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Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Re: Women: We Have No Sexual Orientation

posted by on April 10 at 12:23 PM

One reason the NYT’s piece on sexuality is, as Jen pointed out, so muddled and confusing, is that scientists are just beginning to study female sexuality. They really don’t know much about it yet. Thus we get paragraphs like the following:

What was the feminine equivalent of an erection anyway? Was it vaginal swelling and lubrication, or something else entirely? Women are generally smaller and less muscular than men. What might the feeling of being physically threatened do to enhance or hamper a woman’s sexual appetite?

Elsewhere, the story says researchers were confused by women’s failure to adhere to culturally approved norms—the widespread belief, for example, that women can’t get turned on when they’re sad, or that women shy away from images of genitals (and thus don’t like porn), or that women don’t care what men look like.

Conventional wisdom has it that a woman’s libido is stifled by unhappiness, anxiety or anger, but the survey showed that about 25 percent of women used sex to lift them out of a bad mood or to resolve a marital spat.

Women also differed in the importance they accorded a man’s physical appearance, with many expressing a comparatively greater likelihood of being aroused by evidence of talent or intelligence — say, while watching a man deliver a great speech.

Well, what of it? The Times observes these behaviors, but fails to reach any conclusions. These are not minor points—female arousal, for example, is currently assessed based on vaginal swelling and lubrication (a byproduct of male sex research that assesses arousal based on whether a man gets an erection). If it’s “something else entirely,” perhaps the Times’s other conclusions—such as the assumption that men simply have “higher sex drives”—might also prove untrue. (And don’t even get me started on the “women-just-don’t-want-sex” myth, which asserts that women lack sexual desire while ignoring the many cultural factors that might make it so.*)

The same thing goes for all the researchers’ other “surprising” conclusions. Maybe the fact that women are turned on by different things than men doesn’t speak to our mysterious. Sphinxlike complexity and otherness, but the fact that researchers are asking the wrong questions. Perhaps the real story here is that researchers are finally getting around to studying women’s sexuality—and the surprise isn’t that what turns women on is “different,” but that no one’s ever bothered asking us.

* I think this also speaks to the researchers Jen mentions who say men are “stubborn” about the type of sex they want to pursue, while women are more “flexible.” When you go through your entire life being told your sexual desires don’t matter, and that you need to be flexible and easygoing in all things, including but not limited to sex, it might follow that you’d be more pliant in the sack as well. Then again, maybe us girls are all just bi.


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Gawrsh - Didn't they ask any of their research subjects if they got, like, all warm and tingly "down there?"

Posted by isabelita | April 10, 2007 12:36 PM

"When you go through your entire life being told your sexual desires don’t matter"

this would be a reasonable statement to make about your generation if you were a 60 yr. old woman in america. how old are you, erica? in your twenties, early thirties...? in which case, i say, try another ( more genuous) explanation, for why female sex drive strikes the researchers as malleable, ok?

Posted by ellarosa | April 10, 2007 12:47 PM

oops--i meant female sexual response, not drive.

Posted by ellarosa | April 10, 2007 12:50 PM

I'm 29. And if you don't think women my age are told at every turn -- by television, advertising, Cosmopolitan Magazine, porn, etc.-- that we exist to service men's sexual desires, you live in a much more utopian world than I do.

Posted by ECB | April 10, 2007 12:52 PM

"At every turn" if all you look at is advertising, Cosmo, and porn.

Why do you look at those things, then?

Posted by Fnarf | April 10, 2007 1:02 PM

Erm, ECB...nobody believes women don't care what men look like. It's certainly something women tell men who they're not attracted to, and some of them may even want to believe it's true, but there are enough wildly successful construction-worker-sweatily-drinking-Diet-Coke commercials out there to easily undermine the idea that women not caring what men look like is a "widely held belief".

Now I'll read the rest of your post and pick more nits later.

Posted by switzerblog | April 10, 2007 1:03 PM

Yes, science on women's sexuality is way behind the study of men's sexuality. No doubt of it. But I think the science on men's sexuality tends to be shallow, focusing much more on the erection, rather than looking into deeper signals of what is a "turn on" to men. Indeed, the study of women's sexuality is likely to expand our understanding of male sexuality and get us closer to a full knowledge than we've gotten for the past 60+ years.

