Sometimes just reading the headline is enough to know an article will make you feel stabby

“What Do Women Want?: A new generation of postfeminist sexologists is trying to discover what ignites female desire.”

In the writer’s defense, you usually don’t write your own headers or sub-heads, so I can’t really blame him for the “postfeminist” thing. I also can’t blame him for the unfortunate graphic, which seems to suggest that when women really want it, they breathe smoke from their severed heads.

I can, however, blame him for portraying the female sexologists as overly sexual, and for mentioning the fact that socialization influences biology without really seeming to understand or explore it. For example:

Thinking not of the search for chemical aphrodisiacs but of her own quest for comprehension, Chivers said that she hopes her research and thinking will eventually have some benefit for women’s sexuality. “I wanted everybody to have great sex,” she told me, recalling one of her reasons for choosing her career, and laughing as she did when she recounted the lessons she once gave on the position of the clitoris. But mostly it’s the aim of understanding in itself that compels her. For the discord, in women, between the body and the mind, she has deliberated over all sorts of explanations, the simplest being anatomy. The penis is external, its reactions more readily perceived and pressing upon consciousness. 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.

How about the fact that women grow up in a society that is centered on men’s experiences and lives? That the female body is used as a representation of sex itself, whereas (hetero) men’s experiences and understandings of sex dominate our cultural narrative? To go back to an old feminist gem, men watch; women watch themselves being watched.

And women’s bodies are positioned as public property. Whether it’s ongoing political battles about what we can and can’t do with our reproductive systems or a cultural religious/virginity narrative that places female sexuality as a bartering chip between male “protectors” or not being able to walk down the damn street without a reminder that we don’t have the same right to public space as men do, to be female is to be told, “Your body is not yours.”

Plus there’s the fact that female bodies are marked as decorative, whereas male bodies are active. Men’s bodies do things — they represent strength, ability, power. Women’s bodies look like things — they represent sex, beauty, fertility.

Of course we feel disconnected from our bodies. Of course that impacts our sex lives.

But, nah — turns out we’re just narcissists:

A compact 51-year-old woman in a shirtdress, Meana explained the gender imbalance onstage in a way that complemented Chivers’s thinking. “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. And there was another way, Meana argued, by which the Cirque du Soleil’s offering of more female than male acrobats helped to rivet both genders in the crowd. She, even more than Chivers, emphasized the role of being desired — and of narcissism — in women’s desiring.


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. About the dynamic at “Zumanity” between the audience and the acrobats, Meana said the women in the crowd gazed at the women onstage, excitedly imagining that their bodies were as desperately wanted as those of the performers.

Meana’s ideas have arisen from both laboratory and qualitative research. With her graduate student Amy Lykins, she published, in Archives of Sexual Behavior last year, a study of visual attention in heterosexual men and women. Wearing goggles that track eye movement, her subjects looked at pictures of heterosexual foreplay. The men stared far more at the females, their faces and bodies, than at the males. The women gazed equally at the two genders, their eyes drawn to the faces of the men and to the bodies of the women — to the facial expressions, perhaps, of men in states of wanting, and to the sexual allure embodied in the female figures.

Shocking, absolutely shocking, that when women are raised in a culture that equates the female body with sex itself, that positions the female body as an object of desire, and that emphasizes that being desired is the height of female achievement, women will see sex as a process primarily centered on male attraction to women, and will get off more on being wanted than on wanting.

Shocking, too, that when “naked chick” is cultural shorthand for “sex,” women will look at naked chicks and think “sex.”

It’s not narcissism. It’s a lifetime of experiencing the world secondarily, and seeing ourselves through male eyes; it’s the lack of agency and power that comes with being an object to be looked upon.

And then there’s the rape fantasy thing (trigger warning):

After our discussion of the alley encounter, we talked about erotic — as opposed to aversive ­— fantasies of rape. According to an analysis of relevant studies published last year in The Journal of Sex Research, an analysis that defines rape as involving “the use of physical force, threat of force, or incapacitation through, for example, sleep or intoxication, to coerce a woman into sexual activity against her will,” between one-third and more than one-half of women have entertained such fantasies, often during intercourse, with at least 1 in 10 women fantasizing about sexual assault at least once per month in a pleasurable way.

The appeal is, above all, paradoxical, Meana pointed out: rape means having no control, while fantasy is a domain manipulated by the self. She stressed the vast difference between the pleasures of the imagined and the terrors of the real. “I hate the term ‘rape fantasies,’ ” she went on. “They’re really fantasies of submission.” She spoke about the thrill of being wanted so much that the aggressor is willing to overpower, to take. “But ‘aggression,’ ‘dominance,’ I have to find better words. ‘Submission’ isn’t even a good word” — it didn’t reflect the woman’s imagining of an ultimately willing surrender.

Chivers, too, struggled over language about this subject. The topic arose because I had been drawn into her ceaseless puzzling, as could easily happen when we spent time together. I had been thinking about three ideas from our many talks: the power, for women, in being desired; the keen excitement stoked by descriptions of sex with strangers; and her positing of distinct systems of arousal and desire. This last concept seemed to confound a simpler truth, that women associate lubrication with being turned on. The idea of dual systems appeared, possibly, to be the product of an unscientific impulse, a wish to make comforting sense of the unsettling evidence of women’s arousal during rape and during depictions of sexual assault in the lab.

We spoke, then, about the way sexual fantasies strip away the prospect of repercussions, of physical or psychological harm, and allow for unencumbered excitement, about the way they offer, in this sense, a pure glimpse into desire, without meaning — especially in the case of sexual assault — that the actual experiences are wanted.

