Sexual arousal: Sex matters

October 5, 2017

When it comes to sex, women are faced with a lack of hard facts. Consider the existence of an anatomical area known as the Gräfenberg spot (G-spot). Eleventh-century Indian texts and Cosmopolitan magazine seem sure it exists, and imaging studies of blood flow support its existence, but other studies find little evidence for it.

 

Similarly, some evolutionary biologists think that the female orgasm has been influential in natural selection, helping sperm to travel upstream. But others view it as more like the male nipple — something that owes its existence to strong selective forces acting only on the opposite sex.

Researchers still lack a consensus on even the most basic questions: does a woman's sexual desire exist independently of arousal, or is desire just the conscious awareness of physiological readiness for sex?

 

But there is one thing that scientists do agree on: research into women's psychological and physiological experiences of sex, and associated problems, has played second fiddle to equivalent work in men. Although a few other areas of biology and medicine also give women short shrift, the difference in sex research is compounded by cultural uneasiness at the idea of a woman's sexuality being distinct from her fertility. It has not helped that women lack an arousal marker that is as simple to measure as a penile erection.

 

Some progress has been made, helped by committed individuals including Richard von Krafft-Ebing in the late nineteenth century, and William Masters and Virginia Johnson in the 1960s. It has been known for some time that women's sexual desire and arousal can be shaped by early life experiences, various common maladies, and several widely prescribed medications. But rigorous exploration of the mechanisms underlying these associations — and how, therefore, women's sex lives might be improved — has only recently begun.

 

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