Subcortical BOLD responses during visual sexual stimulation vary as a function of implicit porn associations in women


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Abstract

Lifetime experiences shape people’s attitudes toward sexual stimuli. Visual sexual stimulation (VSS), for instance, may be perceived as pleasurable by some, but as disgusting or ambiguous by others. VSS depicting explicit penile–vaginal penetration (PEN) is relevant in this respect, because the act of penetration is a core sexual activity. In this study, 20 women without sexual complaints participated. We used functional magnetic resonance imaging and a single-target implicit association task to investigate how brain responses to PEN were modulated by the initial associations in memory (PEN-‘hot’ vs PEN-disgust) with such hardcore pornographic stimuli. Many brain areas responded to PEN in the same way they responded to disgust stimuli, and PEN-induced brain activity was prone to modulation by subjective disgust ratings toward PEN stimuli. The relative implicit PEN-disgust (relative to PEN-‘hot’) associations exclusively modulated PEN-induced brain responses: comparatively negative (PEN-disgust) implicit associations with pornography predicted the strongest PEN-related responses in the basal forebrain (including nucleus accumbens and bed nucleus of stria terminalis), midbrain and amygdala. Since these areas are often implicated in visual sexual processing, the present findings should be taken as a warning: apparently their involvement may also indicate a negative or ambivalent attitude toward sexual stimuli.

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