“It’s the wish to be beyond will, beyond thought,” Chivers said about rape fantasies. “To be all in the midbrain.”

Rape fantasies are always fraught feminist territory. There are people (and I used to be one of them) who basically argue that women feel enough guilt about sex, and feminist critiques or evaluations or even explorations of rape fantasies are inherently anti-feminist, because, come on, people get off on all kinds of things and we should just leave it alone; if some women like rape fantasies, let ’em like rape fantasies. And there are others (of whom I am not and never was one) who argue that rape fantasies are basically fucked up and shouldn’t be discussed because women don’t “really” have them.

So, first, this isn’t a critique of women who enjoy — or feel guilty about having — rape fantasies (or submission fantasies or ravishment fantasies or whatever we want to call them; in keeping consistent with the article and with feminist discourse surrounding them I’ll use the term “rape fantasy,” with the obvious caveat that the fantasies we’re talking about aren’t actually about any woman’s desire to be raped, and often involve total willingness on the part of the woman, making it not really rape). But like the rest of this post, my thoughts on rape fantasies are a critique of a dominant culture that stokes certain behavior in men and women, and that ultimately has a strong hand in shaping desire and our experience of sex.

Women are sexual objects. Unlike men, we aren’t taught to have the same actor mentality; that is, we aren’t sexual agents, and we don’t dictate the heteronormative sexual narrative in the same way that men do. Sex itself is constructed with women on the receptive end: Men penetrate, we’re penetrated. That isn’t just biology, it’s culture. It sounds ridiculous, but there are other ways that we could talk about and understand sex. I had a professor in college who suggested that maybe men don’t penetrate women, women envelope men. We all laughed, and I still think it sounds silly, but her point wasn’t lost on me — how we discuss and understand sex, and all the social and cultural baggage we throw onto it, influences what we believe to be hard, scientific, biological facts about how our bodies work and what our bodies do.

When we understand the female body as largely sexually passive and receptive and the male body as sexually active and aggressive, it’s no wonder that women eroticize sexual submission (and, to flip the story line, it’s no wonder the dominatrix is a pornographic and sexual staple — embarassingly literal images of transgression do tend to go hand in hand with the erotic). Add to that the fact that women as a class are socialized out of being sexually aggressive, or aggressive at all — that cultural norms demand from us modesty, people-pleasing, and selflessness. Add to that the fact that we’re told that men want to marry a virgin but fuck a whore; that we’d better come across as “nice girls,” but that men will pay more attention to us if we’re flashing our tits on Girls Gone Wild; that there’s some line between “sexy” and “too sexy,” between “hot” and “slutty,” but that’s for every dude to determine himself, so just try to keep up, sister. And add to that the fact that women who transgress social norms and who step over that always-shifting line are shamed as “sluts” or as “asking for it” or as “low-class.” Put all that together and, well, who can blame the girl whose fantasies are peppered with scenarios in which she gets to thoroughly enjoy sex without having to take on any of the baggage that comes with wanting it?

The problem, in other words, isn’t women who have rape fantasies. And rape fantasies are probably less indicative of some deep inner “truth” about female desire than they are of how our society constructs both sex and binary gender roles.

And sometimes Chivers talked as if the actual forest wasn’t visible at all, as if its complexities were an indication less of inherent intricacy than of societal efforts to regulate female eros, of cultural constraints that have left women’s lust dampened, distorted, inaccessible to understanding. “So many cultures have quite strict codes governing female sexuality,” she said. “If that sexuality is relatively passive, then why so many rules to control it? Why is it so frightening?” There was the implication, in her words, that she might never illuminate her subject because she could not even see it, that the data she and her colleagues collect might be deceptive, might represent only the creations of culture, and that her interpretations might be leading away from underlying truth. There was the intimation that, at its core, women’s sexuality might not be passive at all. There was the chance that the long history of fear might have buried the nature of women’s lust too deeply to unearth, to view.

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.

Perhaps, at its core, there is no universal “female sexuality,” and no deep, dark, paradoxical “truth” at the end of the tunnel. Maybe, if unfettered from cultural constraints, female desire would depend on the individual female in question.

Or maybe it would look like “male sexuality,” which, from what I can gather from largely male-produced TV shows, advertisements, movies, magazines, literature and culture, basically amounts to “OMG BOOBS.” Who knows.*

But in the meantime, here’s a tip for those of you wondering What Women Want: Should you ever talk to an actual woman, perhaps consider just asking her.

___________________________________________
*Yeah, kidding. File this one under “patriarchy hurts men, too.”


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About Jill

Jill began blogging for Feministe in 2005. She has since written as a weekly columnist for the Guardian newspaper and in April 2014 she was appointed as senior political writer for Cosmopolitan magazine.
This entry was posted in Feminism, Gender, Sex and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

74 Responses to Sometimes just reading the headline is enough to know an article will make you feel stabby

  1. Rachel says:

    Thank you for putting into words everything I wanted to say but couldn’t articulate.

  2. G.D. says:

    How about the fact that women grow up in a society that is centered on men’s experiences and lives? That the female body is used as a representation of sex itself, whereas (hetero) men’s experiences and understandings of sex dominate our cultural narrative? To go back to an old feminist gem, men watch; women watch themselves being watched.

    I may have misread, but I remember the article making this point pretty explicitly.

