It’s the most hotly debated issue of the post feminist age. Who and what do women desire? Female scientists are discovering some controversial answers
Meredith Chivers is a 36-year-old psychology professor at Queen’s University in the small city of Kingston, Ontario. She is a highly regarded scientist and a member of the editorial board of the world’s leading journal of sexual research, Archives of Sexual Behavior. Chivers is also a creator of bonobo pornography. The bonobo film was part of a series of related experiments she has carried out over the past several years.
She found footage of bonobos, a species of ape, mating. The accompanying sounds were dull — “Bonobos don’t seem to make much noise in sex, though the females give a kind of pleasure grin and make chirpy sounds,” she said — so she dubbed in some animated chimpanzee hooting and screeching. She showed the short film to men and women, both straight and gay. She also showed them clips of heterosexual sex; male and female homosexual sex; a man masturbating; a woman masturbating; a chiselled man walking naked on a beach; and a well-toned woman doing callisthenics in the nude.
While the subjects watched on a computer screen, Chivers measured their arousal in two ways, objectively and subjectively. The participants sat in a brown leatherette La-Z-Boy chair in her small lab at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, a prestigious psychiatric teaching hospital affiliated with the University of Toronto, where Chivers was a postdoctoral fellow. The genitals of the volunteers were connected to plethysmographs — for the men, an apparatus that fits over the penis and gauges its swelling; for the women, a little plastic probe that sits in the vagina and, by bouncing light off the vagina walls, measures genital blood flow. An engorgement of blood spurs a lubricating process called vaginal transudation: the seeping of moisture through the walls. The participants were also given a keypad so they could rate how aroused they felt. The men, on average, responded genitally in what Chivers terms “category specific” ways. Males who identified themselves as straight became aroused while gazing at heterosexual or lesbian sex and while watching the masturbating and exercising women. They were mostly unmoved when the screen displayed only men. Gay males were aroused in the opposite categorical pattern.
Any expectation that the footage of animal sex would speak to something primitive in the men seemed mistaken; neither straight nor gay men were stirred by watching the bonobos. And for the male participants, the subjective ratings on the keypad matched the readings of the plethysmograph. The men’s minds and genitals were in agreement.
All was different with the women. 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. They responded objectively much more to the exercising woman than to the strolling man, and their blood flow rose quickly and markedly as they watched the apes, though to a lesser degree than during all the human scenes, except the footage of the ambling, strapping man. And with the women, especially the straight women, mind and genitals seemed scarcely to belong to the same person. During shots of lesbian coupling, heterosexual women claimed less excitement than their vaginas indicated; watching gay men, they reported a great deal less; and viewing heterosexual intercourse, they reported much more. Among the lesbian volunteers, the two readings converged when women appeared on the screen. But when the films featured only men, the lesbians reported less engagement than the plethysmograph recorded. Whether straight or gay, the women claimed almost no arousal whatsoever while staring at the bonobos.
“I feel like a pioneer at the edge of a giant forest,” said Chivers, describing her ambition to understand women’s arousal and desire. “There’s a path leading in, but it isn’t much.” She sees herself as part of an emerging “critical mass” of female sexologists working on the subject. They are consumed by the sexual problem Freud posed to a female disciple almost a century ago: “The great question that has never been answered and which I have not yet been able to answer, despite my 30 years of research into the feminine soul, is: ‘What does a woman want?’ ”
In 1996, when Chivers worked as an assistant to a sexologist at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, then called the Clarke Institute of Psychiatry, she was the only woman among a floor of researchers investigating male sexual preferences and what are known as “paraphilias” — erotic desires that fall far outside the norm. She asked Kurt Freund, a scientist there who had developed a type of penile plethysmograph and who had studied male homosexuality and paedophilia since the 1950s, why he never turned his attention to women. He replied:
“How am I to know what it is to be a woman? Who am I to study women, when I am a man?”
Freund’s words helped to focus Chivers’s work, which has made her a central figure among the small force of female sexologists devoted to comprehending female desire. John Bancroft, a former director of the Kinsey Institute for Research in Sex, Gender and Reproduction, pointed out that in the International Academy of Sex Research, the 35-year-old institution that publishes Archives of Sexual Behavior and that can claim most of the field’s leading researchers among its 300 or so members, women make up only about a quarter of the organisation. Yet in recent years, he continued, in the long wake of the surveys of Alfred Kinsey, the studies of William Masters and Virginia Johnson, the sexual-liberation movement and the rise of feminism, there has been a surge of scientific attention paid by women to illuminating the realm of women’s desire.
