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Response to the Washington Times Article on My Research on Female Sexual Arousal

On December 23, 2002, the Washington Times ran an article on my research program, entitled “FEDERALLY FUNDED STUDY MEASURES PORN AROUSAL.”

The article, by Robert Stacy McCain, characterized the research as follows:

“A federally funded study has paid women as much as $75 to watch pornographic videos to determine ‘what types of audiovisual erotica women find sexually arousing.’”

The piece went on to give very partial and mostly incomprehensible information about the scientific background of the study, obtained from the abstract from my grant on the NIH grants database. Numerous politically conservative outlets (including the Rush Limbaugh Show and CNN’s Hardball) attacked my research as an example of liberals wasting taxpayers’ dollars.

The Washington Times article was grossly misleading and made the research sound prurient and trivial. Here, I attempt to give sufficient background to allow an evaluation of the scientific merits of the research. I am constrained a bit, because we have a paper submitted to a scientific journal, and thus I cannot yet share results of the research with the public.

The research aims to study the association between sexual arousal patterns and sexual orientation in women and men. It has been known for years that men’s sexual arousal patterns closely track their sexual orientations. Gay men get far more aroused by male sexual stimuli (typically erotic videos with male actors) than by female sexual stimuli (erotic videos with female actors), and heterosexual men show the opposite pattern. This pattern, which we call a “category-specific” pattern of sexual arousal occurs for both men’s subjective arousal (i.e., how sexually aroused men feel) and their genital arousal (i.e., the extent of penile erection). Furthermore, it is so reliable that men’s true sexual orientations can often be discerned using equipment to measure genital arousal. Finally, this is both an important fact of male sexual orientation and undoubtedly an important way that males learn whether they are homosexual or heterosexual.

Given that we have known for over three decades that male sexual arousal is category specific, it may seem surprising that until my lab’s study, we did not know whether female sexual arousal is also category-specific. (Women’s sexuality has been far more neglected than men’s in scientific research.) Some prior work suggested that it might not be, in fact. That research found that lesbians and heterosexual women had similar patterns of sexual response to male and female sexual stimuli. This research was not definitive, however, due to methodological problems. Our research aimed to demonstrate beyond reasonable scientific doubt whether female sexual arousal is category specific, like male sexual arousal, or shows a fundamentally different pattern. We studied both women’s subjective and genital arousal patterns to male and female stimuli. We included heterosexual, bisexual, and lesbian women. If female sexual arousal is category specific, then heterosexual women should have their highest subjective and genital arousal responses to male stimuli, and lesbians to female stimuli. Our results, which are being reviewed by other scientists, will advance our understanding of the ways that male and female sexualities contrast.

The question of whether women’s sexual arousal is category specific is important if one wants to understand the phenomenology of sexual orientation (i.e., what it is like to be a heterosexual or lesbian woman) or its development. If, for example, lesbians are as sexually aroused as heterosexual women by male sexual stimuli, then obviously women cannot learn that they are homosexual or heterosexual by attending to patterns of sexual arousal, as men can. We have obtained surprising, definitive results, and I am eager to share them with the scientific community and with the public. But this cannot happen until our paper has been accepted for publication.

Some commentators on our study have asserted that we have a political agenda in doing this research. Specifically, they have asserted that we have trying to promote homosexuality. Although as citizens of the United States, we are entitled to political opinions (and we do hold them), we believe that the best science is done without regard to political goals. We do not think that our research on the category specificity of sexual arousal advances either a pro-gay or anti-gay agenda. It is difficult to imagine how our research would do so, no matter what results it obtains. The one value that is clearly reflected in our research is that sexual orientation (or more generally, human sexuality) is a legitimate and important object of scientific research.

Regarding the Washington Times’ focus on our use of “porn,” understand that we wanted to use the strongest ethically permissible sexual stimulus. It would have been scientifically preferable to use actual people as our sexual stimuli, but this was obviously impermissible. Our study used “porn” in the same way that many other worthwhile studies have used it—to evoke sexual arousal. Other studies using “porn” have included those focusing on the effects of viagra, the motives of rapists and pedophiles, male and female sexual dysfunction, and the basic science of male and female sexuality. Sexual arousal is as important and fundamental a phenomenon as hunger, fear, or pain. Sexual orientation is a fundamental aspect of who we are. We think it is a mistake, motivated by anti-sex bias, to argue that these sexual phenomena should not be studied. Of course, because research funding is limited, proposals should be closely scrutinized for scientific value. (Ours certainly was.) Other scientists—and not reporters or members of congress—are the best qualified to review scientific proposals.

Northwestern University Department of Psychology