  3. Evan says:

    While the subjects watched on a computer screen, Chivers, who favors high boots and fashionable rectangular glasses, measured their arousal in two ways, objectively and subjectively.

    Here is where I gave up. Second paragraph. I guess the author feels it’s important we know that Chivers isn’t just another plain jane sexless scientist.

  4. lt says:

    Great post. Being both not immune to the joys of being desired (who isn’t?) and having had my share of orgasms, I have to say, they really ain’t the same.

    On the visual stimulation thing, I’d be willing to entertain the possibility that there’s also an element of same-sex desire being somewhat more common in largely straight women than largely straight men. But calling that narcissism? Seriously? Doesn’t this guy know the homophobic history of that concept?

    Also, the whole what-get-women-off-is0so mysterious trope just needs to die. Of course, when people are stressed or pissed at their partner that leaves issues. But “major organ whose stimulation leads to orgasm for most people is partially internal and not directly stimulated through penis-in-vagina sex” does not translate into “deep unknowable mystery of the universe.” Sweet Jesus.

  5. Lyz says:

    Society doesn’t send women clear messages about sexuality. At once we are supposed to be strong and passive, sexual and chaste. And it is our bodies offered up as sexualized objects on the sacrificial stones of every glossy magazine. Where as men, receive a very clear message. So, is it a small wonder that there is virtually no gap between what men think and what they admit to feeling. Whereas with women the disconnect is huge. The only thing this article revealed is that what women feel is intensely complicated and that we aren’t even asking the right questions about it. Yet.

  6. I got my advanced degree in sexology from the Sorbonne. Seriously, that sounds like a term made up by stand up comics in the early 70s.

  7. piny says:

    You know what bothers me about the rape-fantasy passage in the article? The writer cites a percentage prevalence for “submission” fantasies–in which women fantasize about being overpowered–without citing any corresponding statistic for men. Golly, we’re meant to think, that’s a high number! But how frequently do men have fantasies either about submitting or about a partner’s powerlessness or unwilling submission? Why aren’t we supposed to ask during a discussion about gendered disparities in sexuality?

    The discussion of the differences between “rape fantasies” and rape in reality was also annoying. In your own fantasy life, you’re omnipotent and immortal. When a woman fantasizes, she’s in control. It’s not “paradoxical.” That’s like saying that you’re being inconsistent if you like bungee-jumping but have no interest in falling to your death. Or if you’ve seen the Die Hard sequels a dozen times but don’t really want to be abducted or blown up or tossed out of a helicopter. This isn’t a woman thing; it’s how fantasies work. And it’s irritating to see a writer describe that in such a way as to pathologize women’s psyches.

  8. freddybak says:

    All of this actually makes a lot of sense. And I’m not one predisposed to buy it either, the more experience I have with women, the more I find the knowledge you’ve been dropping on us to be true. Having said that, and you can blame the patriarch or what not, but:

    “But in the meantime, here’s a tip for those of you wondering What Women Want: Should you ever talk to an actual woman, perhaps consider just asking her.”

    Um, lolz.

  9. freddybak says:

    *patriarchy – sorry, typo.

  10. Crys T says:

    I don’t have time to really comment, but I did want to say great post.

  11. Kristen (The J one) says:

    But “major organ whose stimulation leads to orgasm for most people is partially internal and not directly stimulated through penis-in-vagina sex” does not translate into “deep unknowable mystery of the universe.”

    Ah…but then those persons would have to admit that they might have to do slightly more “work” than show up with an erect penis and cater to their own desires.* Which explodes the whole…I’m awesome, she’s the one who has the problem orgasming myth.

    *Note, this is not aimed at all men…just at men who fail to understand the female orgasm and then complain when it doesn’t happen.

  12. Kristen (The J one) says:

    That’s like saying that you’re being inconsistent if you like bungee-jumping but have no interest in falling to your death.

    That is a brilliant analogy! I am using that next time I hear that bs come out of someone’s mouth.

  13. good to know what, as woman, is wrong with me. (also, i am fairly certain my husband can tell the difference between me completely aroused and completely not aroused. maybe he’s special!)

  14. Poetry says:

    There’s no visible difference between an aroused female and an unaroused female? Where did they get that brilliant idea from? Have they ever seen an aroused woman?

  15. “Women are sexual objects. ”

    While I understand that the intent in this post is not to argue that women are indeed sexual objects but that within our current society we are framed and viewed as sexual objects, I think this statement is a bit unclear as is. The way it is written now someone who didn’t understand the intent of the post and of the statement could easily misinterpret it, I believe…

  16. libdevil says:

    I nominate “stabby” as best neologism of the year.

  17. Thomas says:

    Jill, like your YMY piece, this is a long, involved piece of surpassing insight. I would say it’s some of your finest work, but you’ve done so much that that would set the bar too high. Well done indeed.

    I believe this:

    “maybe men don’t penetrate women, women envelope men. ”
    is originally Andrea Dworkin. You say the whole class laughed, but I’ve used an example from my own life: not infrequently, in BDSM scenes, I’m required not to come, and I’ll be punished if I do. In those circumstances (and I’m sometimes literally terrified and shaking in fear that I’ll lose control), is it so strange to say that my penis is enveloped, rather than that it is penetrating? It seems to me (and I read you as agreeing) that the penetrating/ enveloping choice is one where the biology is what it is, but the culture ascribes the meaning (to encapsulate the French Existantialist school of feminism badly in a line).

  18. shah8 says:

    stabby is a buffy neologism and is older than this year.

