Friday, 4 September 2015

Sexual arousal has a similar effect on men's and women's risk-taking

When it comes to condom use among heterosexual couples, there's evidence that women are often expected to be the sensible ones, in terms of raising and enforcing the issue. A new study published in the Archives of Sexual Behaviour suggests this isn't just unfair, it's unwise too – both men and women show a similarly increased inclination for risk-taking when they are sexually aroused.

The Canadian research team, led by Shayna Skakoon-Sparling, recruited 144 heterosexual undergrads to take part in what they were told was a study of gender differences in preferences for video clips. Half the participants watched 2-minute clips from the 2007 pornographic film Under The Covers – featuring consensual sex and generally considered to be appealing to both men and women – the other participants acted as controls and watched non-sexual video clips, for example from the Pixar film Wall-E.

After each clip the participants answered questions about their mood and sexual arousal, and they said how they'd behave in a number of hypothetical sexual encounters – for example, whether they'd go ahead and have sex even though neither they nor their partner had a condom.

Participants who watched the porn clips but who were not sufficiently aroused (they rated less than 3 on a scale of 1-10) or who watched the control clips and reported too much arousal (a rating above 2) were dropped from the analysis. The final sample involved 80 women and 33 men with an average age of 23.

The main finding was that although men overall reported stronger intentions to engage in un-protected sex (in the hypothetical scenarios), both men and women who watched the porn clips showed a significant increase in their risky intentions, as compared with the controls. This is an important finding because past research using attractive male and female faces had reported that only men's risk-taking is affected by sexual arousal, not women's. This new study suggests that that past research had failed to use sufficiently arousing stimuli.

Skakoon-Sparling and her also team tested whether the effect of sexual arousal on men's and women's risk-taking extends to non-sexual decisions. Over one hundred more undergrads took part and followed a similar procedure to before, with half of them watching the porn clips and half watching non-sexual clips. This time, after each clip, the participants played rounds of the card game Black Jack. Men and women in the porn condition took more risks in the game than the control participants, and self-reported sexual arousal correlated positively with levels of risk-taking in the game. Women were just as inclined to take risks as men, in both the porn and control conditions.

The researchers said their results suggest both men and women are likely to have difficulty making safer sexual decisions when they are caught up in a passionate encounter. "Educating individuals to become more aware of how easily their decision-making abilities could be affected in sexual situations will be the first step in helping them overcome or account for the effects of sexual arousal," the researchers concluded.


Skakoon-Sparling, S., Cramer, K., & Shuper, P. (2015). The Impact of Sexual Arousal on Sexual Risk-Taking and Decision-Making in Men and Women Archives of Sexual Behavior DOI: 10.1007/s10508-015-0589-y

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.

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