What Women Want? To Talk About What Women Want

Since yesterday's NY Times Magazine piece "What Do Women Want?" about new research into female sexuality was so long and hard (to parse!), it took two of us to try to take it on.

MEGAN says:
Graphics of supposedly aroused women aside, I think we should first off give some credit to Daniel Bergner for writing a much more nuanced piece about Meredith Chivers' research than did his colleague Andy Newman earlier this summer who gleaned nothing from it other than women are really, really bi. Thankfully, the longer form piece allows Chivers to clarify one very key point, which Chivers says:

"I hammer home with my students, 'Arousal is not consent.' "

I think that's a really key point actually, for both men and women: men don't necessarily get erections because they want to have sex at a given moment, and women don't necessarily get southern blood flow (the physiological ladyboner, such as) and lubricated because they do, either.

And although I think the discussion about rape fantasies and physical arousal during rape is interesting and key to developing a better understanding, I think that Chivers' colleague Marta Meana sort of misses the point of a rape fantasy to a large degree. Chivers findings that women become at least minorly physically aroused by depictions of sex regardless of the depiction — and Meana's point that the female body hides its arousal from a distance while the man's is (pardon the pun) rather pointed, which means that, social constructs of women as sexual aside, it's possible that we are also biologically attuned to view the female form as more arousing regardless of orientation — are together quite interesting. Chivers work indicates that there are quite possibly evolutionary reasons for women's ease to some level of physical arousal despite circumstances — which, sadly, says a depressing lot about the long-term and wide-spread existence of rape from our earliest days — and hammers home the point that arousal isn't consent.

But Meana's points in particular about rape fantasies, and to a lesser degree Chivers', really stuck with me. This idea that women want in some way to consent to being ravished, to allow themselves to be "taken" or to be forced into submission and, through that, into enjoyment strikes a different chord for me than it does for Meana. Chivers says:

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

But even that says that it's not biological, that it's cultural and psychological, that it's some desire to overcome women's own personal barriers to full sexual enjoyment through being forced over them. That's sort of a sad state, I think. Sex is great when you are all in your mid-brain, when what you're told ought to feel good or what is supposedly good is gone and rational thought has fled; when you don't give a shit that your ass is dimpled or your breasts are sagging or that he has a belly or whatever; when you don't care what noises you are making or he is; because those are things the social-you cares about and that version of yourself has been subsumed by the biological-urges-are-paramount iteration of self. And I just feel like this idea that women need to be desired to the point of domination fails to recognize that some part of that — in my opinion, some large part of that — is rooted in the Madonna-Whore social construct in which "good" girls don't want it as much as boys, or don't like it as much, or don't enjoy it as much, rather than in some inherent biological wiring.

ANNA says:
I'm less interested in the rape-fantasies discussion than you are, probably because on some level it makes me uncomfortable, and probably because I don't feel I have the tools to adequately address it, but can we stop here and, as Meana somewhat suggested, cease to use the phrase "rape fantasy"? The underlying definition of the word "rape" implies not only a lack of power but lack of choice, and for those who fantasize about being dominated, to me (and to Meana) there is a lot of power and choice inherent in that fantasy: you get to pick the time, the place, the person. As for the sexologists' evolutionary theory that the female sexual organs - even under threat of harm - can and will protectively lubricate, that is no surprise to anyone who has willingly had intercourse with a partner despite not exactly being in the "mood"... and found herself becoming wet "despite" herself.

To address your point about being "biologically attuned to view the female form as more arousing," I agree that it is possible, but I don't quite buy it. Having come of age in the early '80s, when most every Hollywood movie seemed to be a college-comedy headlined by men but made for the express purpose of showing naked, nubile young women, my ideas about what was considered "sexy" were firmly rooted in the female form. I think in many cases, they still are. Although it's hard for me to say whether or not I was consciously mentally attracted to these images, I sure as hell know my body was; but was that my biology speaking or my subconscious as influenced by the culture, in which "sex" = "naked breasts, and crotch shots"? I will say that Mr. Bergner's early line about Chivers' research - "the readings from the plethysmograph and the keypad weren't in much accord" - resonated quite strongly with me. Or, as Chivers says later down, "the horrible reality of psychological research is that you can't pull apart the cultural from the biological."