Kinsey’s data on sexuality, published in the late 1940s and early ’50s in his bestselling books Sexual Behavior in the Human Male and Sexual Behavior in the Human Female, didn’t reveal much about the depths of desire, according to Julia Heiman, the current director of the Kinsey Institute. And Masters and Johnson, who filmed hundreds of subjects having sex in their lab, drew conclusions in their books of the late 1960s and early ’70s that concentrated on sexual function, not lust. Female desire, and the reasons some women feel little in the way of lust, became a focal point for sexologists in the 1970s through the writing of Helen Singer Kaplan, a sex therapist who used psychoanalytic methods — though sexologists prefer to etch a line between what they see as their scientific approach to the subject and the theories of psychoanalysis. The Aids epidemic diverted attention from the field, prioritising prevention and making desire not an emotion to explore but something to be feared, a source of epidemiological disaster. The arrival of Viagra in the late 1990s, though aimed at transforming the treatment of impotence in men, also dispersed a kind of collateral electric current into the area of women’s sexuality, not only generating an effort — mostly futile so far — to find drugs that can foster female desire as reliably as Viagra and its chemical relatives that have facilitated erections, but also helping, indirectly, to inspire the search for a full understanding of women’s lust.
“Masters and Johnson saw men and women as extremely similar,” said Heiman. “Now it is research on differences that gets funded, that gets published, that the public is interested in.’’
Referring to the giant forest, she added: “No one right now has a unifying theory.” Rather, the research has brought glimpses from all sorts of angles. One study recently published in the journal Evolution and Human Behavior by the Kinsey Institute psychologist Heather Rupp uses magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to show how, during the hormonal shifts of ovulation, certain brain regions in heterosexual women are more intensely activated by male faces with especially masculine features.
Intriguing glimmers have come not only from female scientists. Investigating the culmination of female desire, Barry Komisaruk, a neuroscientist at Rutgers University, has subjects bring themselves to orgasm while lying with their heads in an MRI scanner. He aims to chart the activity of the female brain as subjects approach and reach four types of climax: orgasms attained by touching the clitoris; by stimulating the anterior wall of the vagina or, more specifically, the G-spot; by stimulating the cervix; and by “thinking off”, in Komisaruk’s words, without any touch at all. While the possibility of a purely cervical orgasm may be in considerable doubt, in 1992 Komisaruk, collaborating with the Rutgers sexologist Beverly Whipple (who established, more or less, the existence of the G-spot in the 1980s), carried out one of the most interesting experiments in female sexuality: by measuring heart rate, perspiration, pupil dilation and pain threshold, they proved that some rare women can think themselves to climax. Meanwhile, at the Sexual Psychophysiology Laboratory of the University of Texas, Austin, the psychologist Cindy Meston and her graduate students deliver studies with names like Short- and Long-term Effects of Gingko Biloba Extract on Sexual Dysfunction in Women; The Roles of Testosterone and Alpha-amylase in Exercise-induced Sexual Arousal in Women; and Sex Differences in Memory for Sexually Relevant Information. And, finally, an internet survey of 3,000 participants: Why Humans Have Sex.
Heiman questions whether the insights of science can ever produce an all-encompassing map of terrain as complex as women’s desire. But Chivers, with plenty of self-doubting humour, told me that she hopes one day to develop a scientifically supported model to explain female sexual response, though she wrestles, for the moment, with the preliminary bits of perplexing evidence she has collected — with the question, first, of why women are aroused physiologically by such a wider range of stimuli than men. Are men simply more inhibited, more constrained by the bounds of culture? “The horrible reality of psychological research is that you can’t pull apart the cultural from the biological,” said Chivers.
