Sunday, January 25, 2009

"What Do Women Want?" (New York Times Magazine 1/25/08)

The cover story of today's New York Times Magazine is about the study of women's sexual desire by a new generation of female sexologists. Considering how much time has been devoted to this subject over the centuries by poets and lovers of both genders it is remarkable that it has only emerged as a field of scientific study in the last few decades.

The Times Magazine article basically focuses on the conceptions of female sexuality developed by three scientists: Meredith Chivers, Lisa Diamond and Marta Meana. These models are sometimes complimentary and sometimes contradictory.

Meredith Chivers: There is a discord, noted in scientific studies, between what women say turns them on and what causes observable genital responses. What men say turns them on is reliably the same as what makes their cock hard but what women say turns them on is not always in sync with what makes their pussies the wettest. Chivers wonders (while admitting her research is far from complete) if women might become aroused by the idea and possibility of sex, not to what they themselves think is hot.
Ultimately, though, Chivers spoke — always with a scientist’s caution, a scientist’s uncertainty and acknowledgment of conjecture — about female sexuality as divided between two truly separate, if inscrutably overlapping, systems, the physiological and the subjective. Lust, in this formulation, resides in the subjective, the cognitive; physiological arousal reveals little about desire.

Lisa Diamond: Female sexuality is extremely fluid. Women are likely to change a lot in their sexual desires, often changing sexual orientation based on the situation, because they are attracted to emotional intimacy rather than physical cues. They fall in love with the person, not the person's gender, as it were.
Diamond argues that for her participants, and quite possibly for women on the whole, desire is malleable, that it cannot be captured by asking women to categorize their attractions at any single point, that to do so is to apply a male paradigm of more fixed sexual orientation. Among the women in her group who called themselves lesbian, to take one bit of the evidence she assembles to back her ideas, just one-third reported attraction solely to women as her research unfolded. And with the other two-thirds, the explanation for their periodic attraction to men was not a cultural pressure to conform but rather a genuine desire.

Marta Meana: Women are turned on essentially by the awareness that they are sexually desired. Their desire is for the most part reactive and (if you can get past the negative connotations of the word) narcissistic. This is why sexy images, even those targeted at women, focus more on women than on men, why rape/submission fantasies are so arousing to many women, and why long term intimacy can be such a buzz kill -- a married man is "stuck with" his partner, in her mind, not caught up in an uncontrollable desire to possess her.
“Female desire,” Meana said, speaking broadly and not only about her dyspareunic patients, “is not governed by the relational factors that, we like to think, rule women’s sexuality as opposed to men’s.” (...) The generally accepted therapeutic notion that, for women, incubating intimacy leads to better sex is, Meana told me, often misguided. “Really,” she said, “women’s desire is not relational, it’s narcissistic” — it is dominated by the yearnings of “self-love,” by the wish to be the object of erotic admiration and sexual need. Still on the subject of narcissism, she talked about research indicating that, in comparison with men, women’s erotic fantasies center less on giving pleasure and more on getting it. “When it comes to desire,” she added, “women may be far less relational than men.”

While reading about scientific attempts to understand sexuality, I always feel slightly resistant to the entire concept. Maybe I don't like the tendency to reduce all women (or all men) to one emotional model or maybe I just don't want science to take the mystery out of this part of life. I can't decide. In any case, my aversion to this sort of research is irrational -- it can never hurt to know more, right?

The point of the article, of course, is not that one of these researchers is right and the others are wrong. It is that female sexuality has a complicated and contradictory landscape and that there is at least some truth in all of these theories. So for people like me who enjoy that there are still mysteries in life this article is ultimately pretty satisfying.


  1. I'm only one woman, but AS a woman, I can say that I read your post and went "Yup. Yup. Aaaaand....yup." So, they're all right. I'm sure to varying degrees, of course, but still. I'm looking forward to reading the whole article...