  19. shah8 says:

    East Asia has a fascination and horror of women enveloping men. Japanese manga drawers have done a whole lot more than westerners in outlining that “Theory of the Vaginal Dentata”. Shall I volunteer to send someone here a couple a gigs of tentacle and otherwise hentai?

  20. libdevil says:

    Drat! Ok, shah8, go and ruin all my fun. Still a great word. (And, obviously, new to me.)

  21. Jill says:

    stabby is a buffy neologism and is older than this year.

    Is it really? Good to know. This is what I get for never watching Buffy. I got it from Jezebel, and assumed it came from Stab Baby (a really ridiculous NYPost tabloid story a few years ago; google it). A friend and I followed the Stab Baby drama, and (tastelessly) used the threat “I’m going to stab-baby you” or “I’ll stab-baby him” at anyone we were irritated with. Being, as the article explains, a huge narcissist, I assumed others were also joking about poor little stab baby, especially since Gawker was obsessed with it too.

    (For context, I am not a horrible person joking about stabbed babies. I did think the Post’s coverage of it — sample headine: “STAB BABY: I’M OK!” — was so ridiculous that I had to laugh. And don’t worry, Stab Baby was actually ok).

  22. Sarah says:

    Seriously, duh? It’s like the author doesn’t know that women in this society are primarily valued for their appearance and the gratification they give men? That we’re treated like a commodity (and for all the wrong reasons)? And then we’re supposed to feel all fired up about it. Hardly. It makes me feel quite the opposite.

  23. Jill says:

    I believe this:

    “maybe men don’t penetrate women, women envelope men. ”
    is originally Andrea Dworkin.

    Ah yes, you are right. Shows how much I remember from the readings we did in that class…

  24. Pingback: What do Women Want? « Emily Posts

  25. shah8 says:

    I just realized that xkcd had something worthwhile to say on this topic. Appreciating the joke is slightly off tune, though…

    http://xkcd.com/535/

  26. Dreamweasel says:

    An old Simpsons episode featured the mob boss Fat Tony vowing: “I don’t get mad. I get stabby”.

    This may or may not predate the term’s usage on Buffy.

  27. shah8 says:

    That’s really more of a quote, Dreamweasel, and not fully a neologism. There are actually people on the tubes who argue about neologisms, and about stabby. I, though, am a mere pedant. I will point you towards google, urban dictionary, and their like. The vast majority derive the reference to the buffy mythos and buffy usage rather than Fat Tony’s use of the term though they are kind of similar–One is mood, the other is predisposition.

    AAAAAaaaaanyways, just because I’m your favorite knowitall and buzzkill…

    Grifts of the Magi–Dec 19th 1999 for the Simpsons
    Fear, Itself–Oct 26th 1999 for Buffy

  28. cbrachyrhynchos says:

    I know this is a tangent, but I just *love* how in this research, evidence of a disparity between subjective desire and genital arousal is treated as evidence that women are naturally mysterious and complex creatures with a fluid sexuality, while for men the evidence is interpreted as erections are everything.

  29. cbrachyrhynchos says:

    And didn’t the NYT just run an article on the neurochemistry of love that read like it came from Maxim?

  30. Christine says:

    I had a difficult time with this article, too for most of the same reasons. I’m also saddened that this type of approach (the original article, not Jill’s commentary) because it is such a disservice to men, simplifies sexuality in general, and is pretty heteronormative. Friends and I have joked that there is sex, there is fucking, and there is making love. (Note to y’all: these can blend. Bear with me.) This article makes it seem like me are sex maniacs: ready to fuck at any second. Even if that is true, it doesn’t acknowledge that there are plenty of men who find a lot of sexual satisfaction in highly intimate situations, as the author of the article suggests women almost have a monopoly on, and from being desired, too. From personal experience, I can say that having sex with my partner when I’m mildly interested and just beginning to warm up (which is a typical midweek, tired from work situation, yet still lovely) and having sex when I really, like REALLY, want him means more to him or is more satisfying. Perhaps there is something to the idea that all people want to be desired, regardless of gender? The author, the researchers, or both presume that men are pretty shallow. Describing men as drooling sex apes and women as these sexual rubics cubes is not helpful to anyone. Finally, what about queer sex/couples? This article seems to be all about straight women loving being desired by straight men, but getting off on pictures of any sexual situation. What?

  31. zyan says:

    The trope of women’s narcissism is straight out of Freud. If we haven’t understood women’s desire any better than that in more than a century, I think it’s time for sexologists to pack up their labs and hit the unemployment line.

  32. AL says:

    Thank you for writing this. NYT completely missed the point.

  33. Puppycat says:

    I think men are just as into being desired as women. Or pretending or thinking they are desired, desirable, or whatever, when they’re not.

  34. SarahMC says:

    Jill, this response is amazing.

    No, men, the knowledge that you want to fuck me is not enough to get me off. God, how retro. How about treating me well in and out of the bedroom, even when you’re not jonesing for sex? Pay attention to my response to your touch. Engage me in the process; don’t just treat me as a masturbatory tool. Be good to my clit.

    I am so fucking sick of women’s sexuality being pathologized.

  35. SarahMC says:

    Oh, and the notion that men aren’t sexually narcissistic? I guess all the faked enthusiasm and phony orgasms in porn is just for shits and giggles.

  36. shah8 says:

    Pathologizing an acceptably “deviant” group is how most media retains eyeballs for which to sell ad and meme-space. Sucking up to people with power is how you get your cash in too many facets of human life.

