Sexual arousal, desire, and functioning in women
Sexual health is an integral component of physical and mental health, and quality of life. Sexual arousal and desire problems affect up to one third of women, yet effective treatments do not yet exist. Recently, changes to the way sexual arousal and desire problems are conceptualized have been proposed by sexuality researchers. This new model is believed to capture women’s experience of their sexuality more accurately and may better characterize women’s experiences of sexual difficulties. This model has not, however, been scientifically tested. Our primary objective is to understand the relationships among sexual arousal, sexual desire, and sexual health in women.
Understanding the relationship between sexual arousal and desire will create gender-specific knowledge about women’s sexuality and about the causes of women’s sexual dysfunctions. The proposed research will have important implications for identifying risk factors for sexual arousal and desire problems, inform treatment decisions, and decrease the burden of sexual dysfunction and its negative impacts for Canadian women.
Specificity of sexual response
Since 1999, Dr. Chivers has been investigating the relationship between people’s sexual interests and their patterns of sexual response using sexual psychophysiology. This research began by looking at gay, lesbian, and heterosexual people’s sexual responses to films of women and men, and has expanded to include responses to films of nonhumans, a variety of sexual activities, and different stimulus modalities. The results of these studies suggest that women show genital responses to a broader range of sexual stimuli than men do. We are trying to figure out why this difference exists and what it means for women’s and men’s sexualities. Ongoing studies and topics include:
- Effects of stimulus modality on specificity of women’s sexual arousal
- Prepotent sexual features and sexual response in women and men
- Relationship context and specificity of sexual response
- Specificity of sexual arousal to preferred sexual activities in women and men (in collaboration with Dr. Michael Seto, the Royal Ottawa Hospital and University of Toronto)
- Fertility status and specificity of sexual arousal (in collaboration with Dr. David Puts, University of Pennsylvania)
- Stability of patterns of sexual arousal over time
- Early cognitive processing of preferred and nonpreferred sexual stimuli
- Clitoral versus vaginal measures of women’s sexual response and specificity of sexual arousal with Dr. Kelly Suschinsky
- Evaluating gender differences in specificity of sexual arousal with thermography
- Examining early and late attentional processes involved in specificity of sexual interest with eye-tracking
Women’s sexual orientation, sexual identity, and patterns of sexual arousal
How does nonspecific sexual arousal relate to women’s sexual and romantic attractions and interests, and influence sexual identity as heterosexual, bisexual, lesbian, or queer? Researchers have noted that women’s sexuality shows plasticity, meaning that women are more likely to shift in aspects of their sexuality, such as their attitudes and preferences, and their sexuality is more likely to be influenced by situational and contextual factors than men’s (Baumeister, 2000). Women are also more likely to experience shifts in their sexual identity; longitudinal research on women’s sexual identity suggests there is considerable flux in how women define their sexuality over time (Diamond, 2005). What we don’t understand is why women experience these changes in their sexuality. One possibility is that women’s nonspecific sexual response facilitates flexibility in their sexual interests and identity because women have the psychophysiological capacity to become sexually aroused by both men and women.
We are also interested in examining how other sexual interests, such as variation in sexual activity preferences (sadism or masochism) and sociosexual orientation (propensity to engage in casual sex) relate to patterns of sexual response in women and men. Ongoing studies and topics include:
- Sociosexual orientation and patterns of sexual response
- Sexual response patterns of bisexual women
- Sexual response patterns of sexual masochists
- Sexual response patterns of sexual sadists
- Degree of same-sex attractions and specificity of arousal
- Longitudinal of same-sex attracted women’s sexual identity shifts and patterns of sexual response (in collaboration with Dr. Lisa Diamond, University of Utah)
- Investigating responsive sexual desire in women with and without sexual difficulties
Our research on gender differences in the specificity of sexual arousal highlighted another important difference between women’s and men’s sexual psychophysiology -- sexual concordance, that is, the relationship between genital and self-reported states of sexual arousal. In collaboration with Drs.Martin Lalumière (University of Lethbridge), Ellen Laan (University of Amsterdam), and Teresa Grimbos (University of Toronto), we completed a meta-analysis examining the gender difference in sexual concordance in 132 sexual psychophysiology studies. This paper is published in the January 2010 issue of the Archives of Sexual Behavior (click here for a link to the article). We were interested in conducting this meta-analysis for two reasons. First, many researchers reported that women’s concordance was very low, but there seemed to be a lot of variability in concordance in the scientific literature. We wanted to quantify the gender difference in concordance. Second, we wanted to find factors that might increase or decrease concordance in women and men, and that might explain the gender difference that many scientists report. Identifying these moderators might also provide some clues as to why women show greater variation in sexual concordance than men. Ongoing studies and topics include:
- Gender differences in sexual concordance and the effects of stimulus content (with Drs. Martin Lalumière and Kelly Suschinsky, University of Ottawa & Queen's University)
- Are sex hormones (testosterone, estradiol, progesterone) related to sexual concordance in women?
- Stability of sexual concordance over time
- Socially desirable responding and sexual concordance
- Clitoral versus vaginal measures of women’s sexual response and sexual concordance (with Dr. Kelly Suschinsky, Queen’s University)
- Sexual concordance and women’s sexual functioning (in collaboration with Dr. Lori Brotto, University of British Columbia)
- Effects of mindfulness-based sex therapy on sexual concordance (in collaboration with Dr. Lori Brotto)
- Dynamic systems modeling of sexual concordance (in collaboration with Dr. Tom Hollenstein, Queen’s University)
- Gender norms and social influences on gender differences in sexual concordance with Dr. Terri Fisher (Ohio State University) and Dr. Kelly Suschinsky (Queen's).
- Sexual concordance and sexual experience (Dr. Kelly Suschinsky)
Sexual functioning after gynecological cancer
Led by Dr. Catherine Classen (Women’s College Hospital and the University of Toronto), and in collaboration with Drs. Lisa Barbera (University of Toronto), Sarah Ferguson (University of Toronto), David Wiljer (Princess Margaret Hospital) and Sara Urowitz (Princess Margaret Hospital), we have developed and pilot tested a 12-week, web-based support group for women who have body image and sexual problems due to gynecologic cancer and its treatment. The aim of this project was to develop an online forum in which women can receive information and support from their peers and professionals about the physical, emotional, sexual, and relationship effects of having gynecological cancer and treatment. Qualitative and quantitative data from the pilot study have been published (please see list of publications). With funding from CIHR, our team is currently beginning a randomized controlled trial of the online support group.