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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- The Good Body by Jill October 26, 2006
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- On the Myth of Inherent Female Bisexuality by Ryan December 5, 2005