This weekend's New York Times Magazine takes a crack at Freud's nearly century-old sexual inquiry: "What does a woman want?" A host of controversial theories about the nature of female desire are offered up -- most notably, that it is "rudderless," "receptive," "narcissistic" and "dominated by the yearnings of 'self-love.'" Ouch, that hurts my (apparently immense) erotic ego, not to mention my feminist sensibilities. That said, no reasonable person would expect the secrets of human sexuality to be entirely politically correct; these ideas can't be dismissed just because they personally offend.
Underpinning these hypotheses are a number of recent scientific findings, which are excellently summarized by author Daniel Bergner. Most interesting is a study of men's and women's responses to various genres of pornography, including "heterosexual sex, male and female homosexual sex, a man masturbating, a woman masturbating, a chiseled man walking naked on a beach and a well-toned woman doing calisthenics in the nude." Oh, also: monkey sex. The men were outfitted with a gadget that measures how hard they got; the women had a "little plastic probe" inserted into their vagina to measure "genital blood flow." The participants watched the pornographic clips while rating how turned-on they felt.
Researchers then compared the participants' subjective evaluation of their arousal with the objective physiological evidence. Bergner explains the results:
"Males who identified themselves as straight swelled while gazing at heterosexual or lesbian sex and while watching the masturbating and exercising women. They were mostly unmoved when the screen displayed only men. Gay males were aroused in the opposite categorical pattern ... neither straights nor gays were stirred by the bonobos. And for the male participants, the subjective ratings on the keypad matched the readings of the plethysmograph. The men’s minds and genitals were in agreement."
(Some might say they were thinking with their penises.) As for the women? They reacted like total horndogs -- everything got their blood flowing:
"No matter what their self-proclaimed sexual orientation, they showed, on the whole, strong and swift genital arousal when the screen offered men with men, women with women and women with men. They responded objectively much more to the exercising woman than to the strolling man, and their blood flow rose quickly ... as they watched the apes."
Even more interesting is that their brains were doing one thing while their lady parts were doing another:
"During shots of lesbian coupling, heterosexual women reported less excitement than their vaginas indicated; watching gay men, they reported a great deal less; and viewing heterosexual intercourse, they reported much more. Among the lesbian volunteers, the two readings converged when women appeared on the screen. But when the films featured only men, the lesbians reported less engagement than the plethysmograph recorded. Whether straight or gay, the women claimed almost no arousal whatsoever while staring at the bonobos."
In other words, women were physiologically aroused by a far greater range of sexual images; however, they were cognitively clueless to that fact. I immediately thought: Well, maybe that's because our culture is less open to non-heterosexual expressions of male desire; as a result, maybe men have successfully fought to subvert polymorphous arousal. But lead researcher Meredith Chivers, a 36-year-old psychology professor at Queen's University, has tried to disprove that theory of cultural interference by studying male-to-female transsexuals. She found that both straight and lesbian trans women responded like males. The Times article points out, however, that it's possible "to argue that cultural lessons had taken permanent hold within these subjects long before their emergence as females could have altered the culture’s influence."
However, another experiment using fM.R.I. scans found that in straight men, "brain regions associated with inhibition were not triggered by [pornographic] images of men; in gays, such regions weren’t activated by pictures of women." This led Chivers to contemplate a number of potential explanations for the disconnect between women's mental and genital going-ons. There's the most obvious: Men have penises; women have vaginas. How exactly can one compare the physiological response of two such different body parts? Bergner writes: "The penis is external, its reactions more readily perceived and pressing upon consciousness. Women might more likely have grown up, for reasons of both bodily architecture and culture — and here was culture again, undercutting clarity — with a dimmer awareness of the erotic messages of their genitals."
