How We Misunderstand Sexual Arousal

Meredith Chivers’s research on human arousal may surprise you. 


Scientists have revealed the unimaginable complexity of our bodies, developed new ways to enjoy sex without pregnancy, traced the invisible ways scent makes someone irresistible, and continue to stimulate and inspire our understanding of evolution’s gift.

But an obvious question could be asked: Do we really need science to make sex better? Surely the ancients were having a pretty good time long before fMRI scanners hit the scene.

As with most things in science, the main point is not what we have learned—it’s what we have to learn.

Professor Meredith Chivers of Queen’s University in Canada thinks the science of sex—and, most especially, sex in the mind—is a worthy object of scrutiny.

Chivers studies patterns of arousal. Simply put, she shows a variety of images to people as scientific instruments measure their degree of excitement. Men will have a glass chamber, dubbed a “plethysmograph,” strapped over their limp penis, and then shown a variety of images, from pornographic films to landscape paintings. The amount of air displaced by their inflating member is catalogued by computers.

Women will don a similar device, essentially a glass dildo with a camera and a light inside. The amount of vaginal lubrication they produce can be measured with optical analysis: bounce light off the surface of the glass, and depending on how much fluid has coated the outer surface, the reflected rays will differ.

Her results never fail to make a splash with the media: While straight men experience erections at the sight of naked women or heterosexual pornography, women experience varying degrees of arousal to a wide variety of images, from straight porn to lesbian porn to wildlife documentary footage of rutting animals. Though straight women do not claim to be aroused by images of naked women, the data seems to indicate otherwise.

“Standard reports on my work tend to paint women as being liars, or completely out of touch with what turns them on, that they are all bisexual, or want to have sex with animals. Or that they are genuinely turned on by sexual violence. Oh, ‘women are so wacky!’ seems to be their take-home message. Those are all very remedial understandings of how our bodies and our identities are interrelated.”

Arousal in the body does not translate to arousal in the mind—and that is what has kept her interested. “One of the most compelling things about sex is that so much comes from the parts of our nervous system we have no control over,” she says.

Through sex we can explore the complex dance between mind and body, and discover strange new truths about our very strange species. In other words, it is in the animalistic part of ourselves that we discover some of the most startling ideas about what it means to be human.