Exploring the Effect of a Promotion and Prevention Regulatory Focus on Subjective Responses to Vaginal Sensations in a Laboratory Research Design

Marieke Dewitte*, Hanne Kindermans

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review


BACKGROUND: Self-regulation is an important process to explain sexual, emotional, and pain-related responses in the context of genital pain. Although highly relevant, self-regulatory focus theory is not well integrated into the literature on genital pain.

AIM: This study explored the impact of a promotion and prevention regulatory focus on genital pain responding. Sex would typically endorse a promotion focus, whereas pain during sex is likely to provoke a prevention focus oriented toward harm avoidance and safety.

METHOD: We induced gradually increasing vaginal pressure in a sample of 56 women using an intra-vaginal balloon that simulated potentially painful vaginal sensations. Women were first primed with a promotion vs prevention focus by making them list their ideals vs responsibilities as a sexual partner. We measured trait regulatory focus, pleasant and painful vaginal pressure sensations, sexual arousal, expectations, and approach-avoidance motivational tendencies.

MAIN OUTCOME: The effect of trait and state promotion and prevention regulatory focuses on the appraisal of vaginal pressure and sexual arousal.

RESULTS: When primed with a prevention compared with a promotion focus, women with a predominant prevention orientation reported less sexual arousal, less pleasant vaginal pressure appraisals, and lower approach tendencies regarding sexual stimuli. Women who experienced a match between their state and trait promotion focus appraised the vaginal pressure as less painful. No significant effects of regulatory focus were found on the expectancy measures.

STRENGTHS AND LIMITATIONS: We provided first evidence on self-regulatory motivation in the context of genital pain responses using an experimentally controlled laboratory design. Our sample was small and consisted of young students without (a clinical diagnosis of) genital pain, which limits our conclusions on the effect of promotion vs prevention regulation on genital pain responses.

CLINICAL IMPLICATIONS: Future research is needed to examine the clinical value of self-regulation and regulatory fit and to identify possible ways to target self-regulatory motivation in clinical interventions of genital pain.

CONCLUSION: Self-regulatory focus theory has clear potential to explain the sexual and motivational correlates of genital pain. M Dewitte and H Kindermans. Exploring the Effect of a Promotion and Prevention Regulatory Focus on Subjective Responses to Vaginal Sensations in a Laboratory Research Design. J Sex Med 2020;XX:XXX-XXX.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)303-314
Number of pages12
JournalJournal of sexual medicine
Issue number2
Early online date30 Dec 2020
Publication statusPublished - Feb 2021


  • Genital Pain
  • Prevention-Promotion
  • Regulatory Focus
  • Sexual Arousal
  • Vaginal Pressure
  • SELF
  • FIT
  • PAIN

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