What do these enigmatic women want?
Posted by gregdowney on January 24, 2009
In this week’s The Times Magazine of The NY Times, Daniel Bergner has a piece on women’s sexuality and research that’s already in preprint causing a bit of controversy as well as a convulsion of 1950s era humor in the online response. The title, ‘What do women want?’, that nugget of Freudian wonder, no doubt will raise the readership, as will the pictures of models simulating states of arousal (Greg Mitchell is in a bit of snit about them in, Coming Attraction: Preview of ‘NYT Magazine’ With Semi-Shocking Sex Images on Sunday. ‘Semi-Shocking’? I can imagine how that goes… ‘Are you SHOCKED by these photos?’ ‘Well, I’m at least SEMI-shocked, yes!’).
In particular, Bergner gives us thumbnail portraits of women engaged in sex research: Meredith Chivers of Queens University (Kingston, Ontario), Lisa Diamond of the University of Utah, and Marta Meana from UNLV, although there’s also commentary from Julia Heiman, the Director of the Kinsey Institute, and others. As with so much of contemporary science writing, we get researchers as characters, with quirky personal descriptions and accounts of meeting the author, each one standing in for a particular perspective in current scientific debates.
Chivers is portrayed as arguing that women are existentially divided ‘between two truly separate, if inscrutably overlapping, systems, the physiological and the subjective,’ Diamond is made to stand in for the ‘female desire may be dictated… by intimacy, by emotional connection,’ and Meana stands in for the argument that women are narcissists desiring to submit. Whether or not these are accurate portrayals—and they might be—the model is prevalent in science writing: get characters to represent lines of thinking, even though many of us are not so clearly signed on with a single theoretical team. Here, we know the score: Diamond arguing women want intimacy, Meana that they want a real man to take them, and Chivers that women want it all, even if they don’t realize it and contradict themselves.
The irony is that, with such a tangle, the conclusion is foreordained: women will seem enigmatic, inconsistent, and irremediably opaque. As I’ll suggest in this, I think that the conclusion is built into the way the question is being asked. If a similar question were asked about nearly any group, in nearly any domain of complex human behaviour, and then a simple single answer were demanded, the questioner would face nearly identical frustration.
I must admit that, although I found the article readable, even enjoyable, the last paragraph confused me, so I can’t be entirely certain of my analysis. I’ve read the last paragraph at least four times and am still not sure I understand. I’m going to quote it just so you don’t think I’m crazy, but I’m willing to read to anyone’s comment if you think you know what it means.
Bergner was watching Dr. Chivers scrub her data of outlying data points (I remember being shocked by my girlfriend when I found her doing the same thing in her psychology research before finding it was common practice – more on this in another post.). Chivers spent hours with a graph of ‘arousal’ reported by measuring vaginal blood flow, trying to smooth a red line on a computer screen to make sense of which video images were most arousing. Bergner writes in conclusion:
It was possible to imagine, then, that a scientist blinded by staring at red lines on her computer screen, or blinded by peering at any accumulation of data — a scientist contemplating, in darkness, the paradoxes of female desire — would see just as well.
‘It was possible to imagine… a scientist blinded… would see just as well…’ Huh? What I’m getting at is not just to make sport of some tortured prose, but rather to suggest that Bergner, after reporting scads of findings highlighting a whole range of interesting phenomena connected to women’s sexuality and sexual desire, on a number of analytical levels, still wants to reach out for the brass ring, the one thing that ‘women want.’ He has to conclude that women’s desire is paradoxical, a ‘giant forest… too complex for comprehension,’ because there’s no simple answer.
One can imagine an article with the title, ‘What do diners want?’, which bemoaned the fickleness and impenetrable complexity of culinary preferences: Sometimes they want steak, and sometimes just a salad. Sometimes they put extra salt on the meal, and sometimes they ask for ketchup. One orders fish, another chicken, another ham and eggs. One day a guy ordered tuna fish salad on rye, and the next, the same guy ordered a tandoori chicken wrap, hold the onions! My God, man, they’re insane! Who can ever come up with a unified theory of food preferences?! Food preferences are a giant forest, too complex for comprehension. What do diners want?!
You get my drift. The line of questioning is rhetorically time-tested (can we say clichéd even?) but objectively and empirically nonsensical. So many of these experiments seem to be testing a series of different, related, but ultimately distinct questions: With whom do women mate? With whom do women have sex? With whom do women say they would have sex? What causes women’s bodies’ automatic arousal responses (and under what conditions)? What type of guys do women like in soft porn stories? What type of guys do women like in photographs? Do certain women get aroused by a particular type of porn movies? Does a particular woman realize or acknowledge that she is getting aroused by a particular stimulus? What affects women’s self-reported sense of sexual identity as it changes over time in women who say they are lesbian, bisexual or not sure? They’re all good questions, some better than others, and they’re all about ‘sex,’ but they are testing a whole range of different things. Can they all be glossed as, ‘What do women want?’ Yeah, sort of, but you’re going to get a hopeless answer.
