On the Human Condition
Volume XXVIII Number 2
Photo courtesy Indiana University
Psyching Out Sex
Scientists know very little about how physiology and psychology combine to make up a person's sexuality. What is the nature of human sexual response? Can a woman regain her apparently lost sexual desire? Can a man learn to resist a tendency to seek new partners even when he has a committed relationship?
Such questions are at the heart of a field called the psychophysiology of sex, a field in which Julia R. Heiman is an expert. A leader for 25 years in sex research and director of The Kinsey Institute for Research in Sex, Gender, and Reproduction at Indiana University Bloomington, Heiman is seeking new answers to questions about what sexuality is and how it is influenced by physical and emotional experiences. By definition, sexuality is both a psychological and physiological experience but, says Heiman, a limited number of studies have used methods that tap both aspects.
The methods of psychophysiology allow researchers to measure the subjective experience of sexual response--how interested, happy, attracted, angry, anxious, or sexually aroused a person feels--while also measuring physiological responses such as genital vasocongestion, heart rate, blood pressure, or expressive muscle movement. Researchers can control conditions and stimuli and observe how people's patterns of subjective and physiological sexual response change accordingly.
"We can understand quite a lot about basic sexual response patterns and when they work and don't work. But we cannot, of course, capture everything about sexuality by studying things experimentally," Heiman says. "We also need other approaches in research to understand the broader implications of sexuality--like what interpersonal elements are prosexual and which are antisexual, and do those differ for women and men? How can people change their sexual patterns, and are some patterns not flexible under any conditions?"
Whether someone will take a sexual risk is another important question. It is likely that sexual risk-taking is driven by cultural and individual tendencies, but researchers would like to clarify more precisely how people will act in a given situation and develop tools to help them control their behaviors.
A 2006 winner of the Masters and Johnson Award from the Society for Sex Therapy and Research, Heiman hopes her research will help men and women understand sex more fully and raise awareness of the important ties sex research has to other medical and social research areas.
"Shouldn't we understand more than just the surface of sexuality, including why it remains an essential sales tool for goods of all kinds?" she says. "How can we deepen our knowledge of what this amazing, essential aspect of the human existence is about? We really understand little about it."
Erick Janssen, associate scientist and director of graduate education at The Kinsey Institute, says Heiman is providing the Kinsey some strong new directions. "I definitely feel that she is helping give the institute's research program a stronger focus on women's sexualities, sexual health, and women and couples," Janssen says.
More research data is crucial to reaching better conclusions about human sexual behavior. One of Heiman's goals is to help people learn about the range of sexual problems arising in relationships, from common problems to sexual violence. A deeper understanding of our human sexual patterns, she says, may lead us toward better, safer, and more enduring relationships.
Nicole Roales is assistant managing editor in the Office of University Communications in Bloomington.