In a paper soon to be published in Archives of Sexual Behavior, she has scrutinised, as well, the divide between women’s bodies and minds in 130 studies by other scientists demonstrating the same enigmatic discord. One manifestation of this split has come in experimental attempts to use Viagra-like drugs to treat women who complain of deficient desire. By some estimates, 30% of women fall into this category, though plenty of sexologists argue that pharmaceutical companies have managed to drive up the figures as a way of generating awareness and demand. It’s a demand, in any event, that hasn’t been met. In men who have trouble getting an erection, the genital engorgement aided by Viagra and its rivals is often all that’s needed. The pills target genital capillaries; they don’t aim at the mind. The medications may enhance male desire by granting men a feeling of power and control, but they don’t, for the most part, manufacture wanting. And for men, they don’t need to. Desire, it seems, is usually in steady supply. In women, though, the main difficulty appears to be in the mind, not the body, so the physiological effects of the drugs have proved irrelevant. The pills can promote blood flow and lubrication, but this doesn’t create a conscious sense of desire.
Chivers isn’t especially interested at this point, she said, in pharmaceutical efforts in her field, though she has done a bit of consulting for Boehringer Ingelheim, a German company in the late stages of testing a female-desire drug, Flibanserin. She can’t, contractually, discuss what she describes as her negligible involvement in the development of the drug, and the company isn’t prepared to say much about the workings of its chemical, which it hopes to have approved by the US Food and Drug Administration next year. The medication was originally meant to treat depression — it singles out the brain’s receptors for the neurotransmitter serotonin. As with other such drugs, one worry was that it would dull the libido. Yet in early trials, while it showed little promise for relieving depression, it left female — but not male — subjects feeling increased lust. In a way that Boehringer Ingelheim either doesn’t understand or doesn’t yet want to explain, the chemical, which the company is currently trying out on 5,000 North American and European women, may catalyse sources of desire in the female brain.
Ultimately, Chivers spoke — always with a scientist’s caution — 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. Otherwise, she said, half-joking: “I would have to believe that women want to have sex with bonobos.”
Besides the bonobos, a body of evidence involving rape has influenced her construction of separate systems. She has confronted clinical research reporting not only genital arousal but also the occasional occurrence of orgasm during sexual assault. And she has recalled her own experience as a therapist with victims who recounted these physical responses. She is familiar, as well, with the preliminary results of a laboratory study showing surges of vaginal blood flow as subjects listen to descriptions of rape scenes. So, in an attempt to understand arousal in the context of unwanted sex, Chivers, like a handful of other sexologists, has arrived at an evolutionary hypothesis that stresses the difference between reflexive sexual readiness and desire. Genital lubrication, she writes in her forthcoming paper in Archives of Sexual Behavior, is necessary “to reduce discomfort, and the possibility of injury, during vaginal penetration… Ancestral women who did not show an automatic vaginal response to sexual cues may have been more likely to experience injuries during unwanted vaginal penetration that resulted in illness, infertility or even death, and thus would be less likely to have passed on this trait to their offspring”.
The study Chivers is now working on tries to re-examine the results of her earlier research, to investigate, with audio-taped stories rather than filmed scenes, the apparent “rudderlessness” of female arousal. But it will also offer a glimpse into the role of relationships in female desire. Some of the scripts she wrote involve sex with a longtime lover, some with a friend, some with a stranger: “You meet the real-estate agent outside the building…” From early glances at her data, Chivers said, she guesses she will find that women are most turned on, subjectively if not objectively, by scenarios of sex with strangers. Chivers is perpetually devising experiments to perform in the future, and one such experiment would test how tightly linked the system of arousal is to the mechanisms of desire. She would follow the sexual behaviour of women in the days after they are exposed to stimuli in her lab. If stimuli that cause physiological response — but do not elicit a positive rating on the keypad — lead to increased erotic fantasies, masturbation or sexual activity with a partner, then she could deduce a close link.
Lisa Diamond, a sexologist of Chivers’s generation, looks at women’s erotic drives in a different way. An associate professor of psychology and gender studies at the University of Utah, her conclusions seem at odds with Chivers’s data about sex with strangers.
