That’s the argument put forward by Ogi Ogas and Sai Gaddam, writing in Psychology Today (thanks, Ariana, for the link). They start off here:
One sexual enigma perplexes both women and their clinicians: Why do so many American women have difficulties in bed?
Well, let’s see: Dudes who couldn’t find a clitoris with GPS and GoogleMaps? Women who are taught to be self-conscious about their bodies and especially their lady-bits? Dudes who assume that if they put it in they’ve done their part? Women who don’t feel the same sort of entitlement towards sexual enjoyment as men? Men who see sex as something that they “get” rather than as a dynamic and highly variable set of acts between two people? Women who are raised believing that being too sexual is slutty, but that sex is something that they have to do for men, and that sex is centered on male pleasure? The construction of sex as between men and women, and something men do to women, and purely penetrative, and beginning when the dude enters and ending when he ejaculates? The many wonderful but sometimes frustrating complications of the human brain and body?
Though several factors specific to the design of the female brain contribute to this problem, there is one important psychological factor that may be unique to modern democracies. This factor is one of the unmentionables of sexual science, but since our book is filled with unmentionables, we’ll whisper it here:
The majority of women have submission fantasies.
Why? Because Romance Novels.
From classic romance The Flame and The Flower to classic erotica The Claiming of Sleeping Beauty to Twilight BDSM fan fiction, submission themes are immensely popular in cross-cultural female erotica. The fact of the matter is that most heterosexual women are wired to find sexual submission arousing–and so are most female mammals.
Why? Because Rats.
Consider Rattus norvegicus, the Norwegian rat. The female performs stereotyped physical actions associated with sexual interest. First is pacing: running and stopping, inducing a male to chase her. This culminates in lordosis: assuming a submissive stationary posture with arched back and raised hips. Lordosis is controlled by a specific region of the hypothalamus, a subcortical brain structure. An analogous part of the brain controls submission postures in female primates.
In male rats, another part of the hypothalamus controls stereotyped dominance activity, such as mounting a female and performing intromission.
…and then there’s a picture of two rats totally fucking doggy-style, and it is so gross.
But ok, let’s talk about this “submissive posture” in rats (and now we are going to talk about rat-sex, and it is going to be even grosser than that picture, so feel free to skip ahead). A big problem with a lot of the evolutionary psychology stuff, and a lot of the arguments using animal behavior to prove that women act in a certain way and that gender roles are totally biological, is that it’s real, gendered people who are doing the interpreting. So, these guys look at two rats fucking, and they’re like, “clearly the rat on the receiving end of the dick is the submissive rat.” But… why? I mean, we have a picture of two rats. The boy-rat is behind the girl-rat, kind of mounting her, but the girl-rat also has her back arched and she’s straight pushing her rat-ass right into that boy-rat’s rat dick. Or at least that’s what it looks like, I don’t know, it’s not a video THANK GOD. But the researchers read this as, “She’s in a submissive position because her back is arched and so it’s like he chased her and caught her.” But it’s just as easy to read it as, “He’s in a submissive position, being behind her and all.” I mean, we could show these guys pictures of actual human beings having sex, and they could see that human beings have sex in so many ways, and that a lot of the time women are on top (and sometimes there aren’t even women involved, or there are only women involved, and then the whole world falls apart). Guys, there is a whole universe of internet pornography out there! You do not need the gross rat pictures, is my point (unless that is your thing, in which case, ok enjoy, because the world is a wonderful and diverse place full of people with highly varied sexual interests).
But the point is, a photo of rat sex doesn’t really prove that women love submission, since “submission” is something that’s being projected onto the rats who are just trying to do their thing without getting stuck in the middle of some gender war bullshit. I mean, our authors are really into romance novels as indicators of True Female Desire — so what does the image below prove?
It’s basically the same picture as the ones with the rats doin’ it, except it’s two people, and they’re sort-of clothed and not doing it yet (he is shirtless, duh), and he has really big biceps and a sweet belt. But she’s behind him, totally grabbing his titties! So… is he submissive here?
Anyway, this happens a lot with animal observation, and with attempts to evaluate animal behavior as if we’re observing animals in a way that is entirely neutral and totally outside of our own biases and assumptions about sex and gender. Like, two male animals will stimulate each other sexually and raise a baby together and researchers are just like, “awww, besties!” Or male animals go around fucking like crazy and researchers are all, “Male animals, including male humans, are biologically engineered to try to deposit their seed in as many uteri as possible, because Evolution,” but then they don’t really seem to notice that female animals also go around fucking like crazy, and that maybe it’s evolutionarily beneficial to have as many sperm as possible competing for that egg so that the strongest one wins out? But there’s no “Female animals, including female humans, are biologically engineered to be as whorey as possible, because Evolution, so whore it up, girls!” Even though actually, we maybe are biologically engineered to do it all the time and love doing it all the time.
