June 20, 2003
Study on Differences in Female, Male Sexuality

While heterosexual males are chiefly aroused by females heterosexual females are aroused by males and females.

June 12, 2003

Study on Differences in Female, Male Sexuality

EVANSTON, Ill. --- Three decades of research on men’s sexual arousal show patterns that clearly track sexual orientation -- gay men overwhelmingly become sexually aroused by images of men and heterosexual men by images of women. In other words, men’s sexual arousal patterns seem obvious.

But a new Northwestern University study boosts the relatively limited research on women’s sexuality with a surprisingly different finding regarding women’s sexual arousal.

In contrast to men, both heterosexual and lesbian women tend to become sexually aroused by both male and female erotica, and, thus, have a bisexual arousal pattern.

“These findings likely represent a fundamental difference between men’s and women’s brains and have important implications for understanding how sexual orientation development differs between men and women,” said J. Michael Bailey, professor and chair of psychology at Northwestern and senior researcher of the study “A Sex Difference in the Specificity of Sexual Arousal.” The study is forthcoming in the journal Psychological Science.

Bailey’s main research focus has been on the genetics and environment of sexual orientation, and he is one of the principal investigators of a widely cited study that concludes that genes influence male homosexuality.

As in many areas of sexuality, research on women’s sexual arousal patterns has lagged far behind men’s, but the scant research on the subject does hint that, compared with men, women’s sexual arousal patterns may be less tightly connected to their sexual orientation.

The Northwestern study strongly suggests this is true. The Northwestern researchers measured the psychological and physiological sexual arousal in homosexual and heterosexual men and women as they watched erotic films. There were three types of erotic films: those featuring only men, those featuring only women and those featuring male and female couples. As with previous research, the researchers found that men responded consistent with their sexual orientations. In contrast, both homosexual and heterosexual women showed a bisexual pattern of psychological as well as genital arousal. That is, heterosexual women were just as sexually aroused by watching female stimuli as by watching male stimuli, even though they prefer having sex with men rather than women.

“In fact, the large majority of women in contemporary Western societies have sex exclusively with men,” said Meredith Chivers, a Ph.D. candidate in clinical psychology at Northwestern University and a psychology intern at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health and the study’s first author. “But I have long suspected that women’s sexuality is very different from men’s, and this study scientifically demonstrates one way this is so.”

The study’s results mesh with current research showing that women’s sexuality demonstrates increased flexibility relative to men in other areas besides sexual orientation, according to Chivers.

“Taken together, these results suggest that women’s sexuality differs from men and emphasize the need for researchers to develop a model of the development and organization of female sexuality independent from models of male sexuality,” she said.

The study’s four authors include Bailey and three graduate students in Northwestern’s psychology department, Chivers, Gerulf Rieger and Elizabeth Latty.

“Since most women seem capable of sexual arousal to both sexes, why do they choose one or the other?” Bailey asked. “Probably for reasons other than sexual arousal.”

Sexual arousal is the emotional and physical response to sexual stimuli, including erotica or actual people. It has been known since the early 1960s that homosexual and heterosexual men respond in specific but opposite ways to sexual stimuli depicting men and women. Films provoke the greatest sexual response, and films of men having sex with men or of women having sex with women provoke the largest differences between homosexual and heterosexual men. That is because the same-sex films offer clear-cut results, whereas watching heterosexual sex could be exciting to both homosexual and heterosexual men, but for different reasons.

Typically, men experience genital arousal and psychological sexual arousal when they watch films depicting their preferred sex, but not when they watch films depicting the other sex. Men’s specific pattern of sexual arousal is such a reliable fact that genital arousal can be used to assess men’s sexual preferences. Even gay men who deny their own homosexuality will become more sexually aroused by male sexual stimuli than by female stimuli.

“The fact that women’s sexual arousal patterns are not all predicted by their sexual orientations suggests that men’s and women’s minds and brains are very different,” Bailey said.

To rule out the possibility that the differences between men’s and women’s genital sexual arousal patterns might be due to the different ways that genital arousal is measured in men and women, the Northwestern researchers identified a subset of subjects: postoperative transsexuals who began life as men but had surgery to construct artificial vaginas.

In a sense, those transsexuals have the brains of men but the genitals of women. Their psychological and genital arousal patterns matched those of men -- those who like men were more aroused by male stimuli and those who like women were more aroused by the female stimuli -- even though their genital arousal was measured in the same way women’s was.

“This shows that the sex difference that we found is real and almost certainly due to a sex difference in the brain,” said Bailey.

You can download the full paper A Sex Difference in the Specificity of Sexual Arousal as a 494 kb PDF. From the full paper:

The sex difference reported here has important implications for future conceptualizations of women’s sexuality. Sexual arousal, especially genital sexual arousal, is likely to play a much smaller role in women’s sexual orientation development than it does in men’s. Female sexuality, in general, may be more motivated by extrinsic factors, such as the desire to create or maintain a romantic relationship, than intrinsic factors, such as genital sexual arousal (Baumeister, Catanese, & Vohs, 2001). This basic sex difference in the role of sexual arousal processes highlights the need to use distinct models when investigating the development and expression of female or male sexuality.

Bailey has information about his areas of research interest. Also, he has a book out that, by reports from people whose judgement I trust, is an excellent examination of the types of transsexuality: The Man Who Would Be Queen: The Science of Gender-Bending and Transsexualism.

