6/25/13 - research on female sexuality

In today's selection -- there is a growing body of scientific research that suggests that female sexuality is an underestimated force that is not, for the most part, sparked or sustained by emo­tional intimacy and safety, and is not, as is often believed, better made for monogamy than the male libido. But much remains to be understood. Daniel Bergner's recent overview of research in the field, What Do Women Want?, reports on a variety of surprising new studies. In one such study, both heterosexual and homosexual men and women were shown a variety of different pornography videos. Their reactions to the videos were gauged by both self-reporting via keypad and scientific instruments measuring their physiological reactions. In the case of men, there were close correlations between the two. For the women, there were wide discrepancies. Why the mysterious difference? One theory is that society has given men more freedom to be honest -- even with themselves -- about their sexuality than women:

"This is what [Dr. Meredith Chivers'] female subjects did as they sat on a brown leatherette La-Z-Boy chair in her small, dimly lit lab in Toronto, where she first told me about her experiments. Semi-reclining on the La-Z-Boy, each subject watched an array of porn on an old, bulky computer monitor. The two-inch-long glassine tube of the plethysmograph beams light against the vaginal walls and reads the illumination that bounces back. In this way, it measures the blood flow to the vagina. Surges of blood stir a process called vaginal transudation, the seeping of moisture through the cells of the canal's lining. So, indirectly, the plethysmograph gauges vaginal wetness. It was a way to get past the obfuscations of the mind, the interference of the brain's repressive upper regions, and to find out, at a primitive level, what turns women on. ...

"Women with women, men with men, men with women, lone men or women masturbating -- Chivers's objective num­bers, tracking what's technically called vaginal pulse amplitude, soared no matter who was on the screen and regardless of what they were doing, to each other, to themselves. Lust was cata­lyzed; blood flow spiked; capillaries throbbed indiscriminately. The strength of the pulsings did hold a few distinctions, varia­tions in degree, one of them curious: [the women were also shown the species of ape known as bonobos having sex and] the humping bonobos didn't spur as much blood as the human porn, but with an odd exception. Among all women, straight as well as gay, [a] chiseled man ambling alone on the beach -- an Adonis, nothing less -- lost out to the fornicating apes. What to make of such strangeness?

"There was some further discrimination on the part of the lesbians. Over the series of studies Chivers did -- to be sure her data were no fluke -- they were a little selective; amplitude leapt more during videos starring women. Yet the lesbians' blood rushed hard during scenes of gay male porn. When Chivers analyzed the evidence, transmitted from vaginal membranes to sensor to software, when she set it out in graphs of vertical bars, the female libido looked omnivorous.

"The keypad contradicted the plethysmograph, contradicted it entirely. Minds denied bodies. The self-reports announced in­difference to the bonobos. But that was only for starters. When the films were of women touching themselves or enmeshed with each other, the straight subjects said they were a lot less excited than their genitals declared. During the segments of gay male sex, the ratings of the heterosexual women were even more muted -- even less linked to what was going on between their legs. Chivers was staring at an objective and subjective divide, too, in the data from the lesbians: low keypad scores whenever men were having sex or masturbating in the films.

"She put heterosexual and homosexual males through the same procedure. Strapped to their type of plethysmograph, their genitals spoke in ways not at all like the women's -- they responded in predictable patterns she labeled 'category spe­cific.' The straight men did swell slightly as they watched men masturbating and slightly more as they stared at men together, but this was dwarfed by their physiological arousal when the films featured women alone, women with men, and, above all, women with women. Category specific applied still more to the gay males. Their readings jumped when men masturbated, rocketed when men had sex with men, and climbed, though less steeply, when the clips showed men with women. For them, the plethysmograph rested close to dead when women owned the screen.

"As for the bonobos, any thought that something acutely primitive in male sexuality would be roused by the mounting animals proved wrong. The genitals of both gay and straight men reacted to these primates the same way they did to [mere] landscapes, to the pannings of mountains and plateaus. And with the men, the objective and subjective were in sync. Bodies and minds told the same story. How to explain the conflict between what the women claimed and what their genitals said? ...

"The discord within Chivers's readings converged with the results of a study done by Terri Fisher, a psychologist at Ohio State University, [whose work demonstrates that men are much more honest about their sexual experiences and preferences than women. She] was emphatic about the contortions imposed, the compressions enforced. 'Being a human who is sexual,' she said, 'who is allowed to be sexual, is a freedom ac­corded by society much more readily to males than to females.' "


Daniel Bergner


What Do Women Want?




Copyright 2013 by Daniel Bergner


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