Sometimes I feel like the research makes sense in context, but once it’s sampled, sound-bited, mixed and matched into a single article with the title, ‘What do women want?’, the simplification tragically robs all the individual studies of any of the insight they could have offered in the first place. Here, synthesis makes understanding impossible because the heterogeneity of what is being studied is ignored, as if all these research projects had the same research question. The reason the article is a fun read in the first place is that the research that the people being interviewed are doing is intriguing; the reason the conclusion is hopeless is that everyone is asked (or is treated as if asked) to extend their findings to cover all women in all situations.
For example, questions about women’s reactions to visual images of sex and nudity are intriguing on a number of levels. Dr. Chivers showed women videos of ‘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,’ even a clip of bonobos mating. She sexed up the last one by adding hoots and screeching, because the female’s pleased ‘chirping’ sounds weren’t hot enough.
Chivers found at the University of Toronto that straight male subjects’ genitals (presumably college aged, by the way) responded to heterosexual and lesbian sex, female masturbation and nude callisthenics, but were less moved by male-on-male action or the ‘chiseled’ gent’s ocean side walk. Gay men were just the opposite. Neither group got aroused by hot monkey love (even with dubbed-in hooting and screeching).
The women in the study, in contrast, had increased blood flow vaginally when any sort of sex was on screen—except the bonobos. They also were aroused by the naked workout but not by the man strolling nude on the beach, and pretty much liked any footage with people in it. Except for the naked man, oddly enough.
When Chivers asked the subjects to rate how stimulating each bit of footage was, she found that women’s reports of arousal did not coincide with their vaginal blood flow spikes whereas men pretty much reported what the plethysmographs on their penises were saying.
These results, to me, are fascinating. Not only have they caused me to swear off beachcombing au naturel, at least until I find out it’s the ‘chiseled’ quality that turned off some subjects. They also spark a whole series of questions: Is it the phenomenology of male arousal that helps men to be more aware of physiological arousal? Do women report something different as ‘arousal’ when asked (that is, the research instruction was probably not, ‘push this button when your vagina swells’)? Are all women everywhere equally unaware of physiological arousal? Are men and women trained differently through exposure to different sorts of visual sexual images? Are women unaware they are aroused if having an intimate conversation with an attractive potential partner? Are women aroused by any images of human sexually aroused (after all, beachcomber guy presumably wasn’t sporting a serious chubby, although I could be wrong)? Why are both heterosexual men and women aroused by naked women doing callisthenics when gay men are not? And, perhaps most importantly, doesn’t someone find bonobos getting it on sexy?
In other words, I think Chivers research is fascinating, but when it’s paired with the question, ‘What do women want?’, it prematurely leads to some simplistic conclusions. The logic goes sort of like: ‘A number of things turn women on; therefore, we don’t know the one thing that women want. Damn, women are inscrutable.’ Uh, no, actually, we have pretty clear results on the video arousal tests, it’s just not a simple one-line sound-bite answer (nor, for that matter, does it necessarily tell us about what women desire sexually; it tells us about a certain group’s response to videos).
The gap between measured arousal and reported arousal is interesting, but it’s hardly big news that people don’t know exactly what is happening in their own perceptions or bodies. We’ve been down this road before at Neuroanthropology.net (for example, at How well do we know our brains?), but the bottom line is that there are lots of areas of life where self-reported state is out-of-step with objectively measurable physiological or neurological conditions. For example, we have very little conscious access to motor-perceptual information about our own movement and object tracking; we can move things around in people’s visual fields and they are often lousy at noticing it. This doesn’t mean we throw up our hands and say, ‘People are confused and inscrutable because they don’t even know when objects have moved.’
This is the reason that, although it’s great to hear that sexologists studying female arousal are carving out some important research results, I kept seeing some very tired old interpretive frameworks being prematurely introduced. For example, a couple of times Bergner threw in the gratuitous ‘evolutionary’ explanation that men are ‘programmed’ by evolution one way, women another (although this tendency was not NEARLY so bad as some of the other research on human sexuality we’ve discussed, and for that we’re grateful; see Chicks dig jerks?: Evolutionary psych on sex #1). At another point, we got the ‘female narcissism’ explanation for the fact that some women seem to be stimulated by the sense that they are desired more than a desirable object itself.