You might be wonder what does all this have to do with the future? I think a great deal. Some day 2 or 3 or, at the very most, 4 decades from now it will become possible to do large scale germ line genetic engineering to give offspring different genetic endowments that change how their minds will develop. The extent to which various aspects of human behavior are found to have a firm biological basis is a strong indicator of how much changes in genetic endowments will be able to change mental qualities in human offspring.

In my opinion, this latest result is more evidence that differences in how genes are regulated during embryonic and early life development probably cause male and female brains to develop in such a way to cause them to have different sexual natures and likely causes different forms of male and female heterosexuality, bisexuality, homosexuality, and transsexuality.

Update: There is an on-going blogosphere discussion of various aspects of Bailey's research on sexuality. See Charles Murtaugh's post as a good starting point.

Also, the Chronicle of Higher Education has an article on Bailey and the reactions to his research on sexuality.

But his latest work has created a bigger buzz than most scholars hope to enjoy in their entire careers. Not only does he identify a set of interests and behaviors he says can be used to tell whether a man is gay, he ties homosexuality to transsexualism. The book is receiving praise and damnation in equal measures, and the controversy is quickly making the author one of the most talked-about sex and gender researchers in academe.

Share |      Randall Parker, 2003 June 20 03:57 PM  Brain Sex Differences

Amy Northcutt said at March 21, 2004 9:08 PM:

I am a current student at Southern Arkansas University in Magnolia, Arkansas.
My major is psychology and I am doing research for my Research Methods I class. My topic is the difference between male and female sexual experience (especially sexual expectations of marriage partners). I am interested in this study you have done. Do you have any more information that could be of use to me? Please email me.

Amy Northcutt

kathy said at July 10, 2005 7:49 PM:

Amy - here's some background on the author that might be of use. The links in the original post lead to some very extensive reviews of this researcher.

Bisexuality Study: NYT Gives Prominence To Disgraced Researcher
by Michael in New York - 7/06/2005 11:38:00 AM

Everyone is probably familiar with this New York Times article about a study on bisexuality. It was one of the top five emailed stories on the NYT website and probably got picked up around the country. I ignored it at first because a casual glance at the study and its methodology led me to conclude it was shoddy and suspect. At best, it seemed like the typical mainstream press distortion of research: one little study makes one little observation and it gets trumpted around the country as a "fact," in this case the idea that men aren't bisexual, they're just either gay, straight, or lying.

You would think, you would hope that the New York Times would do a little research of its own before splashing the work of Dr. J. Michael Bailey, a professor of psychology at Northwestern and the study's lead author. But no. It took threader Kathleen to alert me to what the NYT should have known before presenting this study uncritically.

1. Dr. J. Michael Bailey had to step down from the chairmanship of the psychology dept. at Northwestern just last year because of ethics charges related to earlier research.

2. Bailey has been linked to a racist, neo-eugenics movement called the Human Biodiversity Institute by the Southern Poverty Law Center

3. Bailey's previous attention-getter was a book on transgenders that extrapolated from about nine transgenders he claimed to befriend into a study. Many of the people profiled claimed convincingly they had no idea they were part of a research study. (A violation of ethics.) One claimed Bailey slept with them. (Also a violation.) Though ostensibly science, it contained no footnotes. This book led to the investigation of Bailey that resulted in his stepping down as chair, though he remains a professor at Northwestern. The Chronicle of Higher Education profiled Bailey and the controversy, all but labeling him as a closet case.

4. Bailey claims to be gay-friendly but is so at odds with the GLBT community at Northwestern that campus groups urge people NOT to cooperate with his studies. Gee, think that might make any research he does there harder to accept as valid? (Bailey has reportedly found it difficult to recruit people for his research.) The Chicago Free Press paints a rather sad picture of Bailey trying to convince people he isn't anti-gay or biased by calling for a public meeting virtually no one attended, just weeks before the New York Times would treat his latest research as front-page of the Science section newsworthy.

5. Some of Bailey's more silly and offensive comments that should raise red flags for anyone wondering about his bias: most transexuals are "especially motivated" to shoplift and "especially suited to prostitution." Bailey says that if it became possible to genetically identify a fetus as "gay" and a parent chose to abort because they wanted a straight child, this would be "morally neutral." Yep, gay eugenics. Aborting gay fetuses wouldn't do anyone harm, he says. He's not anti-gay, just "pro-parental liberty."

I am furious that I had to find out all this stuff on my own by having a threader point me in the right direction. I'm not saying no one should ever report on anything Bailey ever does in the future, but is it too much to ask for context and a little background? Obviously, Bailey's history makes this study HIGHLY suspect: he has stepped down as a chair at Northwestern over allegations of misconduct; Bailey is seen with hostility by the GLBT community at Northwestern, making it difficult for him to find subjects to study; he is linked to a group the Southern Poverty Law Center says is filled with people linked to hate groups and is pro-eugenics; and he makes pro-eugenic statements and patently silly claims about transexuals.


Anonymous said at June 26, 2010 12:07 AM:

Its an interesting study.But research shows that women are aroused by sex between monkeys.Does that mean women have a sexual attraction towards them.No it doesnt.So the claim that all women are capable of being attracted to both sexes, is not only a bold, but untrue statement.

Bob Hensley said at September 15, 2010 9:33 AM:

As a student at the University of Kentucky, currently enrolled in a class discussing the
sexual proclivities of black, biracial and white women of the Antilles, and being presented with the idea that black and biracial women in the French colonies are more active, perhaps more aggressive than their white counterparts, sexually speaking, and having difficulty accepting this stereotype, I am attempting to find some references regarding possible effects of increased temperature and/or photoperiod on human female sexuality. Help anyone? I have found nothing to date.

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