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Inhibition Plays Role in New Model of Sexual Arousal

Fall 1997
[Photo of Erick Janssen]

For many years, researchers have viewed sexual arousal as an on-or-off mechanism based on excitation. But a new model of sexual response in men developed at The Kinsey Institute suggests that a parallel system of inhibition, along with excitation, influences sexual arousal. "Our research starts from the premise that the balance between excitation and inhibition determines whether there is a sexual response," says Dr. Erick Janssen, an assistant scientist at The Kinsey Institute.

In exploring this model, Janssen and Kinsey Institute Director John Bancroft, M.D., are involved in psychophysiological research -- a new area of inquiry for the institute. This research looks at both the physiological responses of a subject, such as changes in heart rate and blood pressure, as well as genital response and the subject's own report of sexual arousal. In the institute's new psychophysiology laboratory, researchers use the latest in data-gathering technologies, including a Portapres to measure blood pressure on each heart beat, and a RigiScan to measure the circumference and rigidity of the penis. Janssen and Bancroft then relate this data to an individual's propensity for excitation or inhibition as determined by a questionnaire that they developed with Peter Finn, associate professor of psychology at IU Bloomington.

Not only do their results indicate that inhibition plays an important role in sexual response, but the data also suggest that there are two distinct inhibition factors involved. One, referred to as "inhibition due to the threat of performance failure," involves the subject's concern about losing sexual arousal, pleasing a partner, or experiencing distractions. The other factor, "inhibition due to the threat of performance consequences," includes concerns aobut the risk of being caught while engaged in sex, negative consequences of sex, such as contracting a sexually transmitted disease, or isssues of physical pain or violating social norms such as having sex with a partner who is too young.

In a recent study, subjects who had scored high or low on inhibition scales as a result of the questionnaire were shown two kinds of films, one set with consensual sex and another set with coercive sex. The high and low inhibition groups did not differ in their genital responses to films of consensual sex. The two groups differed significantly, however, in their responses to films that were sexually threatening. The group rating low in inhibition showed a greater erectile response to the sexually threatening films. The researchers also found that the low inhibition group in general reported higher levels of sexual arousal.

In future research, Janssen and Bancroft plan to extend these studies to include specific subject groups, such as high-risk subjects and men with sexual dysfunctions, focusing on both excitation and inhibition. And eventually, they plan to explore the relevance of their measures to sexual risk taking.

"At this point, we can speculate that men who score high on the inhibition-proneness continuum may be more vulnerable to developing sexual dysfunction, while men who score low on inhibition are more inclined to engage in high-risk sexual behavior," Janssen says. "This research is opening up a new research agenda that may help us understand why some people participate in unsafe sexual practices even though they are aware of the risks."

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