Women’s Sexual Response: Mapped Out on the Brain

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An innovative new study examined women's sexual response by mapping it on the brain using fMRI technology.

Twisted Brain

Photo: hurleygurley on Flikr

New insights into women's sexual response come from brain imaging.

An incredibly interesting study has recently been published by Dr. Barry Komisaruk and colleagues in the Journal of Sexual Medicine. The paper, titled “Women’s clitoris, vagina, and cervix mapped out on the sensory cortex: fMRI evidence”, sought to elucidate the neural systems under women’s sexual response using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI).

This is the first study to decode the precise locations on the brain’s sensory cortex that correspond to the vagina, cervix, and nipples of women.

The Findings

The study found that vaginal stimulation and clitoral stimulation activate different brain regions. This is interesting, because it can add to the argument that penetration is different than clitoral stimulation in terms of sexual response. Although this study didn’t examine orgasm, it would be interesting to apply this finding to the controversial literature on whether there are different “types” of female orgasm (sometimes referred to as “external vs. internal” or “shallow vs. deep”).

The study also found a direct link between genital response and nipple stimulation. A lot of women report feeling arousal from stimulation of the nipples, some even reporting orgasm from nipple stimulation alone, and this study helps to explain that. The authors stated this finding has implications for women who may have experienced nerve damage during childbirth or due to disease. Understanding the link between sexual response and the sensory cortex allows us to understand how women who have experienced nerve damage can still experience sexual pleasure.

Advancements

Not only does this study contribute to the literature in the ways mentioned above, but it also advances our understanding of women’s sexual functioning. Compared to our understanding of men’s sexual functioning, we know very little about women. Using fMRI technology, this study has given us insight into how women’s brain, objectively, is related to sexual response.

Study Reference: Komisaruk, B.R., Wise, N., Frangos, E., Liu, W., Allen, K., & Brody, S. (2011). Women’s clitoris, vagina, and cervix mapped out on the sensory cortex: fMRI evidence. Journal of Sexual Medicine, DOI: 10.1111/j.1743-6109.2011.02388.x.

Kristen Mark, PhD, MPH

completed her PhD in Health Behavior and her MPH in Biostatistics, both at Indiana University. Kristen is an Assistant Professor in Health Promotion at University of Kentucky. Kristen's research focuses on sexual pleasure, sexuality in long term relationships, sexual function, and women's sexuality.
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