I sat down to read this article by Daniel Berger in the NY Times Magazine full well expecting that I’d have to write a long debunking under the category “Science For Choads”. But it wasn’t as bad as I expected it to be, because at least the researchers interviewed admit there might be this thing called social conditioning. The researchers Berger interviews can’t quite break out of the paradigm of looking at female sexuality in terms of male sexuality, in that it needs to be explained away or fixed where it differs from what men feel (or what men want female sexuality to be), but they’re trying to get there.
But this article is shot through with major problems all the same. The main thing is that Berger shies away from cultural explanations, as do his researchers, even though the research could easily point to cultural reasons more than biological ones for women’s differences. No one asks the most relevant question, which is, “If women were raised in a less oppressive environment, and given the same sexual cues and permissions as men, would it change their sexual responses significantly?” Part of the reason that the question isn’t being asked is that Berger and his subjects know that being a feminist is somehow anti-sex, and therefore they go out of their way to denounce it. The word is only brought up in order to falsely imply that feminists are anti-sex, even if we’re still tediously morally superior.
She pronounced, as well, “I consider myself a feminist.” Then she added, “But political correctness isn’t sexy at all.” For women, “being desired is the orgasm,” Meana said somewhat metaphorically — it is, in her vision, at once the thing craved and the spark of craving.
Unfortunately, if she didn’t strain herself to avoid feminist explanations for women’s so-called narcissism, she would have a better chance of stumbling on the truth. She has all these theories about why women like to look at the female form, tend to see “sex” in women’s bodies more than men’s (just like straight men do), and respond so strongly to being desired. Many of them have the strong whiff of bullshit, like this:
“The female body,” she said, “looks the same whether aroused or not. The male, without an erection, is announcing a lack of arousal. The female body always holds the promise, the suggestion of sex” — a suggestion that sends a charge through both men and women.
Men’s bodies can be sexual without an erection—look at the statue of David for a classic example. There is nothing inevitable about the sexualizing of the female body and not the male one. I suppose it’s “politically correct” to say so, but I think women’s bodies represent sex, and therefore cause arousal responses, in both sexes because we live in a male-dominated society where men who control our media-saturated culture put forward women’s bodies as sex objects while often avidly downplaying the sexual representation of male bodies, because they think it’s demeaning to be looked at as a sex object. (And it is. The solution to the problem is to create a culture where someone can be considered sexy without being objectified. FWIW, I think a lot of men get there and can, say, look at a woman’s ass without thinking less of her for it, especially after years of practice in being in intimate relationships. But there’s no doubt that our culture still puts “women you fuck” and “women you talk to/marry” into different categories, though we’re slowly getting away from that. I tend to think that the more that Tina Fey becomes a sex symbol over the wordless bimbo imagery of Playboy, the more space women will have to look at men with lust.) Women live in this culture, too. I can testify that it took me years to get past my cultural training that put all of men’s allowable physical appeal above the neck. “He has nice eyes/hair,” was the extent of girl talk about men’s physical characteristics. Now I’m happy to talk about men’s legs or ass or what have you, but I think that puts me on the far side of the “slutty” scale in our culture, still.
Honestly, with “being aroused by men’s bodies” taken off the table, and with much of your life being dedicated to living up to the image of a sexually attractive woman, is it any wonder that women eroticize being desired so strongly? Most women spend much of their time looking at themselves and trying to imagine what a straight man would see, because it’s our social duty to be sexually attractive. (Of course, there’s the inherent desire to be attractive that’s shared by men, but women have so much more social baggage added to that.) Women become masterminds at eroticizing their own bodies to make sure that everything’s working as it should. Most women I know well—fat, thin, old, young, intellectual or not—can stand in front of a mirror and take it all in with military precision. The curve of your calves, the length of your collarbone, the shape of your rack, the perch of your ass in jeans. You spend a lot of time thinking about it, and of course that’s what’s going to press your buttons. The only people who think about women’s bodies more than straight men are women, for which you can thank/blame the patriarchy.
Which leads me to the insulting suggestion that women’s cultural indoctrination about who is and isn’t a sex object somehow makes us narcissists. Front-loading your theories with a stereotype about women to get press is classic evo psych nonsense.
The generally accepted therapeutic notion that, for women, incubating intimacy leads to better sex is, Meana told me, often misguided. “Really,” she said, “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.