What I was most interested in, and kept coming back to all day on Saturday after my first read-through of this piece, was the idea of how "narcissism" plays a role in female desire:

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.

Although I have a problem with the word "narcissism" to describe this phenomenon, the underlying idea, "being desired is the orgasm", stuck with me. (I should have said this earlier but I think it's obvious at this point that I am coming at this piece not so much from an analytical POV as a personal one.) I would say that, over the course of my adult life, a good half of the sexual urges directed at a particular man (whether I knew him intimately or not) sprung up on their own (i.e., I found him attractive) and the other half made themselves evident only after (and, I would guess, in response to) interest expressed by him. It's as if discovering that I was the object of someone's lust, interest, or curiosity flipped a switch inside me to the "on" position.

MEGAN says:
Well, goodness knows I never lose interest in rape fantasy discussion, but I think we're sort of saying something without even saying it. It's a rape fantasy not necessarily because it's about domination and forced submission within the context of sex, but because it's a fantasy of what rape is: that it's about sex, or physical desire, or a man desiring you and so losing control of his civilized self that he reverts into something animalistic (I believe at this point Dennis Prager would bring up rape-y chickens) not bound by social mores. And, yet, rape isn't about the expression of physical desire but about the expression of dominance, sadistic dominance, over more than one's body. Actual rape is removed from sex, insofar as it isn't about sex but that sex is the tool used to achieve deeper and more sociopathic ends. Rape is rooted in society, inextricably so, because the use of sex as a tool to achieve those ends requires the framework of consent to be able to subvert as a means to a different end than simple sexual gratification. So actual rape isn't about losing control or about giving up control or, one might say, if one were more versed in the language of the BDSM scene, topping from the bottom. Rape fantasies are, as you say, fantasies about submitting to a supposed aggressor with full consent and knowledge that you can be the one ending it. It's a fantasy of domination even as it's a fantasy about what rape really is. But I think it's a useful description of what the role-playing is for those reasons. I don't have a problem with the term: unlike one of the commenters on the article, I have no illusions that either of the men that sexually assaulted me did so because they thought I "wanted" it. They might have chosen to justify their actions to themselves or others in that way afterwards, but there was no mistaking what was going on either time.

And, the point about being biologically attuned is more Meana's point than mine.

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.

Though I agree more with you that such is most definitely cultural (of course, we all know I have a prediliction for nuture over nature arguments), it's an interesting counterpoint to the argument that arousal is not desire/consent, particularly as it applies to men and women and Chivers' findings that women respond sexually to even naked women engaged in mundane activities but not to unaroused men — though that, too, could be cultural or social, since we're sort of taught that aroused men are indicative of — as you point out — being desired.

In terms of the "narcissism" argument, though, I am not convinced that this is an inherent difference between men and women. Aren't we all equally narcisstic? Don't we all kind of get off from being desired? Is that not the impetus for the "girlfriend experience" in prostitution, to take it to an extreme I don't like? Is showing an interest in a man who might not otherwise find you attractive not equally a turn-on for him? I mean, I think women are more conditioned not to set themselves up for rejection in quite the same way, certainly, but showing an interest in a guy, at least in my experience, can work about the same way. So I'm not sure it's female narcissism as much as human narcissism.

Meana's point with regards to narcissism and masturbation were really interesting, actually. She wrote:

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.

