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New study suggests there are neurobiological constraints on women’s sexual fluidity

Women are more likely than men to report flexibility in their sexual attractions and desires. But even sexually fluid women display distinct neural responses to sexual imagery based on their self-identified orientation, according to new brain imaging research.

The study, published in Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, indicates that differences in visual and attentional processing, which cannot be voluntarily altered, guide how women sexually respond to erotic content featuring men and women.

“Both in our society and scientifically, we have much to learn about sexuality,” said Janna Dickenson, an assistant teaching professor at the University of California, San Diego and the corresponding author of the new study.

“We consider sexual orientation a stable, enduring pattern of attractions, desires, arousal, and behaviors. Yet, we also know that many individuals have the capacity to experience attractions, desires, and arousal that run counter to their overall pattern. Are these sexual responses processed in the same way? What makes them different? Can we change them? Can we manipulate our attention to magnify our sexual responses?”

To better understand the neurobiological processes involved in women’s sexual responses, Dickenson and her colleagues used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to record the brain activity of 29 women as they viewed brief video clips that contained erotic or neutral content. Before each clip, the participants were instructed to either “watch the video as you normally would” or to “attend mindfully to the videos” by non-judgmentally tuning into their bodily sensations.

“fMRI can be a powerful tool to help us understand sexual orientation because it is assesses neurobiological activity in response to a particular stimulus and compares it to another stimulus. fMRI reflects a comparison – the ‘brain lights up’ when brain activity is higher in one condition relative to another condition,” Dickenson explained.

“So, you can use this method to ask questions about differences. In our case, how does the brain respond differently based on gender of the sexual stimulus or based on how participants allocate their attention to the stimulus?”

The participants were between 18 to 35 years old, single, right-handed, had no neuropsychiatric conditions, and were not taking medications that impact sexual functioning. All of the participants identified as heterosexual but also reported some previous same-sex attractions.

Even though the women reported some degree of sexual fluidity, the researchers found differences in brain activity based on whether or not the erotic content conformed to their sexual orientation.

“Overall, our findings suggest that sexual responses that run counter to one’s sexual orientation are neurobiologically distinct from those that are consistent with one’s sexual orientation. However, there are some important similarities, too,” Dickenson told PsyPost.

In particular, the researchers observed greater activity in brain regions involved in automatic visual processing, executive attention and appraisal when the participants viewed erotic content featuring a man. Erotic content featuring a woman, on the other hand, resulted in greater activity in brain regions involved in complex visual processing and shifting attention.

“Although mindfulness enhances women’s sexual responses to genders that are consistent with women’s sexual orientation, mindfulness reduces sexual responses to genders that run counter to their sexual orientation,” Dickenson added.

The findings provide more evidence that sexual orientations are stable and not a choice. “In fact, our data suggest that if people try to change their sexual responses, they might exacerbate them,” Dickenson said.

“We discovered the limits of women’s erotic flexibility. Among the women in our study, sexual orientation, not erotic flexibility, guides the ways in which women process sexual stimuli. This emerging evidence that predominantly heterosexual women cannot volitionally become more responsive to stimuli depicting women contributes to existing research demonstrating that sexual orientation does not respond to volitional attempts at change,” she explained.

But the study — like all research — includes some caveats.

“There are significant limitations to drawing conclusions based on one study alone. Science can disprove ideas and this study disproved the idea that women can voluntarily change or enhance their sexual responses to genders that run counter to their sexual orientation. To use this data to inform our theories about sexual orientation and women’s erotic flexibility, replication is required. I would like to see another study from another lab that uses a similar paradigm with bisexual women, lesbian women, or transgender individuals,” Dickenson said.

“Although we took a number of measures to encourage participants’ comfort with the laboratory environment, the degree to which this laboratory study generalizes to real world settings remains unclear. This study has a small sample with a limited population and needs further replication with more diverse populations.”

The study, “Understanding heterosexual women’s erotic flexibility: the role of attention in sexual evaluations and neural responses to sexual stimuli,” was authored by Janna A Dickenson, Lisa Diamond, Jace B King, Kay Jenson, and Jeffrey S Anderson.



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