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Do Women Lie About Their Sexual Arousal?

Or do scientists just not know how to measure female arousal the way they do male arousal?
(Photo: SKY2015/Shutterstock)

(Photo: SKY2015/Shutterstock)

Do ladies lie about what turns them on?

Going by a recent story in the Daily Beast, it would seem so. But a closer look at both the article and the research it cites reveals that the problem isn't with deceptive women—it's with how the science of women's arousal is conducted and interpreted.

The Daily Beast story covers research that found that, while straight women say they're not aroused by lesbian pornography or wildlife documentaries showing mating, measurements of those women's vaginas suggest otherwise. Journalist Zoe Cormier gives the barest nod to the research's true implications—"arousal in the body does not translate to arousal in the mind," she writes—but doesn't explain the major oversight here: Like too many others, science writers and scientists have forgotten about the clitoris, as Alice Dreger pointed out in Pacific Standard in 2014.

The research Cormier reports on traditionally measures blood flow to men's penises and to women's vaginas as a mark of study volunteers' physical arousal in response to images and videos. The study found that men's physical measures typically follow what they say they find arousing—in other words, according to these studies, men's mental and physical arousal match—while women's don't. But, as Dreger explained, the research is flawed in its very premise. "The problem I've long had with the arousal studies is this: The vagina is not the homologue to the penis. The penis's homologue is the clitoris," Dreger wrote. "The vagina comes from different embryological tissue altogether, so why should we expect it to behave in a way that is comparable to the penis?"

Instead, the right thing to measure in studies like this one would be the clitoris. Historically, that's been difficult to do, but Dreger found that, in 2009, a team of scientists from a Dutch research company invented a device to measure blood flow to study volunteers' clitorises.

The scientists had female volunteers watch neutral and erotic film clips while wearing the device. "Their results suggest that, sure enough, women's arousal patterns may be a lot more specific—more like men's—than the vaginal measurements reveal," Dreger reported.

In December, Queen's University and Dutch researchers—including some of the researchers involved in the study cited above comparing male and female arousal—published a follow-up study aimed at providing further validation for their clitoris-measuring device. Their results, while preliminary because of their study's small sample size, look good. "CBV [clitoral response] may be a valid measure of women's genital sexual arousal that provides complementary information to VPA [vaginal response] and correlates with self-reported sexual arousal," the research team wrote in a paper published in the Journal of Sexual Medicine.* 

It would be disingenuous to say that human sexuality is straightforward, or that people of any gender's mental and physical arousal always align, or even that straight women and men are definitely exactly alike in their experience of sexuality. But it's crazy, too, to immediately leap to the conclusion that women lie to researchers, or that they're so unaware of their bodies they don't know when they're feeling aroused.


Since We Last Spoke examines the latest policy and research updates to past Pacific Standard news coverage.

*Update — February 10, 2016: This article has been updated to reflect Queen's University's involvement in studies mentioned in this post.