  37. David Thompson says:

    “In your own fantasy life, you’re omnipotent and immortal.”

    Um, what? Where did that idea come from?

  38. I wonder why so many male ‘experts’ are so determined to nail down the ‘truth’ on female sexuality when the one thing that the ambiguity of the female orgasm should be teaching us is that its an expereince defineed uniquely by each person.

  39. non sequitur says:

    Superb post. Even so, you can’t deny the obvious truth that it’s only women that want to be desired and are prone to narcissism.

  40. Jill says:

    Even so, you can’t deny the obvious truth that it’s only women that want to be desired and are prone to narcissism.

    Whatevs. Just tell me again how good my post is.

  41. figleaf says:

    “A compact 51-year-old woman in a shirtdress, Meana explained the gender imbalance onstage in a way that complemented Chivers’s thinking. ‘The female body,’ she said, ‘looks the same whether aroused or not. The male, without an erection, is announcing a lack of arousal.’

    Also not to sound cruel or dismissive or anything but… is she *mental?* Or just really inexperienced around aroused women.

    Because, pardon me, but arousal in both men and women is at least moderately (almost said “modestly!”) obvious from the collarbones up. And while contemporary beauty standards do their best to camouflage hints of arousal behind (peculiarly) the simulated arousal of makeup on lips, eyes, and cheeks, and posture-altering heels and foundation garments visual signs of arousal still peek through. And if everybody’s naked there are even more perfectly visible evidence. And…

    That’s all assuming arousal is to be detected in the absence of, oh, I dunno, context, body language and *conversation.* Which, even in the extravagantly stylized “primitive state of nature” happened exactly *how* often?

    And about the male-erection thing. Thought experiment for anyone with sexual experience with men: Imagine the various men in your life when they’re aroused and not aroused. Now imagine a little black cartoon-style “censored” label across their lower midsections so it’s impossible to see if they’re “announcing” anything with their erection or lack thereof. Are signs of *male* arousal so binary and limited that it’s impossible to tell if they’re aroused without peeking behind the black bar?

    I mean… seriously?

    Yes, in those circumstances where men or women are visible only from navel to upper thigh, where there’s no possibility of verbal communication or body language, where they’re too far apart to listen to their breathing, assess their posture, feel their body heat, watch them move, or smell them *and* you’re either color-blind so you can’t see genital and non-genital flushing or too far away to discern vulvar engorgement and lubrication, *and* for some reason you have to assess whether someone’s aroused then yeah, thank goodness you can check for an erection. Oops, unless they’re wearing something that’s not quite form-fitting. Oh, and you can somehow confirm that he didn’t just wake up and he has to pee… or conversely that he’s actually quite aroused but dealing with erection dysfunction. But yeah, in those circumstances it’s obvious whether men are aroused but not when women are.

    I mean, *seriously?*

    It would be one thing if we were talking about evolutionary psychologists because it’s generally agreed they’re fascinated by sex because they’re too dweeby to have had it themselves. But these people are supposed to be flipping sexologists and that’s the best Meana can do? Because, seriously, as far as insults to grown men and women’s intelligence goes that’s *way* over the top.

    Jill, you said “How about the fact that women grow up in a society that is centered on men’s experiences and lives? That the female body is used as a representation of sex itself, whereas (hetero) men’s experiences and understandings of sex dominate our cultural narrative?” Now *that* makes a lot more sense. I was really struck by one of the panel discussions on Cherry.tv where one of the other women said she never masturbated because she grew up believing it was “just for guys.” And yeah, in a culture that communicates that to women (and, of course, men) then you’d also expect it to communicate that a man’s erection is the only conceivable or detectable sign of arousal in all of humanity.

    Sheesh!

    figleaf

    p.s. Also what’s with this “*the* female body…” business? Maybe it’s because if she’d said “women’s bodies…” she would have had a moment of self-identification and balked at the absurdity of such a blanket statement.

  42. kelly says:

    yeah, when i was reading that article, i was just like, “they could have just… asked.” it’s 2009, and this is all they’ve put on paper?

  43. eastsidekate says:

    Sorry NYT, you lost me at Meredith . Chivers. Seriously?
    Anyhow, you can tell a lot from measuring blood pressure in the clit. Way more than you ever could by, say, asking women what they thought.
    :headdesk:

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  45. Poubelle says:

    I absolutely loved this response. It’s brilliant.

    One thing I’d point out about rape fantasies: I’ve always wondered if some of it comes from the whole idea that wanting sex is not something “good” girls are supposed to do–but if the sex is forced upon you, as opposed to you pursuing it, you get the sex and you still get to be the good girl. I realize this is probably not true in all cases (and with personal fantasies, what is true for most cases?), but that’s one way of looking at it that made sense to me.

  46. RacyT says:

    “I also can’t blame him for the unfortunate graphic, which seems to suggest that when women really want it, they breathe smoke from their severed heads.”

    This is the third post I’ve read on this, but the above is by far the funniest response I’ve heard.

    Also the desperate, heavy-breathing rape apologist aspect to the article pissed me off beyond belief. It’s like he had to overly-sexualize his descriptions of the researchers to get over his disappointment that they wouldn’t validate his sick assumptions.

  47. Claire says:

    For women, “being desired is the orgasm,”

    Oh, being desired is the orgasm? That’s a hell of a metaphor. Being desired is sexy in certain contexts… but having an unwashed, hairy wang crammed into you for 2-3 minutes isn’t magically rendered orgasmic because the man attached to it is looking at you with hungry eyes. Sometimes being desired is just a little boost for one’s confidence… and frequently being desired is just scary, or at least pain in the ass.

