Porn arouses women and men in same neuronal way, review finds

The results contradict the popular assumption that men react far more strongly to pornography.

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  • The review examined the results of 61 brain-scanning studies that involved 1,850 people.
  • The results of the review found no significant differences in how male and female brains respond to viewing visual erotic stimuli.
  • Still, one of the researchers noted that there are sex-specific differences in sexual behavior.


It's commonly thought that men react more strongly to pornography than women do. After all, studies show that, compared to women, men generally have stronger sex drives, harbor higher levels of sexual aggression, and view more pornography.

But a new review challenges that common assumption, suggesting that viewing pornography — or, erotic visual stimuli — causes similar patterns of brain activity in men and women. Published in scientific journal PNAS on Monday, the statistical review examined 61 neuroimaging studies that included 1,850 individuals. Some of these studies had identified sex-specific differences in neuronal response to pornography, but the review authors suggest that these differences were either insignificant or based on "ambiguous" measurement criteria.

"Both men and women show increased activation in many cortical and subcortical brain regions thought to be involved in the response to visual sexual stimuli, while the limited sex differences that have been found and reported previously refer to subjective rating of the content," the authors wrote.

By subjective rating, the review authors are referring to some past studies which found that men self-reported higher levels of arousal than women. But these results are less reliable because they don't use "measurable biological dimensions," the review authors suggest. In any case, the new review doesn't suggest that men and women engage with sexuality in the exact same ways.

"There are differences in behaviour — the number of men going to porn sites is roughly 80 per cent of the consumers," review co-author Hamid R. Noori told New Scientist. "But men and women respond the same way at the brain level to visual sexual stimuli. What we do with it afterwards is what brings the difference."

Noori also noted that the new review focused on the activity of relatively large brain regions, and that future research could reveal sex-specific differences at smaller scales. Still, Noori stated that the review challenges commonly held assumtions about biological sex and sexual enjoyment.

"This result challenges not only some of the previous studies but also the common public perception that men respond stronger to porn or even like sex more than women," Noori told The Independent.

No matter your biological sex, viewing too much pornography could eventually become a problem — and even an addiction, similar to drugs and alcohol. Excessive pornography consumption has been associated with lower sexual satisfaction, loneliness and increased risk of divorce. If you're looking to cut down on watching porn, clinical sexologist and psychotherapist Robert B. Weiss suggests establishing a three-tiered boundary plan, as he wrote for Psychology Today:

  • The "inner boundary" lists bottom line problem behaviors the client wants to quit. For instance, a client might say, "I can no longer look at porn on my computer, my smartphone, or any other digital device. I can no longer cruise social media sites looking for erotic pictures and videos. And I can no longer participate in video chat, because for me it's like a live-action porn site."
  • The "middle boundary" lists slippery behaviors and other triggers that might cause the client to backslide into inner boundary behaviors. For instance, a client might say, "I need to be careful if I've had an argument, if I'm feeling 'less than,' if I'm bored, if I'm on my computer when nobody else is around, etc."
  • The "outer boundary" lists healthy and enjoyable activities the client can turn to when he or she feels triggered toward porn use. For instance, a client might say, "Instead of looking at porn, I can clean the house, play with my kids, read a book, hang out with friends, go to the gym, brush the cat, etc."
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