Friday, October 10, 2014

Sexual self-control





Sexual responsiveness is my third of three posts looking at the psychology of sex with a view toward understanding variations in sexuality and what research findings might mean for religious leaders who offer guidance to people about right sexual conduct.  

In addition to research about sexual responsiveness, I look at self-control, offer some thoughts, and suggest questions for those concerned with moral implications.

How do psychological scientists study sexual responding?

Some sex researchers present videos of sexual activity to volunteers in laboratory settings. They obtain physiological measures of sexual responding along with subjective reports of the experience. Information about sexual interest and visual responding can be obtained from eye-tracking technology and the time spent viewing a stimulus. Brain imaging can be used to identify which areas of the brain respond to sexual stimuli. Researchers measure the rigidity, circumference, and erection duration of a penis to determine variations in a man’s physiological response to sexual stimuli (Bancroft, 2010). A woman’s genital response is taken from a probe inserted into the vagina, which measures vasocongestion. The participants’ subjective experience of sexual responses is based on self-reported ratings of items on questionnaires.

A man’s response

The relative specificity of the male response is illustrated in research reported by Meredith Chivers (2010). She and her colleagues found that men experience greater genital arousal and report greater subjective sexual responses when viewing increasingly sexualized content, which included their preferred gender. The agreement between physiological arousal and subjective ratings is an average correlation of 0.66

Correlations range from -1.00 through zero to +1.00. Strong relationships are close to either -1.00 (strong negative relationship) or +1.00 (strong positive relationship).

A woman’s response

A woman’s genital response also increases with sexual content but there is a difference between heterosexual and homosexual women. Heterosexual women responded to both male and female sexual content. But homosexual women showed a stronger genital response to female stimuli.

Subjective responses differed. The subjective arousal reports of heterosexual women did not closely match their genital responses. But there was a close match between subjective sexual arousal and genital arousal for homosexual women.

The average correlation between physiological arousal and subjective reporting is 0.26, which helps demonstrate the considerably less obvious connection between the psychological or mental experience of sexual arousal and the measured genital response for women compared to the correlation for men (0.66).


Women and men respond differently to sexual stimuli. And same sex oriented persons respond differently than do those attracted to persons of the opposite sex. The stronger connection for men might mean that sex education and counseling programs need to be different for men and women and people of different sexual orientations.


Testosterone (T) continues to be a dominant factor in understanding male sexual response. When hypogonadal men are treated with testosterone, penile rigidity increases and the erection persists beyond the presence of a sexual stimulus. The role of T in women’s sexuality is more nuanced. When given T, some women report increased sexual desire but others do not. When women do respond to increased testosterone, the level of T is below the effective level for men (Bancroft, 2010).

[An interesting challenge to T levels is that of Dutee Chand who was banned from competition due to male levels of testosterone. A small percentage of women have high levels of T (Hyperandrogenism). Sports new link. ]

Controlling sexual responses

Bancroft and his colleagues have conducted research that leads to a dual control theory of sexuality. Two brain-based systems are at work—the one is excitatory and the other inhibitory. Not surprisingly, people with low sexual inhibition are more likely to participate in high-risk sexual behavior, which is stronger in those with high levels of sexual excitation. People likely to experience sexual dysfunction were those with high sexual inhibition. And they may have low sexual excitation as well (Bancroft, 2010).

A 2013 study suggested that the reason men may be sexually unfaithful at higher rates than women may have more to do with stronger sexual desire than with differences in self-control. (Link to University of Texas report).

My Thoughts

Human sexual responding varies from person to person and varies within people during a day, month, year, and during a lifespan. Generalizations and stereotypes can be misleading and even harmful. Comments like “women are…” and “men are…” can interfere with helping individuals and couples and the creation of policies and guidelines.

Thinking and responding
Notice the gap between a person’s thoughts about sex and their biological arousal state. And notice how this is different for most men and women. And there are differences for people based on sexual orientation. When making policies or offering advice it is a good idea to realize that what people think is more closely linked to biological reactions for some people more than others. 

As with many aspects of morality, scientific information can help people formulate ethical rules of conduct. But it is not possible to decide how people should or should not behave based on evidence of biopsychological functioning alone.

Advertisements promising improved sexual responding abound. Researchers have found ways to improve functioning for people who desire an increased response or improvement in other areas of difficulty. The most obvious example is medication for erectile dysfunction, which was formerly treated with psychotherapy or other techniques. Most people enjoy sexual activity so it is not surprising that salespeople will take advantage of the uninformed by promising cures for sexual dysfunction and experience enhancements. Like many hopes and wishes based on testimonies (or lies) people can experience some improvement due to the placebo effect.

Self-control is a major factor in morality. To be fair, moral rules require the same behavior of all persons. But people vary in their levels of sexual excitation and inhibition, which are the components of self-control. One may hypothesize that stricter moral rules will result in more noncompliance.

Put another way:

Some people’s biological status will make it easier for them to live a more saintly life.

Test the hypothesis- people with low sex drive will on average demonstrate a more saintly life than those with high sex drive when sexual purity and sexual self-control are markers of saintliness.

Self-control is an important area of research related to morality. Here's a link to more information. A scientist who has published much research on the subject is Roy Baumeister.

Questions for religious leaders

I have added some questions focused on people in the Christian religion because that is the religion I know best. I also focus on those with conservative Christian beliefs because they express most concern about sexual purity and high levels of compliance with sexual codes of ethics. I invite knowledgeable readers to offer suggestions for those from other faiths concerned with the regulation of sexual behavior.

Christian leaders often encourage unmarried persons to control their thoughts about sex. But biological sexual arousal can lead to sexual thoughts and related feelings. This can be confusing to those who fail to control their thoughts despite great effort. There’s more to self-control than thought control. What aspects of one’s environment might help control sexual behavior?

The gap between thinking and self-control has been obvious for centuries – I wonder if the Apostle Paul’s comment in Romans reflects this gap?

Christian youth often feel guilty about their sexual behavior in conservative groups that preach sexual purity—essentially meaning no sex outside of marriage. How might forgiveness be helpful –especially for people in those Christian groups prone to condemnation?

How can awareness of same-sex attraction help Christians offer better advice? Christians encourage others to draw on God’s strength to help with personal problems. But they also encourage getting help from others. One source suggested being accountable to “a mature Christian of the same sex…” Does the sex of the helper make a difference for people with different sexual orientations?

Read more about sexuality, morality, and Christian cultures in A House Divided available from the publisher PICKWICK and other stores e.g.,  AMAZON

Related Posts

Bancroft, J. (2010). Sexual desire and the brain revisited. Sexual and Relationship Therapy, 25, 166-171.

Chivers, M. L. (2010). A brief update on the specificity of sexual arousal. Sexual and Relationship Therapy, 25, 407-414.

 Also see the intext links to articles.

1 comment:

  1. Excellent article. Very interesting to read. I really love to read such a nice article. Thanks! keep rocking. blog commenting