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This Study Suggests Women are Just As Visually Stimulated by Porn As Men

Ever heard the argument that men enjoy consuming porn more because they’re more “visual” than women? Looks like that might not be the case.

By February 23, 2022No Comments
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Even today, many people generally believe porn to be just “a guy’s issue.”

Although there is a significant gap between the percentage of men who consume porn and the number of women who consume porn, research still shows that 60.2% of women report that they’ve consumed porn in the past month.

Yet many recovery programs and resources have been aimed mainly at only men struggling with pornography. Many people claim that men are more “visual” beings than women and are more easily turned on by sexual content, therefore accounting for the gap in porn consumption between men and women.Steinman, D. L., Wincze, J. P., Sakheim, Barlow, D. H., & Mavissakalian, M. (1981). A comparison of male and female patterns of sexual arousal. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 10(6), 529-547. doi:10.1007/BF01541588COPY 

However, a 2019 meta-analysis—which is a type of research report that analyzes and summarizes the findings from relevant studies on a specific topic—may go against those stereotypes.Mitricheva, E., Kimura, R., Logothetis, N. K., & Noori, H. R. (2019). Neural substrates of sexual arousal are not sex dependent. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 116(31), 15671–15676. https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1904975116COPY 

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The meta-analysis from the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences included 61 functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) studies in which researchers scanned participants’ brains and tracked the areas and levels of brain activity after being presented with sexual images.

The researchers also performed a “systematic review of sex differences in gray matter volume of brain regions associated with sexual arousal” of more than 3,700 adults.Mitricheva, E., Kimura, R., Logothetis, N. K., & Noori, H. R. (2019). Neural substrates of sexual arousal are not sex dependent. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 116(31), 15671–15676. https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1904975116COPY  From a practical research-design standpoint, it can be difficult for researchers to perform brain-imaging studies on large numbers of people, but because this meta-analysis was able to combine results from dozens of studies, the researchers had a huge amount of data to pull from, which is a pretty big deal.

Ultimately, the researchers found no significant differences between men and women in how their brains respond to sexual images.Mitricheva, E., Kimura, R., Logothetis, N. K., & Noori, H. R. (2019). Neural substrates of sexual arousal are not sex dependent. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 116(31), 15671–15676. https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1904975116COPY  As one of the researchers of the meta-analysis stated, “at least at the level of neural activity… the brains of men and women respond the same way to porn.”Davis, N. (2019). Women as likely to be turned on by sexual images as men – study. The Guardian. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2019/jul/15/women-as-likely-to-be-turned-on-by-sexual-images-as-men-studyCOPY  Basically, sexual arousal in the brain looks no different between males and females.

Here’s why the news about these brain functions matters.

Related: Think Women Who Watch Porn Enjoy Sex More? This New Study Shows The Opposite

Like we said, previous self-reported studies suggested that men responded more strongly than women to sexual stimuli.Murnen, S. K., & Stockton, M. (1997). Gender and self-reported sexual arousal in response to sexual stimuli: A meta-analytic review. Sex Roles, 37(3), 135-153. doi:10.1023/A:1025639609402COPY Laan, E., Everaerd, W., van Bellen, G., & Hanewald, G. (1994). Women's sexual and emotional responses to male- and female-produced erotica. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 23(2), 153-169. doi:10.1007/BF01542096COPY  It was proposed that the way sexual information was processed led to different sexual responses between men and women and therefore different subjective evaluations of their arousal.Mitricheva, E., Kimura, R., Logothetis, N. K., & Noori, H. R. (2019). Neural substrates of sexual arousal are not sex dependent. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 116(31), 15671–15676. https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1904975116COPY  Translation? Men and women were thought to have drastically different brain processes for sexual arousal and therefore different experiences in sexual arousal.

This new study says not so.Mitricheva, E., Kimura, R., Logothetis, N. K., & Noori, H. R. (2019). Neural substrates of sexual arousal are not sex dependent. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 116(31), 15671–15676. https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1904975116COPY 

This study shatters some popular misconceptions about porn and how it affects men and women. It reviewed hundreds of reports and databases and conducted statistical analysis on all 61 significant neuroimaging studies that studied responses to sexual stimuli, concluding that the type of stimuli used was the most important predictor for classifying response, while biological sex was the least.

