Neural Responses to Sexual Stimuli in Heterosexual and Homosexual Men and Women: Men’s Responses Are More Specific

Adam Safron*, David Sylva, Victoria Klimaj, A. M. Rosenthal, J. Michael Bailey

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

9 Scopus citations


Patterns of genital arousal in response to gendered sexual stimuli (i.e., sexual stimuli presenting members of only one sex at a time) are more predictive of men’s than of women’s sexual orientations. Additional lines of evidence may shed light on the nature of these differences. We measured neural activation in homosexual and heterosexual men and women using fMRI while they viewed three kinds of gendered sexual stimuli: pictures of nude individuals, pictures of same-sex couples interacting, and videos of individuals self-stimulating. The primary neural region of interest was the ventral striatum (VS), an area of central importance for reward processing. For all three kinds of stimuli and for both VS activation and self-report, men’s responses were more closely related to their sexual orientations compared with women’s. Furthermore, men showed a much greater tendency to respond more positively to stimuli featuring one sex than to stimuli featuring the other sex, leading to higher correlations among men’s responses as well as higher correlations between men’s responses and their sexual orientations. Whole-brain analyses identified several other regions showing a similar pattern to the VS, and none showed an opposite pattern. Because fMRI is measured identically in men and women, our results provide the most direct evidence to date that men’s sexual arousal patterns are more gender specific than women’s.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)433-445
Number of pages13
JournalArchives of Sexual Behavior
Issue number2
StatePublished - Feb 1 2020


  • Category specificity
  • Reward
  • Sex differences
  • Sexual arousal
  • Sexual orientation
  • Ventral striatum
  • fMRI

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Arts and Humanities (miscellaneous)
  • Psychology(all)


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