Sexual arousal does not appear to significantly reduce pain intensity or increase pain tolerance in women, according to new research published in The Journal of Sex Research, challenging previous studies primarily conducted on men. This discrepancy may be due to the erotic stimulus also evoking feelings of disgust or potential sex differences in the opioid system during arousal.
Prior experimental studies had yielded mixed results regarding the relationship between sexual arousal and pain in women. While some studies suggested that pleasurable sexual activity reduced pain, others found no significant effect. The researchers wanted to investigate these inconsistencies and build upon previous findings to gain a better understanding of how sexual arousal might influence pain perception.
“I am interested in pain-related sexual dysfunction in women, and specifically what mechanisms might be maintaining or exacerbating the pain, and which might help reduce the pain,” said study author Lara Lakhsassi, a joint Ph.D candidate at the University of Groningen and the University of Hamburg. “A substantial amount of women have, or have had, difficulty experiencing feelings of reward and enjoyment during sex, in some cases even experiencing uncomfortable pain as well as (or, instead of) pleasure.”
“I was drawn to exploring potential emotional factors underlying sexual pain, and assessing how they interact and impact pain, with the goal of understanding more about pain reduction and possibly finding clues for useful targets of treatment. As a team, we wanted to focus on two prominent and opposing emotions that are often elicited during sex: sexual arousal and disgust.”
The researchers conducted a study involving 163 female participants. These participants were exposed to different emotional stimuli while engaging in a cold pressor test (CPT), a common method to induce pain perception. Three film stimuli were used to induce sexual arousal, a neutral state, or disgust. These included an erotic film, a neutral film featuring a train, and a disgust-inducing video involving vomiting and gagging. All films had a maximum duration of six minutes.
Previous research in this area had some limitations, including the lack of measurements for cold pressor test duration and disgust. The current study sought to address these limitations by including these measurements.
“This study is a replication and extension of the previous Lakhsassi et al. (2022) study, titled ‘The influence of sexual arousal on subjective pain intensity during a cold pressor test in women,’” Lakhsassi noted.
In their new study, the researchers observed that when participants were exposed to stimuli designed to evoke feelings of disgust, it didn’t lead to a significant increase in how painful they perceived the experience to be. In simpler terms, the disgust-inducing stimulus didn’t make the participants say that the pain felt more severe.
However, what the researchers did find was that the same disgust-inducing stimulus was linked to a reduced ability to endure or tolerate the pain for an extended duration. In other words, people didn’t necessarily describe the pain as worse in terms of how it felt (pain intensity), but they were more likely to pull their hand out of the cold water sooner (pain tolerance).
Contrary to expectations, the researchers did not find a significant link between sexual arousal and reduced pain intensity or increased pain tolerance in women. This result challenged previous studies that hinted at a connection between sexual arousal and pain relief but were primarily conducted on men.
One key element that might have contributed to the unexpected findings was the nature of the erotic stimulus used in the study. While it was meant to induce sexual arousal, it also elicited substantial levels of disgust. This ambivalence in emotional response could have interfered with the expected pain-modulating effect of sexual arousal.
Lakhsassi outlined two main takeaways from the findings: “First, this study corroborates previous findings showing that sex stimuli can elicit both sexual arousal and disgust in women, two emotions that can hinder one another depending on which is most prominent. Second, while previous evidence depicts that masturbation and orgasm can greatly reduce pain in both women and men, there is no evidence that feelings of sexual arousal (that is, exclusive of masturbation or orgasm) can reduce pain in women.”
“We speculate that, perhaps, the lack of an effect could possibly be due to participants simultaneously experiencing negative emotions as well as sexual arousal, thereby hindering the pain-reducing effect that sexual arousal might otherwise have. Alternatively, the lack of an effect in women could also potentially be due to sex differences in the opioid system during sexual arousal (again alluding to subjective sexual arousal, exclusive of masturbation or orgasm). Further research would be necessary to answer these questions.”
As with any study, there are limitations to consider. For instance, the films used in the study might not have been ideal for a female audience, as they escalated quickly into explicit content. Future research could benefit from using films designed specifically for women to minimize negative emotions while studying the influence of sexual arousal on pain.
“The study was designed to test how subjective sexual arousal and disgust might impact pain in general,” Lakhsassi noted. “Accordingly, we used a cold pressor on the hand to induce pain. It could be, of course, that genital pressure pain might respond differently to sexual arousal and disgust than cold pain on the hand does. Similarly, we tested the effect of general disgust on pain, and not sex-related disgust.”
The new study, “The Influence of Subjective Sexual Arousal and Disgust on Pain“, was authored by Lara Lakhsassi, Charmaine Borg, and Peter J. de Jong.