The vast majority of male-oriented porn I’ve seen falls into two categories: “trick the bitch” and “she’s driven wild with desire for cock”, with the latter being the only kind that I can sit through without getting angry. I fail to see how one fantasy after another of a woman who wants a man so badly she throws all social stigmas about being a slut out the window and goes to town—usually with lots of oral sex—indicates that men are somehow less narcissistic than women. It seems being desired strongly is a giant turn-on for men, too. It’s just coupled with the socially acceptable lust for the female form.
It’s too bad that the loaded sexist term is being used here, because Meana’s research shows that women lose interest in sex in relationships more than men, and she suggests it’s because women aren’t getting that stimulus of being strongly desired. And that therefore men who want their wives to be into more often should be mindful of how important it is to treat your partner like she personally is so erotic to you, and not that you’re just horny and she’s the only socially allowable outlet besides masturbation.
Meredith Chivers is the prominent researcher in the article, and she’s a really interesting character. She’s the researcher who has demonstrated in very small studies that women have this mind/body disconnect that men don’t seem to have, i.e. women will become physically aroused at all sorts of stimuli (including films of bonobos doing it), even if they don’t report feeling aroused, and men’s arousal patterns are pretty close to what they claim to feel. Physically, women are more hair trigger than men, but mentally, a lot of women don’t feel desire as often as men or much at all, which is a problem for women and (this is where the funding comes in) a bigger problem for men. (It seems to me that researchers like Meana keep tripping over the obvious—that lack of male sexual desire is keenly felt by women—but there’s probably no money in going down that path.) Apparently, this mind/body disconnect is felt in all sorts of areas—women have more trouble telling if their hearts are racing, for instance. So much for women being more in touch with their emotions. It’s clear to me that Chivers and Berger desperately want this mind/body issue to be rooted in biology instead of culture.
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 said she has considered, too, research suggesting that men are better able than women to perceive increases in heart rate at moments of heightened stress and that men may rely more on such physiological signals to define their emotional states, while women depend more on situational cues. So there are hints, she told me, that the disparity between the objective and the subjective might exist, for women, in areas other than sex. And this disconnection, according to yet another study she mentioned, is accentuated in women with acutely negative feelings about their own bodies.
I suspect Berger’s disappointment that it’s likely cultural is the result of his sexism, which manifests in other disturbing ways throughout the article. (Including his puppy-like hope that his researchers will validate his obsession with rape fantasies, which they won’t do.) It’s satisfying to think that women have a problem reading their own bodies because they’re broken, biologically speaking. Chivers, I think, wants it to be biological so they can make a pill to fix it. But the fact that it tailors to body image, and that this disconnect manifests in other ways makes me think it’s a cultural phenomenon, probably going straight up to the cultural requirements to be a Good Girl that start in infancy. Much of a female life is spent squashing emotions and desires that men are permitted to indulge—for food, for anger, for lust, even for shout-from-the-top-of-your-lungs joy. It’s no wonder to me that the habit becomes so ingrained you can’t turn it off even if it’s suddenly socially necessary that you do. The problem with the virgin/whore dichotomy has always been that you can’t make someone be the perfect virgin her whole life and then expect her to be a lusty whore the second she’s in a bedroom with a man. And if I’m right, a pill won’t fix the problem. The only thing that will fix the problem is extending the privileges we give men from their babyhood on to women.
Chivers suspects that women lubricate even when they aren’t aroused because it’s a survival technique that is perhaps evolved. Maybe—it’s probably considered radical feminism to point out that coercion and rape have been considered as much a part of sex as erections throughout much of history, and for a lot of women still, sexual intercourse happens for them not because they want it, but because someone is badgering them into it, because they need to do it in order to keep peace in the house, because they want to be pleasing to guys, because they need a partner in order to be socially accepted, or hold their marriages together even though they don’t have feelings for their partners. But I’m not sure that shows that it was a trait evolved in the past, and something we’re stuck with now that we can’t get rid of. It seems to me that it might be a habit inculcated by women in the here and now. Many of us start having sex with men under these circumstances before we have a chance to develop our own desires, and our physical responses are trained to the demands of having sex for other reasons. But men usually get an opportunity to grow up in a society where their sexual response is tied to desire through constant reinforcement before they ever even touch a woman. And that seems the most likely explanation for me, considering what else we know about sexual desire and response and how much it’s about social conditioning—foot fetishes, being turned off by armpit hair, hair color preferences, etc. are obvious examples of early imprinting that’s hard to shake (if you’d even want to), so it seems to me that there’s an enormous amount of evidence pointing to a human sexuality that’s very adaptable, especially early in life.