But back to romance novels.
Almost every quality of dominant males triggers arousal in the female brain: dominant scents, dominant gaits, deep voices, height, displays of wealth. Romance heroes are almost always high status alpha males–billionaires, barons, surgeons, sheriffs. Avon Books and Ellora’s Cave feature no heroes who are kindergarten teachers, accountants, or plumbers. Even though there’s been a trend away from the conspicuously rapey bodice-rippers of the seventies and eighties, women still want strong, dominant men.
“I think this is one of the problems we’re having in romance in general right now: our heroes have gotten a little too PC. We’re portraying men the way feminist ideals say they should be-respectful and consensus-building,” muses erotic romance (EroRom) author Angela Knight. “Yet women like bad boys. I suspect that’s because our inner cavewoman knows Doormat Man would become Sabertooth Tiger Lunch in short order. In fact, this may be one reason why EroRom is gaining popularity so fast–writers feel free to write dominant heroes with more of an edge.”
I mean, when you’re basing your views of female sexuality off of grocery-store romance novels, maybe it’s time to rethink the strength of your position.
On the other hand, most men are aroused by being dominant, as evidenced by the massive cross-cultural popularity of dominance-themed adult Web sites for men. These include some of the most inventive and varied genres of male erotica, such as hypnotism porn (where Svengalis hypnotize woman into having sex), drunk porn (where men trick inebriated women into having sex), sleep porn (where men take advantage of sleeping women), and a wide diversity of exploitation porn (where women exchange sexual favors for school books, a ride, or a rent-free apartment).
So it’s true that all of those kinds of porn are really popular, except that doesn’t strike me as eroticizing dominance so much as eroticizing rape. And I would suggest that’s not because men as a whole are biologically rapey; I’d suggest that we live in a culture that eroticizes violence against women, and that constructs sex as something that men do to women. It’s no surprise when that gets taken to its most extreme conclusion in fantasy porn-land.
Also: Just because someone seeks out a particular kind of pornography doesn’t necessarily mean that they want to do that in bed (any more than reading a romance novel means you actually want to bang Fabio). A lot of people, I think, enjoy porn because it’s an escape. And also, porn can be a reflection of the worst aspects of our culture — which is why rape-but-not-calling-it-rape porn is so popular. Not because dudes biologically want to be dominant, necessarily; because we live in a really poisonous society that problematizes female desire, that ties masculinity to sexual voraciousness, that has no mainstream model of female-pleasure-centered sexuality, and that constructs sex as something of a violent act visited on women by men.
And some dudes want to be dominant. And some ladies like submission. And vice-versa. And that’s all right. But what we want doesn’t happen in a vacuum, and is shaped by culture and exposure and understanding of sex as well as some sort of biological imperative and animal desire. (Which doesn’t mean you shouldn’t get down however you want to get down; you should! But you don’t need a stamp of approval from either Biology or Feminism to enjoy yourself and do the thing).
But back to the question posed in the article: Why do so many American women have problems in bed? “American women desire submission” doesn’t really answer that question, does it? I think the idea is that we all desire submission, but we fight it, or something? So there are all of these women who are on top when really they want to be on bottom and that’s why we aren’t having enough orgasms? Yeah, I don’t know. Was everyone way more sexually satisfied 100 years ago when Men Were Men or whatever? I think almost definitely not.
But, to be fair, feminism is partially to blame. After all, feminists have been the ones telling women “Sex isn’t just for baby-making! Sex should be fun, too!” And feminists have pushed things like birth control access and abortion rights, so that women can have sex and not spend the entire time in a state of terror because nothing is a bigger lady-boner-killer than “this could make a baby in my tummy” when the last thing you want is a baby anywhere near any part of you. So I would venture to guess that now, women feel a lot more entitled to sexual pleasure. And we hear about all of these other women having like 17 orgasms in one sexual session and we’re like, waaaait a minute, that sounds fun and I want that! And in the meantime, dudes (especially younger dudes who never knew a world without constant access to pornography via the internet) are still just pumping way and thinking that the pinnacle of great sex is a cumshot and then they’re all, “Did you come? Of course you came. I am the man,” because somehow the female orgasm has also been co-opted into something that is done For Dudes and is taken as a sign of his greatness? And girls and women get these messages too, and a lot of girls and women also like porn and porny sex, but it’s all extremely confusing and still very much Sex For Men even if it’s also a turn-on for women, and let’s be real: Getting jack-hammered for ten minutes is not the best way, across the board, to have a super-satisfying sex life. So we have all of these representations of sex which are varying degrees of hot, but very little actual education about how the human body works and surprisingly little variety when it comes to mainstream sexual imagery.
Why are so many women sexually unsatisfied? Romance novels, definitely.