New research suggests that men — but not women — perceive nipple erection in women as a signal of sexual arousal. But the study, published in Evolutionary Behavioral Sciences, found that both genders project positive emotions onto women with visibly erect nipples, compared to the same women without visibly erect nipples.
Research on nipple erection dates back to work conducted by William H. Masters and Virginia E. Johnson in the 1960s, explained the author of the current study, Professor Rebecca Burch of the State University of New York at Oswego. Masters and Johnson found “that nipple erection is the first sign of sexual arousal in women, but what others assume or perceive nipple erection to be is another story.”
“While many women will tell you it is probably because they are cold, there is definitely a difference of opinion on what triggers it depending on whom you ask. We wanted to know what assumptions people make of women with nipple erection,” Burch said, noting there was even a Sex and the City episode “where fake erect nipples were bought and worn to attract men.”
In the study, 85 men and 355 women viewed a series of photos of women with and without nipple erection. After viewing each photo, the participants indicated how the woman in the picture made them feel and how the woman in the picture was feeling based on a list of 16 emotional states.
The researchers found that both men and women associated nipple erection with positive emotions, such as happiness and friendliness. Men, but not women, also tended to associate nipple erection with higher levels of sexiness.
“Men and women saw the same randomized slides that were composed of two identical images of women, one with nipple erection and one without, yet responded significantly different in how they felt and how they thought the woman in the images felt,” the researchers said.
The findings highlight “that nonverbal communication and appearance can definitely be perceived differently depending on who you are interacting with,” Burch told PsyPost. “Nipple erection is not something that can be controlled per se, so women may inadvertently display a signal that men perceive as sexual arousal, even when they are not aroused. Likewise, men may perceive that a woman is aroused by them when she actually isn’t.”
Even though nipple erection is common occurrence, there is much that researchers have to learn about it.
“This research opens up so many questions,” Burch said. “What about male nipple erection? Masters and Johnson showed that male nipple erection didn’t follow the same patterns as female nipple erection, so does it signal the same things? How is nipple erection perceived when women (or men) are topless? How is nipple erection perceived in older or breastfeeding women. We don’t know yet.”
The study, “The Point of Nipple Erection 1: The Experience and Projection of Perceived Emotional States While Viewing Women With and Without Erect Nipples“, was authored by Rebecca L. Burch and David R. Widman