Canadian Journal of Behavioural Science / Revue canadienne des sciences du comportement

Vol 45(3), Jul 2013, 274-285

Dawson, Samantha J.; Lalumière, Martin L.; Allen, Scott W.; Vasey, Paul L.; Suschinsky, Kelly D.


Studies investigating men and women separately suggest a sex difference in the habituation of genital responses to sexual stimuli: Men’s responses habituate readily whereas women’s responses appear more resistant. These studies also demonstrate that attention is positively correlated with habituation effects when they occur. The preparation hypothesis asserts that women’s genital responses occur automatically in the presence of sexual cues to protect them from injuries that may occur as a result of penetration. It follows that women may not habituate as much as men because the costs of not responding to sexual cues are likely higher for women than they are for men. In a recent study we found similar and pronounced habituation effects for genital responses and self-reported attention in men and in women.

The aims of the current study were to examine whether habituation can be elicited when attention is maintained and if a sex difference would be observed. Thirty-six men and women were presented with 14 audiovisual stimuli following a within-subjects habituation design. Genital responses were measured using circumferential phallometry and vaginal photoplethysmography. Poststimulus ratings of sexual arousal and attention were recorded.

Results showed habituation of genital but not subjective sexual responses in both sexes. Participants reported a high degree of attention across habituation trials, but controlling for changes in attention eliminated habituation effects for genital responses. The role of attention in sexual responses and the implications of our findings for the preparation hypothesis are discussed.