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Genital arousal and responsive desire among women with and without sexual interest/arousal disorder symptoms.

BACKGROUND: Models depicting sexual desire as responsive to sexual arousal may be particularly apt for women experiencing arousal or desire difficulties, and the degree to which arousal triggers desire may depend on the relationship context and desire target and timing-yet, these associations have not been directly tested among women with and without sexual interest/arousal disorder (SIAD).

AIM: To assess the role of SIAD status and relationship satisfaction in the associations between genital arousal and 4 types of responsive desire.

METHODS: One hundred women (n = 27 meeting diagnostic criteria for SIAD) in romantic relationships with men viewed a sexual film (pleasurable intimate depiction of oral sex and penile-vaginal intercourse) while their genital arousal was recorded via vaginal photoplethysmography (n = 63) or thermal imaging of the labia (n = 37). Partner and solitary desire was assessed immediately before and after the film (immediate desire) and 3 days later (delayed desire).

OUTCOMES: Outcomes consisted of genital response (z scored by method) and associations between genital response and responsive sexual desire.

RESULTS: The key difference between women with and without SIAD was not in their ability to experience genital arousal but in how their genital responses translated to responsive sexual desire. Women with SIAD actually exhibited greater genital arousal than unaffected women. Associations between genital arousal and desire were significant only for women with SIAD and depended on relationship satisfaction and desire type. For women with SIAD with low relationship satisfaction, higher arousal predicted lower immediate desire for a partner; for those with high relationship satisfaction, arousal was either positively related (vaginal photoplethysmography) or unrelated (thermal imaging of the labia) to immediate desire for a partner. Associations with other desire types were not significant.

CLINICAL IMPLICATIONS: Patterns of genital arousal and partner-specific responsive desire among women affected with SIAD were indicative of an avoidance model in response to heightened genital arousal, unless relationship satisfaction was high; attending to genital arousal sensations could be a means of triggering sexual desire for women with SIAD who are satisfied in their relationships.

STRENGTHS AND LIMITATIONS: This is one of the first sexual psychophysiologic studies to connect relationship factors to patterns of sexual response. The differing arousal assessment procedures and lack of official diagnosis may have attenuated results. The homogeneous sample and in-person session requirement limit generalizability.

CONCLUSION: When compared with unaffected women, women affected by SIAD may exhibit stronger arousal responses with sufficiently incentivized sexual stimuli, and the connection between their genital arousal and responsive desire for their partners may be stronger and more dependent on relationship context.

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