When it comes to turn-ons, men's physical and mental reactions are remarkably in sync with each other. Not necessarily so for women, according to a study published online in the Archives of Sexual Behavior.
"Many, many research articles report low concordance in women - significantly lower than that of men," said lead author Meredith Chivers in an interview. "We wanted to evaluate the literature [and] isolate other factors that might affect this concordance between the mind and the body in sexual response."
The study examined 132 research articles dating as far back as 1969 and as recently as 2007. In these studies, women and men were presented with sexual stimuli then asked to judge their state of arousal. This was compared with physiological data, often collected by measuring blood flow in the genitalia.
Women often showed a physical response to a stimulus, but didn't report actually feeling turned on. But if women were shown sexual stimuli in a variety of media - films, stories, sexual fantasies - the gap between mind and body narrowed.
"If we look at men as a group and women as a group, there's a difference in the way they integrate sexual information," said the assistant professor in the Department of Psychology at Queen's University in Kingston, Ontario.
Women's bodies also seemed to automatically respond to a broader spectrum of stimuli than men's did, even if they didn't report finding those stimuli attractive.
"With respect to sexual orientation, heterosexual women show substantial genital responses to male and female sexual stimuli," the study's authors wrote, "whereas heterosexual men show greater genital responses to female stimuli and homosexual men show greater genital responses to male stimuli."
The study said additional work could help scientists in future studies identify and address the causes of sexual dysfunction, particularly in women.
"Do women who report better sexual functioning also demonstrate higher concordance between psychological and physiological responses? Indirect evidence suggests this might be the case," the study said.
Since men's bodies often reveal their state of arousal, investigators could use that information to detect sexual offenders, the study's authors said. "Phallometric testing is useful in the assessment of men who have sexually offended against children but deny any sexual attraction to children, or to assess men who have committed rape but deny any sexual interest in coercive sex."
At one point, the researcher said, the team turned the question on its head: Why do men's minds and bodies tend to agree on what's sexy? The study pointed to the obvious - an erection is easy to spot - and also considered the possibility that women may not report (or perhaps even perceive) arousal due to cultural taboos.
Some research asked study participants to evaluate their arousal after the fact, while others asked the question in the heat of the moment. For men who were asked on the spot, they reported feeling less aroused than their physical response would indicate - whereas for women there was little or no effect, Chivers said. "It probably serves as a distraction," she theorized.
Points for women's multitasking capabilities? Chivers couldn't say.
"The important information coming out of this is educating women that their feelings of sexual arousal may or may not be tied to their physical state," Chivers said. "That's important for partners of women to know as well.
"Just because a woman is responding physiologically doesn't mean she's interested in having sex."