Did I go to sleep for a bunch of years and miss some phenomenal developments in the field of sex research? Or did something happen to jump-start sex research after a long dormant period brought on by Nine-Eleven, super patriotism, chastity clubs, and Bush time? I thought research on sex had come to a standstill during the past decade, but Bush only just climbed into his homeward-bound helicopter, and these studies weren’t born today or yesterday. They must have slipped through the radar of an otherwise dark era. In any case, something is happening here!–at least according to a story by Daniel Bergner in last Sunday’s NY Times Magazine.
They’ve titled the article with that old hackneyed line, What Do Women Want? The tentative answer, based on recent research, is that the question might be unanswerable. But I’m not so concerned with the question; rather, I’m elated at what’s being learned on the way to the answer. It’s like loving the journey as much as the destination–which, come to think of it, is what sex is about: not the orgasm but what you do to get there. And that, my friends, is a distinctly female point of view.
But let us leave aside the old question for the moment. Daniel Bergner, author of The Other Side of Desire: Four Journeys Into the Far Realms of Lust and Longing, reports on studies conducted by Meredith Chivers, a psychology professor at Queens College in Kingston, Ontario. Chivers shows her subjects—men, women, gay, straight, and male-to-female transsexuals—a video program consisting of heterosexual sex, gay male sex, lesbian sex, and animal sex: for the latter she shot footage of bonobo apes doing what they so frequently do. While watching the videos, the men wear an apparatus over their penis that gauges swelling, while the women insert a probe to measure blood flow in their vaginas. Everyone also manually records their levels of arousal with old-fashioned pen and paper. Now, here comes the stunner:
The men’s minds and genitals were almost always in agreement,
while for the women “mind and genitals seemed scarcely to belong to the same woman.”
This comes as no surprise to me, but it did knock my socks—or rather, my panties—off. I’ve known this about myself forever, and several women have confided in me about this disturbing trait, but to my knowledge it has never before been scientifically observed, analyzed, and put into print. Why is that important? I’ll tell you why it’s important: This disconnect between mind and body is something that really fucks with women’s heads. I take that back, partially: I can’t speak for anyone but myself, so I’ll just say it fucks with my head—so much that I’ve suffered profound agony because of it at various times in my life.
For instance, Lina Wertmuller’s film Swept Away…came out during the height of my involvement in the women’s movement, and when I’d just embarked on my first lesbian love affair. I went to see the movie by myself—in retrospect, a smart move—before seeing it with my lover. On that first viewing I sat alone at an early morning, sparsely attended show, my lower body on fire while a constant stream of tears flowed from my eyes. I was in utter despair at the extreme difference between my sexual responses and my brain, meaning my values and who I wanted to be. This was not the first time I’d noticed this disconnect, and it certainly wasn’t the last: I could cite dozens of examples, but my response to a movie is about as sexually personal as I want to get on my blog.
Now along comes Meredith Chivers, to tell me this is not just my own little neurosis. Like the consciousness-raising we did in the women’s movement, discovering this commonality is a huge relief. Seeing it written about as a scientific phenomenon eases the self-blame that’s plagued me all my life and even tainted some of my sexual experiences.
Lisa Diamond, another sexologist, is studying the fluidity of women’s sexuality, so much greater than men’s. Diamond theorizes that women are more relationship oriented, so the gender of the lover isn’t as important as intimacy, no matter who the partner might be. Marta Meana, yet another researcher of this generation who works out of Las Vegas, discounts intimacy as an aphrodisiac, challenging Diamond’s theory.
Despite all the fascinating information these researchers are gathering, they seem to feel frustrated with their work. Chivers says she feels like she’s in a dark, heavily wooded forest devoid of footpaths or any other guidance. Her studies have led her to think that female sexuality is even more complex than we’ve imagined; she points to all the strict cultural codes regulating women’s sex lives as proof of its frightening power. Chivers worries that she might never come close to illuminating her subject.
But sex research of the past brought illumination, and it’s safe to say that each generation of women is sexually freer than the previous one. In an episode of Roseanne, she has a conversation with her mother, who confesses she doesn’t know what she likes sexually because she’s never had a chance to find out. Roseanne, who apparently has a rip roarin’ time with Dan, expresses genuine sadness for the mother she’s usually busy hating.
Where has this generational change in women come from, if not from knowledge derived from research? I vividly recall the day Masters and Johnson’s studies were published over forty years ago: my best friend and I, young brides in our early twenties, spent the whole day on the phone talking about it. This New York Times article has similarly affected me. So I’m sorry if researchers feel frustrated, but I want them to keep right on roaming that dark forest.
The link to the Times story is up there in the first paragraph, but here it is again. Now I’m going to Google these studies to see what else is happening out there. I seem to have some catching up to do.