Prof. Tuuli Kukkonen

Rowan Atkinson may be a little disappointed to hear this, but women don’t find his Mr. Bean character sexy.

Neither do men.

In fact, assistant professor Tuuli Kukkonen was able to use clips from his show as one of the “controls” when she tested her newly-developed approach to measuring sexual arousal.

Kukkonen, a new Guelph professor in the Department of Family Relations and Applied Nutrition, used thermographic imaging to measure changes in the temperature of the genitals of both men and women as they watched a variety of videos: an erotic film, a nature film, a film with some anxiety-producing scenes, and, yes, Mr. Bean.  Her results showed that only the erotic scenes produced an increase in temperature in the genital area; this happened with both men and women.

Kukkonen’s research will be featured on CP 24’s Sex Matters show airing Sept. 24 at 10:30 p.m. The show is a half-hour live-to-air program that offers expert advice and candid comments on sex.

Her interest in this research started during her undergraduate studies. Born in Finland, Kkukkonen grew up in Montreal and attended Concordia and McGill Universities, completing a PhD in clinical psychology.

“In looking at the research on sexuality, there seemed to be a huge gap in our understanding of women’s arousal,” she says. “We understand much more about men’s response. I began to think that perhaps the instrumentation we use to measure arousal was part of the problem.”

Typically, different instruments are used to measure arousal in men and women. For women, a tampon-like device is inserted into the vagina; it bounces light off the vaginal walls to measure blood flow. A number of researchers have found a disparity between the women’s subjective feelings of arousal and the blood flow measure of physical arousal.

Kukkonen explains: “Sometimes a woman would say she was aroused but show no physical signs. Another woman might say she was not aroused, but the physical signs of arousal were there. For the most part, we don’t see that with men. If they say they are aroused, you’ll see physical signs of arousal.”

This is an issue for psychologists treating women with sexual difficulties, she says. “I hoped we could find a way to use the same instrument on both men and women. The major physical symptom of arousal in both is increased blood flow to the genitals, and it seemed to me that infrared thermography would work well.”

In medicine, thermal imaging is used as a diagnostic technique for early detection of breast cancer, to screen for fevers and monitor the healing process of localized conditions such as thyroid conditions. “It’s non-invasive and involves no exposure to radiation. You don’t need any physical contact with the person being studied, and you can monitor the temperature without even being in the room,” says Kukkonen. “Another advantage is that you can monitor the entire range of sexual response.”

By using the control videos, she was able to confirm that the temperature increase happens only in response to the erotic film, not the others. “Just by looking at the images, you can tell who is watching the erotic film and who is watching something else.”

Testing both men and women with the same device has enabled her to make some interesting comparisons. She found, for example, that men and women took about the same length of time to reach their maximum level of sexual arousal ─ about 11 or 12 minutes. The women in this study also showed a close correlation between how aroused they felt subjectively and how aroused they were physically. And for both men and women, the level of physical response to the erotic film diminishes with age.

The oldest people in the study were 45 and the youngest 18. “Interestingly, the oldest people described the same subjective levels of arousal, even though there was less physiological response,” says Kukkonen. She is now beginning to analyze data on the responses of post-menopausal women.

Future studies may involve exploring the relationship between changes in blood flow to the genitals during sexual arousal and other health conditions.

“In men, we know that erectile dysfunction can be caused by a decrease in blood flow to the penis ─ a warning sign for arterial and heart problems,” she says. “So I’d like to see if a similar decrease could also be a warning sign for women.”

Kukkonen’s research provides a baseline of normal arousal patterns that can be used to help identify and plan treatments for women with sexual difficulties, especially difficulties in becoming aroused. “There are many possible applications for this work. I’ve had a lot of interest in the thermographic techniques from other labs.”

She has received research awards from the Society for Sex Therapy and Research, the International Society for the Study of Women’s Sexual Health and the Canadian Sex Research Forum and has published in the Archives of Sexual Behavior, the Journal of Sexual Medicine and the Journal of Sex and Marital Therapy.