    Nice heteronormative nonsense throughout, as well. The way the authors frame feminine sexuality, it’s inconceivable that two women could ever have sex without a man watching. I’m not going to say that I could have a satisfying sex life in the absence of ever feeling desired, but you know, sometimes I actually… *whispers* I… I’m actually a sexual agent. I don’t want to drag anyone down with me or anything, but sometimes my girlfriend is, too. Generally, we share and exchange roles with some regularity.

    Perhaps it would be more illuminating to investigate why many men are so unwilling to share sexual agency with a partner.

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  49. Xanthippas says:

    Should you ever talk to an actual woman, perhaps consider just asking her.

    Well, but isn’t that partly what some of these researchers are doing? One of the highlights of the article was the study where women could indicate their level of arousal at images they see. Isn’t that asking? And wasn’t the disparity between what they think and their physiological reaction the point?

    I’m trying to see your points here, but it seems that most of your criticism is aimed at the author’s conclusions, which follow for the most part from the research he’s writing about. Wouldn’t it be more apt to direct your criticism at the actual studies, to see how they are flawed? I do think culture is glossed over by the researchers (a point that’s addressed in the article) but being as I’m not of the “nurture over nature” crowd, I think that an explanation that focuses on biology and culture would be appropriate. Is that what you’re opposed to? I honestly can’t tell.

  50. Kristen (The J one) says:

    Xanthippas,

    Well, I can’t speak for Jill but my criticism is basically this.

    Article: “What turns a woman on? It’s so difficult and fraught with ambiguity!”

    Me: “Um…why don’t you just ask the woman in question?”

    Article: “Nah…that’s to useful, instead I’ll turn to “science,” treat all women as a monolith, reiterate sexists tropes on rape, and wrap in a vague reference to the idea that women are socialized differently than men towards sex but without actually discussing sexism. Plus I’ll make dismissive references to female orgasms further indicating that I’m a tool. It’ll be awesome.”

    Me: “Well, then. Tell your female partner I said good luck with that and if she needs a good vibrator, I have some recommendations.”

  51. Claire says:

    Xanthippas,

    The issue addressed by the “ask her” point is not necessarily tied to the methodology of the sexologists… it’s tied to the apparent will of the sexologist to find the essence of feminine sexuality… it is question-begging in that it presupposes that there is an essential feminine sexuality. “Ask her” is a criticism, not of the methodology employed in “writing the book of love”, but of thinking it is possible or desirable to do so in the first place. “Ask her” is not advice for studying “feminine sexuality”, but an imperative to all who would love a woman. Instead of reading Maxim, Playboy, or Chivers to discover what turns women’s cranks, ask the individual woman with whom you’re engaged what turns her crank.

    As a wider criticism of sexology, it opposes the imperative to discover a “feminine sexuality”, which would then, of course, be normative. (“This is what is feminine, and as a woman, to the extent that you do not conform to this, you have deviated from your nature and are therefore bad.”) What might be more appropriate is a sort of ethnographic stamp-collecting project, examining and cataloging the sexual preferences and behaviors of individual women… because women are different.

  52. cbrachyrhynchos says:

    @Claire: I think that’s painting the field with a rather broad brush. If my rather limited acquaintance with the people in the field was any indication, it seemed to be a field that was considerably more open to the concept that queer and feminist voices have something to say about human diversity than mainstream psychology for example.

    In particular, Diamond came onto my radar last year for her longitudinal study documenting long-term identity and relationship status among lesbian and biseuxal women for example.

    In general, I’ve found that it’s not the people doing research who are afraid of the messy complexities that come out of studying human behavior, it’s the journalists and pop-culture writers who really try to frame these issues as a debate between soundbites. On another internet community I’m rather notorious for saying that single-link NYT science posts are pretty much worthless without making the links to at least the abstract of the primary literature.

  53. AnonymousCoward says:

    Claire:
    I think many sexologists (or really, any sort of scientist), would reject the contention that discovering what is most frequently the case necessarily entails a normative claim. Indeed, any scientist worth their salt should recognize that taking scientific discoveries – what “is” – and turning them into normative arguments – what “ought” – is a logical fallacy.

    As a wider point, I feel that criticizing social sciences for failing to accurately represent all people everywhere is largely missing the point of social science. Any study of human behavior will necessarily only abstract the population; a study attempting to describe every person everywhere would be breathtaking in its uselessness (“People are born. They do things. They die.”). So, if we want to learn more about sexuality in general, that will require generalization. So long as generalizations are recognized for what they are, they can be very valuable, in that they can lead us to determine what is most likely in a given scenario.

    While there’s certainly room to criticize some of the conclusions of the researchers (Narcissism? Really?), and parts of the article were jarring to say the least (still not sure what was going on with the “she favors high boots” bit), I’m a bit disturbed by the anti-science tone of many of the responses I’ve read here and elsewhere, which seem to take the line of “We shouldn’t research female sexuality, because that must mean that there can only be One True Sexuality.” Wouldn’t it be better if we tried to understand female sexuality in the same ways as we tried to understand male sexuality?

  54. shah8 says:

    I’m with AnonymousCoward. The main problem is with the author who is twisting stuff. I can see why people would think Chivers is controversial, though. I am, however, hostile to the other scientists mentioned.

