Why Some Men Can't Control Arousal

Is sex a state of mind? A recent study from the University of British Columbia finds that while most men can regulate their physical and mental sexual arousal to some degree, the men most able to do so are able to control their other emotions as well.

“We suspect that if an individual is good at regulating one type of emotional response, he/she is probably good at regulating other emotional responses,” says Jason Winters, the study’s research head. “This has never been shown before.”

The study employed 16 randomly ordered video clips. Eight were erotic, and eight were funny (specifically, the funny video clips featured the least sexy comedian the researchers could find: Mitch Hedberg). Participants were instructed to control their response to certain videos, and simply to watch the others. They then rated their arousal following each clip, and were hooked up to machines that measured their erections.

Researchers wanted to know: Could men control sexual arousal, fooling both themselves and others?

“I’m trained in forensic psychology, and the original plan was to do this study with sexual offenders,” Winters tells LiveScience. “However, I needed to first establish that there is range of sexual arousal regulation abilities in the general male population.”

Indeed, participants were, on average, able to regulate their physiological sexual arousal when told to do so; in fact, they showed a 25 percent reduction in erectile response. “This is consistent with success rates from previous, well-controlled [measuring-device] faking studies in which success rates range from 26 to 38 percent,” Winters writes in his study.

The range of regulation abilities had nothing to do with age, sexual experience, or sexual compulsivity. However, sexual excitation, inhibition, and desire were related to regulation success: Men who were more easily excited were, unsurprisingly, less able to regulate; guys who tended to be sexually inhibited because of performance issues were better able to stave off an erection.

Furthermore, the study found that the men who were best able to control their response to the pornographic videos were also able to control their response to Mitch Hedberg. But for those who had difficulty regulating, reverse psychology could be to blame.

“The finding that was most surprising was that some men became more sexually aroused when they tried to regulate their sexual arousal,” Winters says. “In other words, they responded more strongly (both physiologically and self-reported) during trials in which they attempted to regulate their arousal than trials during which they merely watched the stimuli. We attributed this increased response to anxiety — in this case, demand anxiety. It’s sort of like when you tell someone not to think of a white elephant; those [who] are most anxious during the task have the most trouble not thinking about the white elephant.”

The study’s findings could have significant implications.

“The next step is to do a similar study with sexual offenders,” Winters says. “I suspect that sexual offenders will generally be very poor regulators, and that poor regulation is one of the factors that contributes to their offending.”