Fair enough, we can bring it whatever interpretation fits the data, but it seems to me that if women’s desire is really a ‘giant forest’ that is poorly understood, and if the data is multiple and contradictory, it’s likely that any blanket statement (‘Women just want to be desired.’ ‘Women only feel desire after they feel intimacy.’ ‘Women just want money.’ ‘Women use sex to get love.’) will always be inadequate. Some of the older models of an essential female sexual identity contain a partial truth, or they wouldn’t even seem plausible, but they aren’t the simple answer to the simplistic question, ‘What do women want?’
At times in the article, I was reminded of discussions of ‘My Type’ in high school and college. I’m sure you’ve heard these discussions as well, with someone going on ad nauseam about what sort of person they find arousing. Then you show up at the five year reunion, and the guy who said he liked tall, bronzed, blonde beach girls is with a short, perky, darked-haired sexologist wearing high boots and fashionable rectangular glasses (apologies to Bergner). Turns out that ‘desire’ is a more slippery term, and that our sexual arousal and sexual behaviour are in more complex relations than just desire-leads-to-arousal-leads-to-sex. If it were only that easy…
Often, when I read studies of ‘attractive faces,’ I get the same response. The research projects ask students to rate how faces in photographs look, and then make conclusions about desirable mates. But the research is really asking about attractive faces in photographs, not peering into the actual sorting mechanism that produces our mating behaviour. Thank God people don’t pick mates on the basis of their headshots, or I for one likely never would have gotten married. And I’m sure that the research subjects in these experiments would strenuously object if the researchers said that they had to pick a mate on the basis of a photo of a face only, even if they thought symmetrical, feminine faces looked good in pictures.
So often, even when we’re dealing with these research papers, we’re still only seeing a statistical majority or even less when someone is making statements about men and women (for another case, see Girls gone guilty: Evolutionary psych on sex #2). Dr. Meana points this out in her interview with Bergner when she suggests that ‘the variability within genders may be greater than the differences between genders’ in arousal and desire. Although I was pleased to read this, it was immediately followed with some blanket statements about female desire and contrasts with male arousal. The section with Meana was one of the most interesting in the whole article, with some provocative statements about women’s narcissism, the effect of female nudity, the problem of desire in committed relationships, and even sexual fantasies of submission. Don’t get me wrong—it’s well worth reading. But prefaced by this statement about variability within and difference between ‘genders,’ it sort of contains its own critique.
One of the wisest books I ever read about sex was Passionate Marriage by David Schnarch. One of the thing he points out is that the reason sexuality in marriage is a challenge is because so many psychological issues, so much of our own individual, idiosyncratic life experience, can be brought into intimacy for resolution and healing. In fact, other areas of our life are not that different. People make eating and food about all sorts of things, as they do shopping, sports, and so on. That is, the idea that a person desires some one thing in sexuality is part of the problem for understanding sexuality. I suspect that the sexologists Bergner was interviewing are well aware of this, and it’s only this journalistic framing that makes it seem so simple that the question becomes unanswerable: ‘What do women want?’ (For a subtle discussion of the complex experience of desire for drugs, see Daniel’s piece, Wanting to Craving: Understanding Compulsive Involvement with Drugs.)
To go out on a limb, I would argue that most women, like most men, probably desire a number of things, some of which are more likely to be found in sex than others. Not all societies encourage us to seek out the same satisfactions in our relationships, nor do they all saddle us with the same psychological issues to contend with in our sexual relationships. Even within a single society, different people bring different issues to the bedroom (or wherever they deal with sex), whether they are straight, gay, bi- or other. Moreover, once we satisfy one set of desires, that hardly means we are finished with desiring, and we might seek something else in sex. Same activity, but looking for ‘something else’ within it.
I’m not convinced that what men want is all that much less complicated than what women want in sex; perhaps, men’s constellation of desires in sex seem more internally consistent because they conflict less with each other, but that doesn’t mean men only want one thing (just that getting many needs met at once might be easier). We’ve seen a change in women’s desires and how they might be met in Western society over the past half century (and longer), and I suspect that these will continue to change.
In other words, sex is a field for interaction, and arousal is a physiological phenomenon that both influences how those interactions play out, and is influenced by these interactions. Arousal doesn’t determine sexual behaviour. Every time we get aroused, we don’t have sex; every time we have sex, we may not be aroused, although, again, the interaction might end up affecting our physiological state (for better or worse). One of the things that makes humans human is that layers of other considerations can override or modify basic physiological processes like fear, arousal, anger, and panic. Stripping back or ignoring these other factors like inhibition, enculturation, and socialization doesn’t get us to ‘human nature,’ it erases so much of what makes humans distinctive.
What do women want? Lots. Just like men. And, just like men, as soon as they get what they want, women are liable to want something else. If you fine that inscrutable, or ‘semi-shocking’, you need to hang out with humans more often.
Image by Ryan McGinley/Team Gallery from New York Times.