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J Sex Med. 2012 Sep;9(9):2315-29. doi: 10.1111/j.1743-6109.2012.02845.x. Epub 2012 Jul 12.

Sexual arousal and desire: interrelations and responses to three modalities of sexual stimuli.

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Department of Psychology, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, MI 48109, USA.



Traditionally, sexual desire is understood to occur spontaneously, but more recent models propose that desire responds to sexual stimuli.


To experimentally assess whether sexual stimuli increased sexual desire; to compare how sexual arousal and desire responded to three modalities of sexual stimuli: erotic story, unstructured fantasy, and the Imagined Social Situation Exercise (ISSE).


In an online study, participants (128 women, 98 men) were randomly assigned to one of four arousal conditions (ISSE, story, fantasy, or neutral), and then completed desire measures. In the ISSE, participants imagined and wrote about a positive sexual encounter with a self-defined attractive person.


Sexual arousal (perceived genital, psychological, and perceived autonomic), anxiety, positive and negative affect, and state sexual desire via self-report measures pre- and post-condition; "trait" desire via the Sexual Desire Inventory post-condition.


All three sexual conditions significantly increased sexual arousal and positive affect compared with the neutral condition, with trends for higher arousal to unstructured fantasy than the ISSE or story conditions. Sexual conditions significantly increased scores on state measures of sexual desire. In addition, sexual context influenced measurement of "trait" solitary sexual desire in women, such that women reported significantly higher trait desire after the neutral and ISSE conditions vs. fantasy.


Results highlight the responsiveness of sexual desire, problems with measurement of desire as a long-term trait, trade-offs of using the ISSE and other stimuli in sexuality research, and the need to address context in discussions of women's and men's desire.

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