Sex & Relationships

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 NYTand 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."

Interesting, but oh so confusing and worrying!

Science Says Men Do Think With It ...

There's more. Men's narrower arousal isn't just due to inhibition, apparently. Chivers' colleague, Michael Bailey, a sexologist at Northwestern University, "took MRI scans of gay and straight men as they were shown pornographic pictures featuring men alone, women alone, men having sex with men and women with women. In straights, brain regions associated with inhibition were not triggered by images of men; in gays, such regions weren't activated by pictures of women. Inhibition, in Bailey's experiment, didn't appear to be an explanation for men's narrowly focused desires."

And another piece: after the arrival of Viagra in the late '90s, drug companies wanted to find an equivalent drug for women. So they funded research to investigate physiological arousal. In short, researchers found female physiological arousal is pretty straightforward, but is totally separate from cognitive arousal, or lust. "In men who have trouble getting erect, the genital engorgement aided by Viagra and its rivals is often all that's needed. The pills target genital capillaries; they don't aim at the mind ... In women, though, the main difficulty appears to be in the mind, not the body, so the physiological effects of the drugs have proved irrelevant. The pills can promote blood flow and lubrication, but this doesn't do much to create a conscious sense of desire."

... But Women Don't

The separation of physiological and conscious arousal has also been a finding in rape studies. Chivers argues that genital lubrication is necessary "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." (On this topic, later on in the piece, scientist Marta Meara adds, "Arousal is not consent." A statement which has proved of particular interest to dozens of commenters and bloggers.)

Next, the article talks about Chivers' findings that "women's system of desire, the cognitive domain of lust, is more receptive than aggressive. "One of the things I think about," she said, "is the dyad formed by men and women. 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.'" (Which got at least one blogger saying that she knows plenty of women who like to go out and pick up men, not just wait for an invitation).

'Being Desired Is the Orgasm'

Which in some ways is similar to Marta Meana's findings. In the article, Meana, a professor of psychology at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas said, "I consider myself a feminist. But political correctness isn't sexy at all," before declaring that for women, "Being desired is the orgasm."

"'Really, women's desire is not relational, it's narcissistic' -- it is dominated by the yearnings of 'self-love,' by the wish to be the object of erotic admiration and sexual need. Still on the subject of narcissism, she talked about research indicating that, in comparison with men, women's erotic fantasies center less on giving pleasure and more on getting it. 'When it comes to desire,' she added, 'women may be far less relational than men.'"

Like Chivers, Meana thinks of female sexuality as divided into two systems. But Meana sees those systems in a different way from her colleague. On the one hand, as Meana constructs things, there is the drive of sheer lust, and on the other the "impetus of value."

Another scientist, Lisa Diamond, an associate professor of psychology and gender studies at the University of Utah, finds that above all, female desire is dictated by intimacy and emotional connection, and is malleable. In writing a book, she studied 100 women for 10 years who self-identify as lesbian, bisexual or refuse a label, many of whom change in their orientations. A famous example is Anne Heche, who had "a widely publicized romantic relationship with the openly lesbian comedian Ellen DeGeneres after having had no prior same-sex attractions or relationships. The relationship with DeGeneres ended after two years, and Heche went on to marry a man."

Diamond argues that women's desire can't be captured by asking women to categorize their attractions at any single point, that to do so is to apply a male paradigm of more fixed sexual orientation. (This assertion drew some blogger ire about the constant stereotyping of male gayness as real, but lesbian orientation as a kind of undergraduate, whimsical interest.)

Diamond's premise of emotionally based arousal is one that Meana rejects. Her research has found many women who report loving a partner very much, but not having any arousal for them.

'Core of Sexual Desire Is Deeply un-PC'

In short, the article reports that the core of sexual desire is deeply un-PC. Straight, bi and lesbian women are aroused by women and men; whereas, straight men are only aroused by women and gay men are only aroused by men. Many women get aroused during rape, but "arousal is not consent." There's a difference between physiological and cognitive arousal. Women's arousal might be based on receptivity, emotion or on narcissism. Or it might be none of the above. Got it?

A producer once told me that every good story is a mystery story. Complexity and contradiction are good things; they're what make us human, they're what keep us interested.

In fact, until I read this article, I'd always believed men's arousal was complex and mysterious, too. I've read articles claiming that women's historical preoccupation with fashion is actually based on satisfying the male genetic appetite for variety and promiscuity: that on some level, different outfits and hairstyles work to give men the sense of being with more than one partner. Or that by watching strippers or porn, men are more able to stay faithful in a monogamous relationship because it satisfies their genetic programming to seek as many partners as possible.

True? No idea. Also, haven't we all read countless articles about homo-eroticism in male sporting culture -- tight uniforms, skin-on-skin, sweat, bum pats? I'm not saying any of this is true, but it's entertaining to contemplate the possibilities, isn't it? And don't possibilities like this do more justice to men than suggesting they either like men or women?

So, by all means let's investigate, research and probe (intellectually), but worry less when the results are complex or seemingly contradictory. How about we suspend our desire for total clarity, in favor of paying more attention to and enjoying women's (and men's) sexually omnivorous and often mysterious desires?

But the metaphor of darkness, which permeates the well-researched article, many of the blog posts, and most of the comments, is itself, frankly, what's well-intentioned but sexist. The article reports that most research into sex used to take the premise that men and women were extremely similar; whereas, now research on differences are what gets funded. Fine. But the current research, or at least the way this article presents it, seems to consider men's arousal to be simple, clear and straightforward, and women's as opposite, unusual, other, "a problem," worrying and abnormal.

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