I wonder, though, if it sort of depends on how one defines pleasure. I guess, to me, the thought that men don't masturbate to orgasm thinking about orgasming is sort of hilarious? But it makes me wonder if Meana is definining "getting pleasure" as being penetrated, and "giving pleasure" as... oral sex? Or something? Is a man automatically thinking of "giving" pleasure if he is penetrating a woman (in my experience, the reality of that is, um, well, it's not automatic) and a woman only receiving it if she is being penetrated? But I guess I don't define myself as being pleasured if I am being penetrated; I think of it as both giving and receiving it. It is interesting how much Meana comes back to issues of power and control, now that I think about it.

ANNA says:
I agree with you about the "narcissism" argument not necessarily being specific to women, but it was the first time I had really ever heard it broached w/r/t sexual desire and response (let's be clear I am not a voracious reader of sex research), and, although it could be interpreted as insulting, condescending and sexist - and is most assuredly politically incorrect - I didn't take it that way, mainly because I don't think that the researcher MEANT it that way. But to answer your question, "don't we all kind of get off from being desired," I suppose the easy answer is "yes", but there are such subtleties even there, and for some women, "being desired" can quickly go from flattering to intimidating or scary.

Agreed on the narcissism and masturbation: I wish Meana and/or Bergner had defined exactly what is meant by "giving pleasure" and "getting it" actually. And that, of course, brings up a larger, really interesting question that, although it has no one "answer", is still something I'd want to hear from people: What do you think about when you masturbate, and how would you define it: As "giving pleasure" or "getting it"?

Jesus Christ, there was a lot to unpack in this piece and I feel like we didn't even touch on a lot of other, important things - the methodologies used in research (a friend emailed me today saying, "Apparently the research study that showed women were more catholic in their capacity for arousal than men are was performed with equipment that can't tell the difference between a near-orgasmic blood flow to the vaginal walls and a research subject shifting in her chair? Are they fucking kidding us?"); questions about the participants in the research and whether they represent the "norm" in any way; what that "norm" is; the fact that a man wrote the piece; more exploration into same sex attraction among self-identified, firmly "heterosexual" women... the list goes on.

What I came away with ultimately, were dozens of questions, no answers, but a renewed desire to, as Chivers says she hopes her research will, "shift the way" I perceive my capacity to get turned on.

MEGAN says:
Strangely enough, I can answer some of the methodological questions, having participated in one of these sex studies. First off, they screen you pretty thoroughly — people with a strong aversion, morally or otherwise, to pornography are generally left out because of the inhibition factor mentioned in the piece. Second off, the plethysmograph they use is a really blunt instrument — it doesn't measure changes in what is going on in your vagina as much as it measures light. It's sort of the size of a regular plastic tampon applicator, fitted with a light sensor and a light emitter. When you insert it, it establishes a baseline measurement for light reflections, based on its location in one's vagina and then, as one becomes aroused and the vagina becomes engorged with blood, more light is absorbed than reflected and that's how it measures things. But, as you shift, the light and the sensor move closer to (or further away from) the walls, which impacts how the light refraction is measured. So, that's why it's not as sensitive a measure, but it's also what makes it relatively easy to pick up the difference when dissecting the data.

Also, Chivers' research doesn't touch on same-sex attraction among self-identified heterosexual women, and Lisa Diamond's research is the one that touches on fluidity in sexuality among self-identified lesbians and bisexual women. Chivers' research only shows that women respond to sexual stimuli physically in ways they aren't conscious of — but, again, physical arousal isn't consent or even desire. Both Chivers and Meana speculate that it is partly an evolutionary response to overall sexual stimuli (keep in mind, watching monkeys fuck got a sexual response from women) and partly, perhaps, a social/cultural response based on being socialized to find female nudity attractive and arousing. They specifically aren't arguing that it makes women more bisexual, because that's both desire and consent, not arousal. I think most of us would agree no matter if we get a little physically stimulated watching monkeys fuck, that doesn't mean we want to fuck monkeys. We just tend to want to fuck who we'd want to fuck anyway.

What Do Women Want? [New York Times]

Related: What Women Want (Maybe) [New York Times]

Earlier: Are All Women A Little Bi? In A Word: No.