reloads, time after time awaiting his next chance to shoot at his targeted prey. And the way the male sexual brain is constituted (as long, that is, as testosterone levels remain sufficiently high, or one’s personal, non-sexual ideals are suspended), the pursuit of sexual stimulation remains undiscouraged and unfaltering. One might almost say, indomitable.

Psychological cues for male arousal

Beyond the particular physical, or visual, cues that men seek for arousal, some additional psychological cues might also be mentioned here. The first of these may seem a little surprising, for what I’ve been describing probably suggests an almost shamelessly egocentric attitude toward women. But for the great majority of men, it turns out to be the most arousing stimuli of all. Namely, it’s the depiction of women (in stills or, even better, in videos) gasping, moaning, screaming, and swooning—that is, the portrayal of women seemingly electrified by the most intense sexual pleasure. As Ogas and Gaddam’s research leads them to conclude: “This may be the most common cue across all varieties of online porn.” To further highlight this point, they quote one male porn devotee exclaiming on Reddit: “Seeing and hearing a woman who is truly turned on like crazy has to be the biggest aphrodisiac I can think of ... ” (p. 186).

Closely related to this female pleasure cue is the authenticity cue. To secure their own arousal, men need to feel convinced that renderings of the woman’s arousal aren’t fake but a representation of actual sexual excitement. Just as they might suspect, if their real-life partner didn’t seem turned on by their lovemaking, that someone else might be turning them on, when they’re not persuaded that the woman they’re watching on a porn site is ecstatic in her sexual escapades, they can truly feel cheated on.

The final sexual cue I’ll touch on here (though I’ll be considering still others in later segments of this multi-part series) is the novelty cue. As Ogas and Gaddam report: “Males of most species [and, ahem, that even includes rats] are wired to become aroused by novelty. . .” (p. 192). And this explains why amateur porn is so popular. For, typically, it includes not only authenticity cues but novelty ones as well. And here the authors’ biological and evolutionary explanations for this sexual preference hardly seem necessary. That is, I think virtually all of us would agree that brains, human and non-human alike, are set alight, or refreshed, by novelty (sexual or otherwise). Our interest and attention are far less likely to be sustained—let alone piqued—by what we’ve already experienced than by something as yet unfamiliar to us.

And the infinite smorgasbord that is the internet provides opportunities for pursuing novelty like no medium than ever before existed.

Here are the titles and links to other segments of this series:

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