Scientists scanned people’s brains while they watched porn and found that men and women got equally turned on

Some data indicates that women's use of porn is increasing.

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Some data indicates that women’s use of porn is increasing.
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Milan Ilic Photographer/Shutterstock

  • When it comes to pornography, men make up the bulk of consumers, but new research suggests that’s not because they’re more aroused by it.
  • Researchers analyzed previous brain scans from 1,850 people and found that men and women, regardless of sexual orientation, had equal levels of brain arousal when shown erotic videos and photos.
  • It’s possible that women watch less porn because of societal norms, not because their brains react differently.
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Women watch only half as much pornography as men do, according to data from the Institute for Family Studies. But new research, published Wednesday in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, suggests that’s not because women are less aroused by erotica.

For the study, researchers analyzed brain scans of 1,850 people who’d participated in 61 previous studies, all of which measured brain activity in relation to “erotic visual stimuli,” like videos and photos. They found that men and women, regardless of sexual orientation, had equal levels of brain arousal when shown erotic videos and photos.

“It follows, that in contrast to common beliefs and reports of previous studies, our analysis demonstrates that there is no functional dimorphism in response to visual sexual stimuli between men and women,” the study authors wrote.

Porn activated multiple areas of both men and women’s brains

In all the studies evaluated, both men and women were shown sexual videos or images while having their brains scanned in an MRI machine, and researchers noticed that eight regions of their brains reacted. When the subjects were shown neutral images, like landscapes, however, those brain areas didn’t react as much.

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The researchers also found that erotic pictures caused the brain to activate more receptors than erotic videos did, although they were unable to pinpoint why that was.

Previous research suggested men enjoy porn more than women

We know that men consume more porn than women, and previous studies suggested that was because they like it more. But those studies relied on survey-based responses, asking subjects to rate how much they became aroused by various erotic images. Men tended to rate the images as more arousing than the women did.

Only one previous study, published in March 2014, looked at how women’s brains play a role in arousal when viewing porn, but it focused on women with hypoactive sexual desire disorder, a condition in which people’s lack of sexual desire makes them feel distressed. The researchers’ findings suggested women who had more gray matter, or the cells that provide nutrients and energy for daily bodily functions, were able to get more sexually aroused than those with less gray matter.

This new study gives a more accurate representation of how healthy men and women react to porn – at least at the neurological level.

Still, the study had some caveats. Since the researchers looked at the brain as a whole, it’s possible the brain imaging system missed smaller brain reactions that could have shown a difference between how men and women react to porn. Specifically, men and women’s brain cells could be acting differently, but those results aren’t viewable with the tools researchers used in this study, Dr. Hamid Noori, lead study author, told New Scientist.

Additionally, the exact contents of the erotic videos and images varied among the studies, and since different people are turned on by different types of porn, this factor could have influenced the study’s final results.

Nonetheless, Noori’s study suggests our ideas about who enjoys porn could be based largely off of societal expectations rather than desire. “Men and women respond the same way at the brain level to visual sexual stimuli,” he said. “What we do with it afterwards is what brings the difference.”