Posted by B.D. | April 10, 2007 1:11 PM

I wonder how much legitimate work *can* be done on female sexuality within the current context in which every mention of possible differences between the sexes is seen as misogynist.

Posted by adamblast | April 10, 2007 1:14 PM

i've never understood the whole "women can't get turned on when they're sad" theory.

fucking the pain away is right up there at the top of my turn-on list, next to tom brokaw, dudes in boxer briefs, and really great manners.

Posted by kerri harrop | April 10, 2007 1:18 PM

i've seen the same ads and whatnot in cosmo etc, and while they talk all about how to please "him," that doesn't mean "her" pleasure doesn't matter. and there are plenty of magazines sharing the same supermarket shelf with articles about female sexuality--i've read them. young women aren't adequately schooled in how to get pleasure, i agree. however, the modern world does seem to think their sexual gratification matters, imo. and there's a whole lot more female-made, female centered porn these days than there used to be, that's for sure. so yes, i think your comments are a little behind the times

Posted by ellarosa | April 10, 2007 1:20 PM

The researchers should have shown the women a bunch of cash or an AmEx Black card. They would have had panty puddles in no time.

(the above comment posted only to piss off ECB)

Posted by Mike in MO | April 10, 2007 1:26 PM

Personally, I'm waiting for the sit-com that features a morbidly obese woman with disarming charm married to a slim, whip-smart man who puts up with her endless flaws but only because he loves her and can't imagine himself with anyone else.

Posted by money | April 10, 2007 1:43 PM

HAHA! that is some funny shit, Mike in MO.

don't forget, we're also turned on by men leaving us alone to spend all their money at the MALL! Haw!

Posted by gforce | April 10, 2007 1:47 PM

women like the ballet & baseball players.

Posted by Max Solomon | April 10, 2007 2:00 PM

It seems like part of the muddle is due to how easy it is to conflate subjective and objective responses. The same term "arousal" is used for vaginal swelling and the subjective feeling of attraction, assuming that one leads to the other -- but a man can get an erection for known reason and then feel aroused, because, you know, why waste it? You also don't have to be consciously aware of a physiological response to derive a feeling from it.

One thing is certain -- though the right questions are still being formulated and the evidence is slim, it's not too early for evolutionary psychologists to use this study to theorize about sexual behaviors being good or bad for the species.

PS: What's with straights being called "stubborn" for preferring women. What's the matter with "focused"?

Posted by MvB | April 10, 2007 2:01 PM

Mike in MO: You forgot that us girl types are also turned on by SHOES. If you give us some $500 shoes we just have to put out. That and jewelry. Just buy us stuff, and apparantly we get all excited.

Wait a minute! I have solved it all! The reason we are so flexible is because we are only attracted to money and material things. Both men and women can buy us stuff, which is why we like them both!

*dust hands off*

well another mystery solved thanks to infallible logic....

Posted by Monique | April 10, 2007 2:02 PM

oh my god i can't believe i forgot the shoes and jewelry. thanks monique. you're quite a nancy drew!

Posted by gforce | April 10, 2007 2:08 PM


Most men who have hit on me over the years seemed to believe that looks don't, or shouldn't, matter to women. Unless there's some other reason why they believed that I was obligated to "give them a chance" even if I was in no way attracted to them.

Posted by keshmeshi | April 10, 2007 2:10 PM

"What was the feminine equivalent of an erection anyway?"

My ex called it a "clitty boner."

Posted by elswinger | April 10, 2007 2:41 PM

@18: I'm glad somebody noticed my lil' old comment (that didn't add much to the conversation but made me feel involved). I think you're looking at the phenomenon the wrong way - they don't think you will give them a chance despite their looks, they think you'll give them a chance because they look good. An unfortunate aspect of my gender is an inability to accurately judge our flaws. You have my apologies for that particular shortcoming and any uncomfortable rejections you may have been forced to dole out as a result.

Posted by switzerblog | April 10, 2007 2:49 PM

Oh bullshit. Again, the studies indicating women are more "pliant" in the sack aren't based on asking them what they THINK, they're based on studying their behavior in controlled settings.

Being told by modern society that your sexual desires don't matter and that you need to be flexible and easygoing isn't going to affect your BIOLOGY. Come on.