“In 1997, the actress Anne Heche began a widely publicised romantic relationship with the openly lesbian comedian Ellen DeGeneres after having had no prior same-sex attractions or relationships. The relationship with DeGeneres ended after two years, and Heche went on to marry a man.’’ So begins Diamond’s book, Sexual Fluidity: Understanding Women’s Love and Desire. She catalogues the shifting sexual directions of several other somewhat notable women, then asks: “What’s going on?’’ Among her answers, based partly on her own research and on her analysis of animal mating and women’s sexuality, is that female desire may be dictated — even more than popular perception would have it — by intimacy and emotional connection. Diamond is a tireless researcher. The study that led to her book has been going on for more than 10 years. During that time, she studied the erotic attractions of nearly 100 young women who, at the start of her work, identified themselves as either lesbian or bisexual, or who refused a label. From her analysis of the many shifts they made between sexual identities and from their detailed descriptions of their erotic lives, Diamond argues that for her participants, and quite possibly for women generally, desire is malleable, that it cannot be captured by asking women to categorise their attractions at any single point, that to do so is to apply a male paradigm of more fixed sexual orientation.
One reason for this fluidity, she suggests, may be found in oxytocin, a neurotransmitter unique to mammalian brains. The chemical’s release has been shown, in humans, to facilitate feelings of trust and well-being, and in female prairie voles, a monogamous species of rodent, to connect the act of sex to the formation of faithful attachments. Judging by experiments in animals, and by the transmitter’s importance in human childbirth and breast-feeding, the oxytocin system, which relies on oestrogen, is much more extensive in the female brain. For Diamond, all of this helps to explain why in women the link between intimacy and desire is especially potent.
Yet intimacy isn’t much of an aphrodisiac in the thinking of Marta Meana, a psychology professor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. Meana, who serves with Chivers on the board of Archives of Sexual Behavior, entered the field of sexology in the late 1990s and began by working clinically and carrying out research into dyspareunia — women’s genital pain experienced during intercourse.
She is now formulating an explanatory model of female desire that will appear later this year in the Annual Review of Sex Research.
Before discussing her overarching ideas, though, we went together to a Cirque du Soleil show called Zumanity, a performance of very soft-core pornography that Meana had mentioned to me before my visit. On the stage of the casino’s theatre, a pair of dark-haired, bare-breasted women in G-strings dived backward into a giant glass bowl and swam underwater, arching their spines as they slid up the walls. Soon a lithe blonde took over the stage wearing a pleated and extremely short schoolgirl’s skirt. She spun numerous Hula Hoops around her minimal waist, and was hoisted by a cable high above the audience, where she spread her legs wider than seemed humanly possible.
The crowd consisted of about equal numbers of men and women — yet women far outnumbered men on stage. And when at last the show’s platinum-wigged MC cried out, ‘’Where’s the beef?’’, the six-packed, long-haired man who climbed up through a trap door and started to strip was surrounded by 8 or 10 already almost-bare women.
Meana explained the gender imbalance on stage in a way that complemented Chivers’s thinking. “The female body looks the same whether aroused or not,” she said. “The male without an erection is announcing a lack of arousal. The female body always holds the promise, the suggestion of sex.” This suggestion sends a charge through men and women. And there was another way, Meana argued, by which the Cirque du Soleil’s offering of more female than male acrobats helped to rivet both genders in the crowd. Chivers speculated about the strong receptive element in female lust; Meana emphasised the role of being desired — and of narcissism — in women’s desiring. For women, “being desired is the orgasm”, said Meana, somewhat metaphorically; it is, in her vision, at once the thing craved and the spark of craving. Considering the dynamic at Zumanity between the audience and the acrobats, Meana said the women in the crowd gazed at the women on stage, excitedly imagining their bodies were as desperately wanted as those of the performers.
Meana’s ideas have arisen from both laboratory and qualitative research. She has learnt too from her attempts as a clinician to help patients with dyspareunia. Though she explained that the condition, which can make intercourse excruciating, is not in itself a disorder of low desire, she said her patients reported reduced genital pain as their desire increased. The problem was how to augment desire, and despite prevailing wisdom, the answer has, she said, “little to do with building better relationships”, with fostering communication between patients and their partners. She rolled her eyes at such niceties. She recalled a patient whose lover was thoroughly empathetic and who asked frequently during lovemaking: “Is this okay?”
“It was very unarousing to her. It was loving, but there was no oomph,” no urgency emanating from the man, no sign that his craving for her was beyond control.