    The whole “just ask women” meme was really besides the point. There are tons of that sort of research available. Also, people wanted to track non-conscious reactions to sexuality. You couldn’t just ask then…

  55. cbrachyrhynchos says:

    @shah8: Why are you hostile to Diamond, part of a small set of researchers actively challenging binary notions of gender and sexuality and privileging the voices of queer women in sex research?

  56. cbrachyrhynchos says:

    To explain, the reason why I’m a fan of Diamond is because she’s the first researcher I’ve seen writing about sex and sexuality to start from a radically different set of assumptions:

    1: Bisexual and non-identified women are not just experimenting straights or lesbians partway through a socialization process.

    2: Lesbian, bisexual and non-identified women are women, and any claims made about women’s sexuality need to include their experiences.

    3: Research about lesbian, bisexual and non-identified women may actually inform our understanding of heterosexuality.

    4: Sexual identities, attractions and practices can change.

    It’s a pretty radical departure from the traditional view that heterosexuality is normative default and same-sex attraction should be treated as either a fringe outlier or a deviant paraphilia.

  57. shah8 says:

    diamond, I do not think there was very much about her. I can easily have missed the point.

    Meany, or however that is spelled, just twigged my “Don’t Listen” alarm. Diamond sounds like she did the same thing as Chivers, who did work with transexuals and which eastsidekate really disliked. Anyways, I wasn’t really registering who did what by the middle of the article.

    I was sympathetic to Chivers mostly because in my little patch of neurology, when I was doing that sort of thing, involved the exact same methods and data analysis, only I stuck stuff on different body parts. Chivers doesn’t sound crazy, but I’m as familiar as the next geek about scientists with a big bug up her buttcheeks about something.

  58. CBrachyrhynchos says:

    Well, I don’t recall Diamond publishing anything using physiological measures of arousal. Her 10 year study did what eastsidekate suggested, conducted interviews with women about their sexual relationships and sexual orientation over a 10-year period.

  59. shah8 says:

    Yeah, I remember that. I just didn’t remember who said what during the middle.

    Oh, and do let me clear, I pretty much had the same opinion as Jill and Amanda about this article. It’s just not unexpected, because I’ve seen so few MSM articles about sexuality that were operating in good faith, it would practically be miraculous.

  60. shah8 says:

    What I *really* didn’t like about the article is the whole element of “we know how women think that they don’t”. Not q

  61. shah8 says:

    long post aborted by computer that need reinstall, for which I’m being lazy and procrastinating…

    too lazy to reread what was written.

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  63. David Thompson says:

    “Because, pardon me, but arousal in both men and women is at least moderately (almost said “modestly!”) obvious from the collarbones up.”

    Some people are not able to perceive such things.

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  65. queen emily says:

    Shah 8: Yeah, seriously. Using trans women as a control group for cis men = NOT. COOL. I expect nothing less from someone mentored by Michael Bailey, though.

    Honestly, I thought the most telling part of that article was the quote about all the funding is for research into *differences*. That suggests to me a profoundly ideological imperative at work here, looking to produce a heteronormative notion of sexes as “opposite.”

    I mean, this is just a series of cliched tropes masquerading as research, producing through interpretation what it suggests to be merely describing.

  66. Maggie says:

    Great post. As a side note, while I appreciate the point you’re making in that paragraph, I would like to respectfully submit that “unfettered by cultural constraints” is an almost entirely meaningless statement, especially in relation to sex, which by definition involves more than one person. What human interaction can happen outside of culture? The way I experience sexuality may be culturally constructed, but that doesn’t make it any less real – I mean, as opposed to what? It could have been culturally constructed in a different way, but it could never have been entirely separate from culture and society. It’s a logical impossibility. At best, we’re thinking “unfettered” as in “influenced in a less negative way” and “cultural constraints” as in our culture’s collective issues rather than anyone else’s. Which basicaly leads right back into your final point – while our culture’s construction of sexuality is certainly relevant in understanding where certain general responses/ideas come from, it completely breaks down at the point of individual response, because at that level we need to be dealing with the consequences of our sexual expression rather than the causes, and by then it really doesn’t matter if my reasons for e.g. wanting to be tied up are in any way related to a man’s reasons likewise.

    In a completely different meander, the “penetrate/envelop” thing – I have certainly read about sex from a male perspective in words like “she took me into her body” or whatever – there’s a certain era of romance in which that was more common, I think. Pity it’s not these days, it does sound a little more elegant than our worn-out penetration metaphors.

  67. Jim says:

    “Sorry NYT, you lost me at Meredith . Chivers. Seriously?
    Anyhow, you can tell a lot from measuring blood pressure in the clit. Way more than you ever could by, say, asking women what they thought.
    :headdesk:”

    The article dealt with this. The researchers reapreatedly noted the disparity between what the test subjects reported and what the instrumentation showed and concluded the test subjects were saying what they thought they should say – on what valid basis they didn’t say. Courts used to trust instrumentation more than what pedophiles reported about their deisres too.

    “Honestly, I thought the most telling part of that article was the quote about all the funding is for research into *differences*. ”

    Another telling part of that quote was how that represented a change from earlier research which tended to assume men and women responded alike – Kinsey, i think it was.

    “I have certainly read about sex from a male perspective in words like “she took me into her body” or whatever – there’s a certain era of romance in which that was more common, I think. ”

    That’s a man’s version of a rape fantasy. Just fabulously romantic.

    “Ah…but then those persons would have to admit that they might have to do slightly more “work” than show up with an erect penis and cater to their own desires.* Which explodes the whole…I’m awesome, she’s the one who has the problem orgasming myth.”

