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Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Women: We Have No Sexual Orientation

posted by on April 10 at 11:40 AM

I picked up my New York Times Science Times today to discover—in the midst of layers and layers of other completely uninteresting reporting about sex, as if the Times discovered sex existed a few days ago and rushed to deadline with the vaguest of scoops—that only men are hetero or homo.

The scientists refer to this as a hardwired sexual female “flexibility.”

Whether women describe themselves as straight or lesbian, “Their sexual arousal seems to be relatively indiscriminate — they get aroused by both male and female images,” Dr. Bailey said. “I’m not even sure females have a sexual orientation. But they have sexual preferences. Women are very picky, and most choose to have sex with men.”

Dr. Bailey believes that the systems for sexual orientation and arousal make men go out and find people to have sex with, whereas women are more focused on accepting or rejecting those who seek sex with them.

Similar differences between the sexes are seen by Marc Breedlove, a neuroscientist at Michigan State University. “Most males are quite stubborn in their ideas about which sex they want to pursue, while women seem more flexible,” he said.

Was this not worth its own story? Or is the research too flimsy to base an entire story on, so you bury it in another one? Seems like a big story when you’re declaring that half the population is incapable of having a sexual orientation.

If it were the male half, wouldn’t this be on the front page? Is it buried here because women are just considered such creatures of indecision anyway that a little matter of sexual ambidextrousness is like a tough choice between colors of nail polish?

There’s more—in another story in the section, written by a different reporter and citing a different scientist. Is this becoming common wisdom?:

Women’s sexual fluidity extends beyond the strength of desire, he said, to encompass the objects of that desire. In his survey, heterosexual women who rated their sex drive as high turned out to have an increased attraction to women as well as to men.

“This is not to say that all women are bisexual,” Dr. Lippa said. “Most of the heterosexual women would still describe themselves as more attracted to men than to women.” Still, the mere presence of a hearty sexual appetite seemed to expand a heterosexual woman’s appreciation of her fellow women’s forms. By contrast, the men were more black-and-white in their predilections. If they were straight and had an especially high sex drive, that concupiscence applied only to women; if gay, to other men.

Dr. Diamond of the University of Utah also has evidence that women’s sexual attractions are, as she put it, “more nonexclusive than men’s.”

And then it starts to get messy:

One factor that may contribute to women’s sexual ambidextrousness, some researchers suggest, is the intriguing and poorly understood nonspecificity of women’s physical reactions to sexual stimuli. As Dr. Chivers of the Center for Addiction and Mental Health and other researchers have found, women and men show very divergent patterns of genital arousal while viewing material with sexual content.

For men, there is a strong concordance between their physiological and psychological states. If they are looking at images that they describe as sexually arousing, they get erections. When the images are not to their expressed taste or sexual orientation, however, their genitals remain unmoved.

For women, the correlation between pelvic and psychic excitement is virtually nil. Women’s genitals, it seems, respond to all sex, all the time. Show a woman scenes of a man and a woman having sex, or two women having sex, or two men, or even two bonobos, Dr. Chivers said, and as a rule her genitals will become measurably congested and lubricated, although in many cases she may not be aware of the response.

Ask her what she thinks of the material viewed, however, and she will firmly declare that she liked this scene, found that one repellent, and, frankly, the chimpanzee bit didn’t do it for her at all. Regardless of declared sexual orientation, Dr. Chivers said, “with women, there’s a discrepancy between stated preference and physiological arousal, and this discrepancy has been seen consistently across studies.”

Now, in addition to being indecisive biologically, our various systems are not even connected. (Even though when you ask us what we want, we know.)

I’d write more, except that this office is full of interesting men and women. It’s all I can do to figure out which ones I am attracted to today.

RSS icon Comments


No duh… I’ve always assumed this to be true.

Posted by You_Gotta_Be_Kidding_Me | April 10, 2007 11:34 AM

Every time I hear women are like this and men are like that I know that what follows is going to be a pile of crap.

Posted by re:spect | April 10, 2007 11:43 AM

So ... women are sexually stupid, is what we're all saying. We don't even know when we're aroused! Dumb women!

Posted by Gloria | April 10, 2007 11:54 AM

You're confusing social ideas and your perception of yourself with scientific truths. What these people are describing are the results of scientific experiments. The idea that you don't "feel" like this is true, or that it might suggest that women are "indecisive" is silly. Mentioning the differences between men and women does not constitute sexism, it's observation. You're the one using pejorative descriptions, not the scientists.

Perhaps the studies themselves were biased, but that's not evident from what you quote here. They certainly didn't "declare" that half the population is not capable of having a sexual orientation, they suggest this as a possible conclusion from the studies. Then you suggest at the end that this somehow means that women are promiscuous or change whom they are attracted to on a whim.

The straw man is dead.

Posted by Thin Lizzy | April 10, 2007 12:01 PM

In your office, Jen, go for the Bonobos.

Posted by Fnarf | April 10, 2007 12:02 PM

Who says we HAVE to have a sexual orientation? And the study isn't saying that women are stupid for not knowing when they're aroused, it says that arousal in women works differently than in men, and that the physical nitty-gritty of arousal works differently from the emotional arousal they experience. Why do you think this a sexist observation?

This study certainly seems to back up the observation Dominic made to me recently, that women (in a certain social circle) are bi but the guys are straight and act bi to get the chicks.

Posted by NaFun | April 10, 2007 12:09 PM

I've said (somewhat tongue-in-cheek)for a long time that it seems that girls who describe themselves as bi end up with men and men who do are headed directly to gay-town. There are a million external, societal reasons why this might be true, of course, but it's interesting to see some scientific verification of the phenomenon (if not the cause.)

