Dorothy Black looks at new work being done in female sexuality and comes back with the answer: it’s a lot wilder than you’ve ever imagined.
Can you imagine a world where a woman’s sexuality was deemed predatory, aggressive and voracious? Where she hunted for mates who could satisfy her physically, instead of coyly waiting for romantic gestures from a chivalrous gentleman? Where she favoured sex with many different men instead of being locked down and physically committed to one?
However that makes you feel, you should know that studies into female sexuality are starting to paint this picture.
Turns out, the story that’s been packaged and sold to us about our bodies, desires and sex drive – as fact – might have been a more than just a little bit influenced by that creepy old man in the corner called patriarchy.
Your desire is constructed in perfume ads and bounced about in music videos as a means to a man’s end
This is nothing new to subcultures that still venerate and nurture female sexual energy as a force to be reckoned with. My first experience of this was with Shakti Malan, a now world-renowned tantrika who runs workshops showing women how to tap into their desire and ‘drop into’ their own bodies.
If you’re wondering what other bodies we’ve collectively dropped into, just open any women’s glossy and take a look at what your sexual power is being sold to you as: demure, made-up, withholding, brittle with frailty and in stasis, waiting to satisfy The One. Your desire is constructed in perfume ads and bounced about in music videos as a means to a man’s end.
So, do you know what your desire looks and feels like without all of this? Well move back to that first paragraph and you’ll have an idea about where new – unbiased, women-focused – research thinks we’re at.
In What Do Women Want?: Adventures in the Science of Female Desire, author Daniel Bergner (yes, the irony is not lost on me) delves into work being done in the field of women’s sexuality and, in particular, the area of lust – what turns us on and how we get turned on.
Top eye-ballers include what monogamy actually does to women’s libidos – kill it
In effect, What Do Women Want challenges the tired tropes that have been constructed around women’s sexuality, not only by gender-biased social mores, but by the largely male-dominated science fraternity.
Some top eye-ballers include what monogamy actually does to women’s libidos (kill it), the narcissism inherent in being turned on by being desired (the sexiness of being ‘objectified’), that the female of the species is a sexual aggressor (not a passive bystander) and how much more visual we are than men.
This last one is illustrated by, what is for me, one of the most telling studies that prove just how ‘out of’ of our bodies we tend to be – how disconnected we as women are from what we find desirable to what we think we should find desirable.
Berger kicks his book off with a study conducted by Dr Meredith Chivers, a leading scientist in the field of female sexuality. In one experiment Chivers gets a group of men and women – straight, bi and lesbian – to watch a variety of porn, from hetero stuff to lesbian and gay porn and even clips of bonobos (a type of chimp) having sex.
The women were fitted with a plethysmograph, a little plastic probe that’s inserted into the vagina and measures genital blood flow and gives an objective indication of the body’s response to sexual images. But the women were also given a keyboard to rate how aroused they believe they felt.
The women responded with arousal to just about all the sexually explicit material they watched
While the men were largely turned on by their particular preferences (straights got turned on my straight porn, gays were turned on my gay porn) and their physical and cognitive responses matched, women had a far greater range. Even if they didn’t admit to it.
Apart from the image of a single, handsome man walking along a beach (sorry Men’s Health), the women responded with arousal to just about all the sexually explicit material they watched – even the clip of the bonobos shagging up a storm.
Writing in a paper for the New York Times about this process, Berger says of Chivers’ findings: ‘No matter what their self-proclaimed sexual orientation, [the women] showed, on the whole, strong and swift genital arousal when the screen offered men with men, women with women and women with men.’
Women haven’t been conditioned to be ‘allowed’ to desire
But the problem? ‘With the women, especially the straight women, mind and genitals seemed scarcely to belong to the same person.’ In other words, while the plethysmograph recorded deep arousal, the women made their keyboard marks according to what they deemed appropriate.
Women haven’t been conditioned to be ‘allowed’ to desire. Anthropologist Helen Fischer, who has done extensive research into the human sexual make-up is quoted in What Do Women Want: ‘Being a human who is sexual, who is allowed to be sexual, is a freedom accorded by society much more readily to males than to females.’
Why this is the case is not a matter of biology as we’ve been led to believe. In fact, if you look at the female sexual physiology it is practically made for pleasure. Remember that column about the full extent of the clit and it’s internal expanse?
If you look at the female sexual physiology it is practically made for pleasure
In a Q&A Berger conducted for Salon, he says: ‘One of the scientists, who was really influential in calling attention to the size, put it this way: the reason we’ve ignored this is because we’ve managed to convince ourselves that one gender is all about reproduction and the other is all about sex. That is, women are all about reproduction and men are all about sex. Again, a complete distortion.’
There’s a lot to take in and I suggest reading through the Salon Q&A with Berger as a handy overview of the work currently being done.
But I’ll leave you with this from the piece, since it so deftly sums up where the new picture of our sexual power is headed: ‘Women’s desire – its inherent range and innate power – is an underestimated and constrained force, even in our times, when all can seem so sexually inundated, so far beyond restriction,’ Berger writes. ‘Despite the notions our culture continues to imbue, this force is not, for the most part, sparked or sustained by emotional intimacy and safety.’
Rather, ‘one of our most comforting assumptions, soothing perhaps above all to men but clung to by both sexes, that female eros is much better made for monogamy than the male libido, is scarcely more than a fairy tale.’
The question, I guess I’m asking you to ask yourself, is this: How do you really feel about your sexuality, your desire and your attractions? And how much of that is you owning your space or buying into society’s fairy tale?