    So true – how we have backslid from the 70’s. I wonder how you might relate the same insight to “erectile dysfunction”?

  68. I enjoyed your critique. However, I’d like for you to also critique Ian Kerner’s “She Comes First.” Kerner is one of those compassionate male chauvinists who want women to have great sex, but view intercourse as sex and clitoral orgasms are “coreplay.” YUCK! We need to critique the “nice” male chauvinists as much as the more obvious ones.

    Kerner says he was raised to think of women as his equals. However, that statement is very male chauvinistic because it views the male as the norm of humanity. Kerner needs to aspire to become a woman’s equal.

  69. EthicalQuestion says:

    “maybe men don’t penetrate women, women envelope men. ”

    Isn’t the notion of enveloping originally from Luce Irigaray? See for instance her 1974 Ethics of Sexual Difference, which I think precedes Andrea Dworkin.

    Also, really enjoyed your post. I do think, however, that at some point we must go beyond the re-iterations that women’s bodies are sexualised. If we have to cover that territory every time we speak about female sexuality, or even female subjectivity, we might never move on. I personally would have thought an exploration into ethical side of female sexuality should have been included in the NYT piece. That is, the question begs to be asked, ‘Do women take responsibility for their sexuality? If so, how? If not, why not?’ My feeling is that this article suggests that because women have submission fantasies, or because they are sexually ‘mysterious’, women are still not held responsible for their sexual actions. This works to place them into the traditional female = passive role.

  70. Ecks says:

    Some excellent critiques here, but others seem less compelling.

    “I wonder why so many male ‘experts’ are so determined…”

    Uh… the article is explicitly ALL about the work of female scientists…

    It’s tied to the apparent will of the sexologist to find the essence of feminine sexuality

    But isn’t that what scientists DO? Like people who study prejudice try to do experiments that test a generalized boxes-and-arrows model of prejudice, they don’t just sit down with an individual jerk and say “how do YOU feel about East Asians?” Science is all about impersonal understanding of sometimes very personal things.

    What I *really* didn’t like about the article is the whole element of “we know how women think that they don’t”.

    Again, a science thing. We study prejudice, then go around with this smug feeling that we know about people’s automatic prejudices that they aren’t even aware of, etc.

    I thought the most telling part of that article was the quote about all the funding is for research into *differences*.

    Once more, standard operating procedure for science. If you want to study X, then question 1 is: “how is this different than Y, and how is it the same.” In fact, the more similar they appear to be on the surface, the more interesting the differences you can find are, and vice versa.

    What human interaction can happen outside of culture?

    When did that ever stop scientists trying to do heredity studies and evo psych to tell them apart? The main post here seems hostile to the idea that biology can play any role at all, and indeed makes a compelling case for why culture is more powerful than the article suggested… But isn’t this an empirical question? Someone needs to go and check out other cultures. Do women in highly egalitarian places have similar rates of rape fantasies? That would go a lot further towards settling it, surely?

    It completely breaks down at the point of individual response

    Uh huh. But that’s true of almost all psychological generalizations. If twin studies show a 50% genetic contribution to, say, conscientiousness, that doesn’t tell us anything about any one person, nor does it say we shouldn’t be upset if they keep turning up late to highly time sensitive things. All research has limits, it’s just the nature of the beast.

    I’ve found that it’s not the people doing research who are afraid of the messy complexities that come out of studying human behavior, it’s the journalists and pop-culture writers who really try to frame these issues as a debate between soundbites.

    Is there a single topic that they DON’T cover in glib and mostly inaccurate sound bites?

    Some people are not able to perceive such things.

    And other people work hard to conceal such things. The binary presented in the article of “visible / not-visible” was way over simplistic, but men have at least one ‘tell’ that is far more obvious and difficult to simulate / hide. For whatever that is worth.

    Also, some people point out that the article doesn’t cover ethical issues, is restricted to heteronormative sex, etc… All true, but then it never promised to be a comprehensive review, right? It’s a news article, not a textbook. It’s fair to complain that queer sexuality is systematically ignored in general, but not sure that can be laid at any one article’s feet.

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  72. Fiendish says:

    Jim:

    ‘ “I have certainly read about sex from a male perspective in words like “she took me into her body” or whatever – there’s a certain era of romance in which that was more common, I think. ”

    That’s a man’s version of a rape fantasy. Just fabulously romantic.’

    Wait, what?

    I am seriously alarmed by your supposed logic here. Women and men alike have been societally conditioned to accept “penetration by male” as normal, as opposed to “enveloping by female”. Women fantasise all the time about being penetrated – of course, since this is how society defines sex – and it is seen as normal.

    And if a man chooses to fantasise about being enveloped by a woman – simply *different societal terminology for the same act* – that qualifies as a rape fantasy? If a woman fantasises about her body enveloping a male, is she fantasising about committing rape?

    I am quite shocked, if this is genuinely what you meant.

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  74. Marty W. says:

    “women envelope men”

    I am sure that would be the frame of understanding if women were typically bigger and stronger than men. But because nature has made it the other way around, men are viewed as the ‘penetrators’ rather than the ‘enveloped.’

    Of course women are turned on by the female form – they identify it with themselves, and their sexuality is inherently responsive. In classical romantic terms: men are the Lovers, and women are the Beloved. It’s a mutual dyad, but the initial agency is masculine.

    I genuinely believe that human sexuality is ‘hard-wired’ nature, and that culture is simply a myriad reflection of it (with differing emphases for different times and places).

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