That’s not all—different analyses showed that there was, “no significant sex-specific differences within groups,” and upon analyzing gray matter associated with sexual arousal, there was no causal relationship between sex and the response to sexual stimuli.Mitricheva, E., Kimura, R., Logothetis, N. K., & Noori, H. R. (2019). Neural substrates of sexual arousal are not sex dependent. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 116(31), 15671–15676. https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1904975116COPY 

RelatedWhy You Can’t Consistently Fight Sexual Abuse Without Also Fighting Porn

So what about the previous research?

Authors of the study, including Hamid Noori, head of a neural research group at the Max Planck Institute for Biological Cybernetics in Germany, believe that the previous results insinuating differences in the brains of men and women stimulated by sexual content could be exaggerated due to, “small sample sizes or different attitudes to the material among participants.”

Yet, the question remains: why do men consume more pornography then?

In 2018, men accounted for over 70% of consumers on one of the most popular free porn site’s annual report. The same goes for 2019, with 68% of consumers accounting for men, and the remaining 32% accounting for women. In 2021, women supposedly only accounted for 34% of visitors.

While men are still the predominant producers and consumers of the industry, it’s only fair to point out that women are just as susceptible to becoming hooked on porn as men are; this study confirms that, no matter the gap in numbers. However, different ideas exist for why this gap in porn consumption numbers between men and women exists.

Related: Does The Porn Industry Really Care About Empowering Women?

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For example, Noori believes that it may have more to do with social factors, not biological ones:

“Female sexuality has quite a lot of stigma around it… Maybe the main reason is that for the woman there are secondary inhibitory effects that keep them away from expressing what they really feel… At least at this moment, our study indicates that men and women are not that much different.”Davis, N. (2019). Women as likely to be turned on by sexual images as men – study. The Guardian. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2019/jul/15/women-as-likely-to-be-turned-on-by-sexual-images-as-men-studyCOPY 

So it’s not necessarily that men are significantly more “visual,” or even that women don’t enjoy consuming pornography—there are a lot of other factors at play for why they don’t consume or report doing so. Studies accounting for women’s consumption highlight that, “women’s experiences of pornography are complex and nuanced, often paradoxical, varying among and within individuals,” making it challenging to get clear answers.Ashton, S., McDonald, K., & Kirkman, M. (2018). Women’s experiences of pornography: A systematic review of research using qualitative methods. 55(3), 334-347. doi:10.1080/00224499.2017.1364337COPY 

In any case, it’s important to remember that even though women do consume porn less than men, there is a growing number of women who are consuming.

Over the last year, a major porn site recorded a global increase of 3% in women’s consumption, from 29% to 32%. It also found that the country with the greatest percentage of female consumers was the Philippines, with women making up 39% of the country’s site visitors in 2019.

We also shouldn’t forget that studies have shown that numbers on porn consumption, especially for women, are likely underreported.Solano, I., Eaton, N. R., & O'Leary, K. D. (2020). Pornography Consumption, Modality and Function in a Large Internet Sample. Journal of sex research, 57(1), 92–103. https://doi.org/10.1080/00224499.2018.1532488COPY 

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So what does this all mean?

What’s the summary of what’s going on? Regardless of the gap between males and females, porn is an everyone issue.

It affects men and women alike, on both sides of the screen. Consumers can be any age, any gender, any sexual orientation—porn has the potential to affect everyone regardless of any diversifying factor.

Related: Can Women Get Addicted To Watching Porn?

The growing numbers of women who admit to consuming porn are just one way this trend is reflected.Solano, I., Eaton, N. R., & O'Leary, K. D. (2020). Pornography Consumption, Modality and Function in a Large Internet Sample. Journal of sex research, 57(1), 92–103. https://doi.org/10.1080/00224499.2018.1532488COPY  Add this to the new study revealing that men and women aren’t as different as once was thought when it comes to consuming porn, and it means that men definitely aren’t the only ones exposed to porn’s harms.Mitricheva, E., Kimura, R., Logothetis, N. K., & Noori, H. R. (2019). Neural substrates of sexual arousal are not sex dependent. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 116(31), 15671–15676. https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1904975116COPY 

While no one is immune to porn’s potentially toxic effects, we all have the choice to fight for something greater: real connection.