The Sympathetic Nervous System and Women’s Sexual Arousal

For over 30 years, clinicians, researchers, and theorists in the field of human sexuality have worked largely under the assumption that the SNS plays an inhibitory role, and the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) plays a facilitatory role in initiating and maintaining the early stages of sexual arousal. In women, this assumption has been based primarily on analogies that have been drawn between the erectile response in men and the vasocongestive response in women. Together with colleagues, I have conducted a series of human and animal studies that were designed to help understand autonomic nervous system influences on female sexual arousal.  The effects of SNS activation on sexual arousal were assessed in five studies using intense acute exercise (Meston & Gorzalka 1995; 1996a; 1996b; Rellini & Meston, 2006; Hamilton, Fogle, & Meston, 2009), and in two studies using ephedrine (Meston & Heiman, 1998; Meston, 2004), to activate the SNS. I have also examined the effects of SNS inhibition on sexual responses in both animals (Meston, Moe, & Gorzalka, 1996), and humans (Meston, Gorzalka, & Wright, 1997) using various agents known to suppress SNS activation. The findings from these studies suggest that, contrary to assumptions held for over three decades, SNS activation does not simply impair sexual arousal in women. Rather, it appears that a certain level of SNS activation may in fact be necessary for women’s physiological sexual arousal. In 2012, using heart rate variability (a specific and sensitive marker of SNS activation) and vaginal pulse amplitude (a measure of genital arousal) we demonstrated that moderate increases in SNS activity were associated with higher genital arousal, while very low or very high SNS activation was associated with lower genital arousal (Lorenz, Harte, Hamilton, & Meston, 2012). In 2015, we assessed the feasibility of using HRV as an index of women’s self-reported sexual arousal function outside the laboratory. Sexual arousal function, overall sexual function, and resting HRV were assessed in 72 women, aged 18–39. Women with below average HRV were significantly more likely to report sexual arousal dysfunction and overall sexual dysfunction than both women with average HRV and women with above average HRV. The findings suggest HRV may be a risk factor for female sexual arousal dysfunction and overall sexual dysfunction (Stanton, Lorenz, Pulverman, & Meston, 2015).

Recommended papers: 

Stanton, A. M., Lorenz, T. A., Pulverman, C. S., & Meston, C. M. (2015). Heart rate variability: A risk factor for female sexual dysfunction. Applied Psychophysiology and Biofeedback, 40(3), 229-237. PDF (502 KB)

Lorenz, T. A., Harte, C. B., Hamilton, L. D., Meston, C. M. (2012). Evidence for a curvilinear relationship between sympathetic nervous system activation and women’s physiological sexual arousal. Psychophysiology, 49, 111-117PDF (152 KB)