Does Subliminal Exposure to Sexual Stimuli Have the Same Effects on Men and Women?

Article excerpt

The nature of sexual arousal has concerned researchers for years. Ever since Freud (1935, 1949, 1950), researchers have tried to determine what accounts for individual differences in arousal reactions to sexual stimuli (e.g., Barlow, Sakheim, & Beck, 1983; Basson, 2002; Carmen, 1992; Green & Mosher, 1985). Responses to sexual stimuli are often complex, because they are determined by various presumably innate processes as well as cultural prohibitions and personal history. Sexual stimuli can evoke anxiety, shame, or guilt, which can inhibit or interfere with sexual arousal. Recently, Janssen, Everaerd, Spiering, and Janssen (2000) proposed and presented evidence for a conceptual model of implicit and explicit processing of sexual stimuli. However, both the model and the empirical studies supporting it focused mainly on male sexuality. Consequently, there is only a minimal amount of evidence concerning the applicability of the model to women's sexual arousal (Spiering, Everaerd, & Laan, 2004). The purpose of the studies reported here was to further explore the generalizability of Janssen et al.'s (2000) model to both men and women by examining gender differences in the effects of exposure to subliminal sexual stimuli.

Sexual arousal is a complex phenomenon involving physiological, psychological (cognitive and affective), and behavioral responses (Rosen & Beck, 1988). Each kind of response seems to be activated by a particular kind of stimulus or aspect of a complex stimulus, and the different kinds of response are not perfectly coordinated or synchronized. For example, whereas genital responses (e.g., changes in penile circumference, amplitude of vaginal pulse) are easily elicited by a wide variety of sexual stimuli (e.g., Cranston-Cuebas & Barlow, 1990; Heiman & Rowland, 1983; Laan & Everaerd, 1995), self-reports of sexual arousal (e.g., Mosher's multiple indicators; Mosher, Barton-Henry, & Green, 1988) are affected by situational factors (the presence of other people, laboratory versus bedroom context, romantic versus nonromantic context, etc.) and may indicate low arousal even when genital responses are strong (e.g., Janssen, Everaerd, van Lunsen, & Oerlemans, 1994; Laan, Everaerd, Bellen, & Hanewald, 1994; see Laan & Everaerd, 1995, for a review). Such differences suggest that different kinds of responses to sexual stimuli are attributable to different mechanisms (e.g., Bancroft, 1989).

Although scholars (e.g., Barlow, 1986; Byrne, 1977; Palace, 1995) have recognized the complexities of physiological and psychological responses to sexual stimuli, few have explained the different mechanisms underlying this complexity. In one such effort, Janssen et al. (2000) proposed an information processing model explaining how the various kinds of sexual responses depend on the joint action of automatic and controlled mental processes (see also, Geer & Janssen, 2000; Janssen & Everaerd, 1993). According to their model, automatic or pre-attentive processes form a major pathway to sexual arousal, which enables fast recognition of the sexual meaning of a stimulus and the generation of automatic, uncontrolled, and at least partially unconscious cognitive responses (e.g., increased cognitive availability of sex-related concepts) and physiological responses (e.g., blood flow to the genitals). This primary pathway can be modified by controlled, deliberate mental processes, which occur at a higher cognitive level and are thought to be relatively slow, more resource-consuming, and at least partially conscious. These mental processes follow from the activation of sex-relevant nodes in a person's semantic association network (including, for example, sexual schemas, sexual memories, and mental representations of sex-related cultural norms), and they determine the evaluative valence (positive or negative) attached to a particular sexual stimulus and the extent to which the automatic arousal responses are acknowledged in conscious experiences of sexual arousal and sexual urges. …