Posted by Acolyte | April 10, 2007 12:14 PM

Also note the radically different reaction to this study versus the one about how men's brains turn off posted below.

Posted by Thin Lizzy | April 10, 2007 12:16 PM

The studies certainly jibe with my real-world experience as a gay activist in the late 70s. Long before "choice" became politicized, and the "ex-gay" movement made biologically-gay the only approved talking point for lefties like myself, many, many lesbians in the 70s were proud to say that yes, it was a choice. Now they demurr or find objectionable any positing of the notion that orientation may work differently in the two sexes.

Posted by adamblast | April 10, 2007 12:22 PM

I have always assumed the "chicks will experiment but dudes are one way or the other" thing was purely cultural. It is interesting to see that there may be a biological aspect to that.

Posted by Mike in MO | April 10, 2007 12:32 PM

This really does go under the heading of No Shit. Of all the bisexuals I've met or known, the only ones that regularly have sex with women are FTMs that are still with their girlfriends from when they were lesbians. With very rare exception, all the bi men I know only date or fuck men, and all the bisexual women I know only date or fuck men. As for the lesbians I've known through my life, plenty are married to men now. Let's not forget the LUG phenomenon.

Posted by Gitai | April 10, 2007 12:40 PM

The nice thing about stereotypes is they give people too lazy to research things a chance to blather on about something they know very little about from personal experience.

Plus, it's easier than having to think.

Posted by Will in Seattle | April 10, 2007 12:49 PM

"All women are three drinks away from a threeway.....With a bonobo."

Pearls of wisdom, people. Pearls.

Posted by jackie treehorn | April 10, 2007 1:12 PM

Fascinating research.

Jen, I don't get your defensive reaction. They are just reporting statistical trends they've found in their physiological and self report data, and the existence of a trend doesn't mean there isn't plenty of variability.

Posted by Sean | April 10, 2007 1:35 PM

If you monitor men's physical reaction to gay porn, it's greater than their physical reaction to hetero porn. For some, the physical reaction is so great they have to cover their eyes or look away. All men are gay!

Posted by jamier | April 10, 2007 1:46 PM

@6 I guess I'm just defensive because science says that deep down inside, I might actually like chimp fucking ... hot ... hairy ... chimp ...

Hey, why are my panties so wet?

Posted by Gloria | April 10, 2007 1:57 PM

Sexual research is interesting. In any case it should bring up how funny humans are, and how ridiculous societal constraints of sexuality can be. Some may policticize it, but seriously, sex is funny. Has anyone watched the bonobos in soc. of sex?

Posted by Kate | April 10, 2007 2:14 PM

And no one is going to point out that one of the researcher's names was "Breedlove?"

Posted by lettuce | April 10, 2007 4:03 PM

Granted I've only read the excerpts here, but what I think is ridiculous about this article is that the scientists seem to be saying "we don't know shit about women's physiological reaction to sex, but *something* happens when they watch those bonobos, so obviously they are more fluid sexually."

That is just poor fucking science. Part of the reason there is so little research on women's psychological sexuality is because there hasn't been any research into physical reactions. Scientists just try to shove us into a box created to fit a man.

Posted by Kasa | April 10, 2007 4:10 PM
"For women, the correlation between pelvic and psychic excitement is virtually nil. Women’s genitals, it seems, respond to all sex, all the time."
This seems like an interesting starting point to discuss the possibility that some (perhaps significant) number of rapes, in particular date rapes, stem not from the perversion or innate evil of the male perpetrators (as black-and-white common wisdom would have it) but from a tragic misunderstanding. We can still fault a man who has sex with a woman despite her pleas to the contrary, but his predicament becomes far more understandable when we consider that he may be taking cues from the woman's body that have nothing to do with her preferences. (If the proper measurement of a woman's sexual arousal is something different, we can't exactly fault the lay male from recognizing that when even professional sex scientists can't figure it out. Unless perhaps we think it has something to do with pheromones, in which case any man who hasn't lost his sense of smell is completely on the hook.) Then consider that the woman may not assert herself strongly (by punching, biting, screaming, etc) out of fear of retributive violence, and that the man himself is in an aroused state that clouds his judgment... what a recipe for disaster. Two thoughts: (1) the simple "No means no" line remains the clear and only safe rule (sorry about the collateral damage to the sex lives of any women who may think it's hot to say no when you mean yes), but it must be understood that where the body seems to disagree with the mouth that the mouth wins; and (2) if any of this science were to filter down into sex ed classes our public schools would actually be doing something right for once; there is hope that at least some portion of rapes could be prevented by merely educating young men about this attribute of their sexual partners and avoiding the misunderstanding altogether.

The ambiguity of male-female sexual relations is enough for all of us to consider the benefits of going gay.

Posted by Jon B | April 11, 2007 6:25 AM

I have to wonder how this research would look in other cultures with other societal norms about bisexuality. I was sort of shocked when I learned from some French friends and family that female bisexuality there is seen as a shade of nasty, while male bisexuality is completely accepted and almost encouraged. Basically, the exact opposite from America's heteroflexible women and bi-hesitant men. I'd be curious to see if this research could be duplicated cross-culturally.

Posted by Ariel | April 11, 2007 7:53 AM

interesting studies, well written post, the thing that gets me here is the comments... especially in reference to the idea that due to the female body's somewhat involuntary response to an apparent panorama of sexual media that some rape cases may have been (how was it put...) tragic misunderstandings.?? I think that's a stretch...

Posted by phyllis | April 21, 2007 12:02 AM

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