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Factors involved in sexual desire: environmental cues and their impact

Since the initial clinical description of sexual desire problems in the 1970s, increasing numbers of people have reported difficulties in this area of sexual functioning. Reports on treatment efficacy point to the difficulties in treating these disorders. One possible reason for the lack of clearly efficacious treatments might be the limited understanding of this phenomenon we call sexual desire, and the factors that affect it. The present project utilized a package of self-report measures to investigate participants’ sexual desire, and other personal characteristics such as sexual anxiety, mood, mood awareness, body esteem, and social desirability - qualities previously suggested as relating to sexual desire. These measures were combined in two of the studies with tasks involving differentiated responding to pictorial and semantic stimuli. Participants completed picture ratings and recognition tasks involving sexual, neutral, non-sexual and unpleasant slides from the International Affective Picture System. One experiment also included lexical decision tasks involving romantic, neutral, and sexual words to ascertain whether this paradigm offered additional information about how responding in persons with varying levels of sexual desire might differ. The combination of survey and information processing techniques enabled an exploration of some of the fundamental responses hitherto assumed to be associated with variation in libido, but not previously demonstrated empirically. The main hypothesis tested was that persons with low self-report sexual desire respond differently to cues of a sexual nature than do other people. The findings suggest that mood, as determined using the Positive and Negative Affect Schedule was not significantly correlated with sexual desire levels, but sexual anxiety was strongly correlated. Those with lower levels of self-reported sexual desire also recorded lower levels of mood awareness. Individuals reporting low sexual desire completed picture recognition tasks more quickly, but the lexical decision tasks were carried out more slowly. A further ancillary finding from these tasks was that there was a significant delay in time taken by all participants to respond to the sexual pictures in the recognition task compared to responses to the other types of pictures. There was a delay in the lexical decision task with respect to sexual words too, but this did not reach statistically significant levels. These tasks did not provide a useful means of differentiating persons of varying sexual desire levels. Sexual desire levels were found to significantly affect the ratings given sexual, but not any other type of pictures in this protocol. Interest ratings varied with desire levels, and ratings given sexual words with respect to emotional content were also significantly different for those with varying desire levels. These aspects of the protocol yielded the most meaningful results. Overall, this project has demonstrated the principal hypothesis—that people with lower sexual desire respond differently to cues of a sexual nature. It has also clarified the relationships between the measures employed, in a volunteer non-clinical sample, and suggests an approach for further investigating the phenomenon of sexual desire in a clinically diagnosed population. Expansion of the picture rating aspects of the experiment could yield a greater understanding of desire and how problems in this area are manifest, and therefore best treated.
Type of thesis
The University of Waikato
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