Chivers ultimately settled on a theory of "female sexuality as divided between two truly separate, if inscrutably overlapping, systems, the physiological and the subjective." Meaning, physical arousal is one thing, mental arousal, or lust, another. (If this weren't the case, Chivers tells the Times, "I would have to believe that women want to have sex with bonobos.") The occasional cases of women having an orgasm while being raped and evidence of women's physical arousal while hearing a description of a rape have supported her thesis. Chivers guesses that the physical response is a way “to reduce discomfort, and the possibility of injury, during vaginal penetration. . . . Ancestral women who did not show an automatic vaginal response to sexual cues may have been more likely to experience injuries during unwanted vaginal penetration that resulted in illness, infertility or even death, and thus would be less likely to have passed on this trait to their offspring."
So, it's possible that women's physical arousal in response to everything from straight sex to monkey porn could be an evolutionary remnant, a protective physical response. It seems curious that a protective response would apply in the case of watching a naked woman working out, but Chivers speculates that "the exposure and tilt of the woman’s vulva during her calisthenics was processed as a sexual signal." Huh, not sure I'm buying that.
It's at this point in our journey into the dark world of women's sexuality that those politically incorrect ideas arise. Here, the leap is made to also viewing women's desire, and not just their physiological sexual responses, as reactive -- or, as Chivers puts it, "rudderless." She tells Bergner:
“Certainly women are very sexual and have the capacity to be even more sexual than men, but one possibility is that instead of it being a go-out-there-and-get-it kind of sexuality, it’s more of a reactive process. If you have this dyad, and one part is pumped full of testosterone, is more interested in risk taking, is probably more aggressive, you’ve got a very strong motivational force. It wouldn’t make sense to have another similar force. You need something complementary. And I’ve often thought that there is something really powerful for women’s sexuality about being desired. That receptivity element."
In short: Maybe women's cognitive sexuality is receptive and open to suggestion, in the same way that they are physically turned on by all manner of porn. (There's that tricky overlap of cognitive and physical responses again!) This conception of women's desire as receptive doesn't at all mesh with my personal experience or that of any of the women I know. How do you explain women who aggressively pick up one-night stands or seek out pornography for their own enjoyment? There seems nothing passive about either of those things.
Not to mention, just the other day, I was talking to some friends about the popularity of gay male porn among straight women. Most women may only physically respond to gay porn, but plenty -- far more than you might expect -- actively search it out and report being turned on by it (both their body and mind). Neither the action of looking for gay porn nor the fantasy of two men having sex seems receptive.
In a similar line of thinking to Chivers, Marta Meana, psychology professor at University of Nevada at Las Vegas, argues that female desire is is actually based on being desired. After all, she led a study which found that while watching heterosexual porn men focus on the woman in the film and women focus in equal measure on the men's faces and the women's bodies -- or, as Bergner suggests, "the facial expressions, perhaps, of men in states of wanting," and "the sexual allure embodied in the female figures." Meana, a self-described feminist, argues that women's lust is "narcissistic" and guided by "the wish to be the object of erotic admiration and sexual need."
It's an interesting idea that I identify with just as far as the potential for being turned on by being desired. But I have a fundamental problem with the semantic framework. How is a woman's arousal at witnessing a man turned on by another woman's body narcissistic? Why isn't it simply that she's delighting in female sexual power? Is it necessarily narcissistic to enjoy driving your partner wild? And might it be that women focus on the idea of a man being turned on by a woman because our sexual culture revolves around that dynamic? The "narcissism" inference seems akin to suggesting that men's undivided focus on the female porn star being robotically pounded demonstrates an inborn interest in female pleasure. (Please!)
I found this article exciting, fascinating and, at turns, maddening. I'm all for the research that's being done and couldn't agree more with my colleague who after reading the article exclaimed, "I want to shadow Chivers!" I say bring on the research, even if the results are unpalatable to feminists like myself. My only problem is that the theories being drawn from the current scientific evidence seem disconcertingly subjective and prone to all sorts of cultural distortions. (See above: Women's sexual "narcissism.") Ultimately the piece raises more questions than it answers and reveals just how little we know -- and, perhaps, will ever know -- about such a complex interaction between the body and the brain.
Still, and I'm probably just saying this because I'm a woman, and therefore driven by "self-love," I can't wait to see what they find out next.