Oh, and if you think men aren't under pressure to perform sexually for women or that we're subject to unrealistic images in advertising and the media, and that those images affect our self-esteem, you're nuts. Men compete for women, rarely the other way around. You already have the upper hand.

Posted by Thin Lizzy | April 10, 2007 2:59 PM

So what I'm getting from this discussion is: a) scientists need to study a whole lot more before they know the "ins and outs" (no pun intended) of human sexuality... both male and female, b) most people have their own personal beliefs on their own sexuality, c) IF YOU DISAGREE WITH ME YOU ARE EITHER A SEXIST PIG, OR AN UNREALISTIC BITCH!

Sounds about par.

Posted by The_Pope_Of_Chili_Town | April 10, 2007 3:25 PM

Isabelita: Yes, the researchers did ask the women whether they felt aroused or not.

The study showed that when women were shown sex videos of two men, of two women, of a man and a woman, even of two bonobo chimps getting it on (that's right, bonobo chimps), their vaginas got engorged and lubricated -- whether or not they reported being turned on.

In other words, the female subjects were physically aroused by sexual images of pretty much any kind, regardless of whether they felt mentally aroused.

Cultural factors may have something to say about female bisexuality, but I doubt they shed much light on the chimp thing.

The NY Times article about this study can be found at:

Posted by punninglinguist | April 10, 2007 3:33 PM

Perhaps the real story here is that researchers are finally getting around to studying women’s sexuality—and the surprise isn’t that what turns women on is “different,” but that no one’s ever bothered asking us.

Gee... I guess there were never any women researchers and no women ever decided to offer up the info without being asked? Way to go, ladies...

Posted by GiveMeABreak | April 10, 2007 4:39 PM


I've considered that as well, but some of those guys had indicated to me that, as a woman, I don't have any business being shallow or judging a guy for his looks.

Posted by keshmeshi | April 10, 2007 5:14 PM

Tony Montana in his conversation with Manolo said this waaaaaaaaay before the NYTIMES.

First you get the power....

Posted by SeMe | April 10, 2007 5:40 PM

Heck if women want to all tell me what turns them on, I promise to tabulate, correlate it etc. And then not share it with a damn soul.

Did it ever occur to you that they were trying even though they knew they weren't attractive and we're likely to get turned down because, well, that's what guys do? Also because you're attractive (I'm assuming here, but if you get hit on that often, it's a safe assumption). I had a friend who didn't consider it a good night out unless he'd gotten turned down two or three times.

Posted by hattio | April 10, 2007 6:32 PM

#5, I'd like to see *you* try to ignore advertising...sheesh. la-la-la-la [fingers in ears]

Seriously, though, I think all the weird baggage women get about sex screws up the research (If you like sex you're a slut. If you don't like sex, you're frigid, Good girls and Bad girls, blah, blah, baggage)

Plus, let's face it: Girls can get pregnant and guys can't. This often makes girls a little more practical about sex than a guy. Hell, guys (of any age) completely forget how babies are made half the time.

It doesn't mean the girl doesn't like sex, it just means she's more keenly aware of the consequences of it. And that's just the physical consequences. The social and mental ones are doozies, too.

Posted by please | April 10, 2007 9:46 PM

Why hasn't anybody mentioned Nancy Friday?

Posted by Edgar | April 12, 2007 10:24 AM

My firm beliefs are that it is not a lack of desire to study womens sexual reactions. The method of gathering the data is the hard part. How many times have you asked a female what turns her on? Watched movies, adult or otherwise and requested their response? I contest that females are too afraid (NOT EVERYONE....Just the majority)to answer honestly. Tragically inefficient. It saddens me. How the hell did they measure vaginal swelling and lubrication? It seems any instrument placed close enough to check would skew the data?

Posted by Morganism | April 12, 2007 1:05 PM

Nature has given men almost all of the testosterone, i.e. demand, and women almost all of the supply, i.e. physical desirability. How skewed is this market equation?

An average man has almost no choice if an average woman selects him for her sexual partner, while women seemingly have a wide range of choices, being picky. A woman, then, can then select the father of her children.

I guess this is good for sexual selection and improvement of the species. It is hard for individuals.

Posted by Bob | April 12, 2007 3:19 PM

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Posted by Women | April 17, 2007 12:15 PM

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