Sex & Relationships  
comments_image Comments

Bonobo Sex and 'Ladyboners': Is Women's Desire Really that Confusing?

Current research seems to consider men's arousal to be straightforward, while women's is presented as weird and abnormal.

The top story of the week has been about the ladyboner.

"What Do Women Want?," an article about new research into female arousal, published in the NYT magazine, has been the most read story for five straight days, lit up the blogosphere and sparked a lightning storm of comments at the NYT and in blogs. Many sites have had to close their comments early, unable to keep up. The deepening financial crisis has been pushed aside.

The very long story, long blog posts, and longer list of letters are all deeply complex, confusing, contradictory, fraught, fascinating and overwhelming. Kind of like the overarching metaphor in the piece, first articulated by Meredith Chivers, a 36-year-old psychology professor at Queens University, and one of the scientists whose work is profiled: "I feel like a pioneer at the edge of a giant forest."

I'm thrilled people are trying to understand the ladyboner (blogger slang for female arousal that you won't find in the Times piece); amazed by the dedication of the scientists and the intelligent and nuanced approach of the writer; and delighted that the attempt to shed some light on what makes women's privates work has moved past the suggestion that we get out our lipstick mirrors and take a look "down there." Who wouldn't be?

Women: Nature's Rubik's Cube?

The body of information (sorry) about men's arousal is disproportionately swollen (sorry, again) because most scientists have been male, and most of the cultural focus has been on how to arouse men. And only recently, with a sudden "critical mass" of female scientists, and articles like this, has there been a serious attempt to address the "problem" Freud posed over a century ago: "The great question that has never been answered and which I have not yet been able to answer, despite my 30 years of research into the feminine soul, is, What does a woman want?"

Bonobo Sex, Yes or No?

There are some fascinating findings but, as I'll get back to in a minute, they all contain some hand wringing. First, some findings about flexosexuality (my term) or heteroflexibility (Slate's term). Meredith Chivers hooked up a plethysmograph (an apparatus that fits over the penis or in the vagina and measures blood flow), and gave subjects a keypad to indicate arousal, then showed men and women, both straight and gay, short clips of bonobo monkeys having sex, of human 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.

The men responded the same way genitally and through the keypad. The heterosexual men were aroused by heterosexual or lesbian sex, by the masturbating and exercising women, and were unmoved by the other clips. The gay males were aroused in "the opposite categorical pattern."

But "all was different with the women. 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 ... with the women, especially the straight women, mind and genitals seemed scarcely to belong to the same person. The readings from the plethysmograph and the keypad weren't in much accord. 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."

See more stories tagged with: