Cleopatra Syndrome – are women blind to visual sexual cues?

The queen of Egypt was in exile after being thrown out of power by her brother Ptolemy XIII. She came to know that Roman conqueror Julius Caesar was in Egypt. Wrapping herself in an ornamental carpet, she arranged to have herself smuggled into the suite in which Caesar stayed. The sly temptress impressed him so much that he agreed to help her out. He launched a campaign against Ptolemy XIII, who got drowned in the Nile after being defeated by Caesar’s army. The 16-year-old Cleopatra began a courtship with a balding Caesar, 38 years older than her.

What in Caesar turned the young Cleopatra on? The answer is obvious: it was his power, not his physical charm.

Cleopatra showed the typical tendency of women. Women are generally less sexually aroused than men by visually erotic subjects. Various studies have been conducted and corroborated such a propensity, ultimately showing how men and women process visual sexual stimuli differently and explaining gender variations in reproductive behavior.

Evolutionary Studies on Gender Sexual Preferences

Evolutionary studies show that men and women differ in their mate preferences, although they express romance with the same intensity. One man can produce as many as 100 offspring by mating with 100 women in a given year. But such a strategy hardly benefits a woman. Whether she mates with 100 men or is monogamously bonded with only one, she will produce only one child in a given year. So, viewed from the perspective of chances of passing on their genes, the difference in the male and female mating strategies makes perfect sense.

Men, it is believed, place a greater premium on signals of fertility and reproductive value, such as a woman’s youth and physical appearances. Women, in contrast, are more attracted to man’s education, maturity, personality, money and, above all, power. Most the studies over the years, in which men and women were asked to rank their pleasures in order of enjoyment, showed repeatedly that whereas sex is the favorite for most men, many women prefer knitting, gardening, cooking and even watching television.

Do men and women really think differently on sex?

Women are obligated to incur the costs of internal fertilization, placentation, and gestation in order to reproduce. The minimum physiological obligations of men are considerably less, requiring only the contribution of sperm. Quick arousal is disadvantageous for women because it interferes with their strategy of careful matter appraisal. No wonder they are quite choosy about the best mate.

Based on a study that shows 28 men and women viewed alternating short blocks of four different sets of photographs – images of couples interacting in nonsexual ways such as wedding, dancing and therapeutic massage, nude-opposite-sex individuals in modelling poses and couple engaged in explicit sexual acts. The participants rated their sexual attraction and physical arousal in response to each image on a three-point scale. Both groups found ‘couples’ stimuli’ to be the most attractive and arousing. However, through fMRI studies that researchers had a closer look at brain responses and found men had greater activity than did women viewing identical sexual stimuli in the limbic regions (just above the temporal lobe and consisting of two smaller rooms – amygdala and hypothalamus) of their brain.

The most sensitive contrast was recorded in brain activation between couples and neutral pictures, showing differential activation in the amygdala, the almond-shaped nugget embedded in the human brain responsible for the great sexual divide.

In a study published in the journal Human Brain Mapping, Prof. Sherif Karama and his colleagues at the McGill University, Montreal, first detected gender-specific response to visual erotic stimuli. Here, too, fMRI scans showed that the level of perceived sexual stimulation was significantly higher in male than in female subjects. They found only male subjects had a greater activation (blood oxygen level-dependent signals) of the thalamus and hypothalamus. But the study proved to be relatively insensitive to rapid changes in amygdala activity.


Why can’t men and women act or think in a uniform way about sex? It is believed that evolution may have played a role. The studies show the difference between men and women, but there is no clear evidence of why the difference is there. Men are often more exposed to sexual imagery which make them more likely to seek out sexual activity. This cultural-exposure theory can provide insights into why men are more susceptible to becoming addicted to pornographic websites.

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