Meana spoke broadly and not only about her dyspareunic patients when she said: “Female desire is not governed by the relational factors that we like to think rule women’s sexuality as opposed to men’s.’’ She finished a small qualitative study in the past year consisting of long interviews with 20 women in marriages that were sexually troubled. Although bad relationships often kill desire, she argued, good ones don’t guarantee it. The generally accepted therapeutic notion that for women, incubating intimacy leads to better sex is, said Meana, often misguided. “Really, women’s desire is not relational, it’s narcissistic,’’ she said. It is dominated by the yearning 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 centre less on giving pleasure and more on getting it. “When it comes to desire,” she added, “women may be far less relational than men.”
Like Chivers, Meana thinks of female sexuality as divided into two systems, but conceives of those systems in a different way to her colleague. On the one hand there is the drive of sheer lust; and on the other there is the impetus of value. For evolutionary and cultural reasons, she believes women might set a high value on the closeness and longevity of relationships: “But it’s wrong to think that because relationships are what women choose, they’re the primary source of women’s desire.”
Meana spoke about two elements that contribute to her thinking: first, a great deal of data showing that, as measured by the frequency of fantasy, masturbation and sexual activity, women have a lower sex drive than men, and second, research suggesting that within long-term relationships, women are more likely than men to lose interest in sex. Meana posits that it takes a greater jolt, a more significant stimulus, to switch on a woman’s libido than a man’s. And within a committed relationship, the crucial stimulus of being desired decreases considerably, not only because the woman’s partner loses a degree of interest but also, more importantly, because the woman feels that her partner is trapped, that a choice — the choosing of her — is no longer being carried out.
Yet while Meana minimised the role of relationships in stoking desire, she didn’t dispense with the sexual relevance, for women, of being cared for and protected.
“What women want is a real dilemma,” she said. Earlier, she had shown me as a joke a photograph of two control panels: one representing the workings of male desire, the second, female; the first with only a simple on-off switch, the second with countless knobs. “Women want to be thrown up against a wall but not truly endangered,” she said. “Women want a caveman and caring. If I had to pick an actor who embodies all the qualities, all the contradictions, it would be Denzel Washington. He communicates that kind of power and that he is a good man.”
After Meana’s mention of women’s wish to be pinned against a wall, we discussed rape fantasies. According to an analysis of relevant studies published last year in The Journal of Sex Research — an analysis that defines rape as involving “the use of physical force, threat of force, or incapacitation through, for example, sleep or intoxication, to coerce a woman into sexual activity against her will” — between a third and over a half of women have entertained these fantasies, often during intercourse, with at least 1 in 10 women fantasising about sexual assault at least once per month in a pleasurable way.
The appeal is, above all, paradoxical, said Meana: rape means having no control, while fantasy is a domain manipulated by the self. She stressed the vast difference between the pleasures of the imagined and the terrors of the real. “I hate the term ‘rape fantasies’,” she said. “They’re really fantasies of submission.” She spoke about the thrill of being wanted so much that the aggressor is willing to overpower, to take. “But ‘aggression’, ‘dominance’ — I have to find better words. ‘Submission’ isn’t even a good word — it doesn’t reflect the woman’s imagining of an ultimately willing surrender.”
Chivers, too, has struggled over language about this topic. As soon as I asked her about rape fantasies, she took my pen and wrote “semantics” in the margin of my notes. “The word rape comes with gargantuan amounts of baggage,” she said. “I walk a fine line, politically and personally, talking frankly about this subject. I would never, never want to deliver the message to anyone that they have the right to take away a woman’s autonomy over her body. I hammer home with my students, ‘Arousal is not consent’. It’s the wish to be beyond will, beyond thought,” said Chivers about such fantasies. “To be all in the mid-brain.”
One morning in the autumn, Chivers was hunched over her laptop in her sparsely decorated office. She sifted through data from her study of genital and subjective responses to audio-taped sex scenes. She peered at a jagged red line that ran across the computer’s screen, a line that traced one subject’s vaginal blood flow, second by second. Before Chivers could use a computer programme to analyse her data, she needed to “clean” it, as the process is called — she had to eliminate errant readings, moments when a subject’s shifting in her chair caused a slight pelvic contraction that might have jarred the plethysmograph, which could generate a spike in the readings and distort the overall results. Meticulously, she scanned the line, with all its tight zigs and zags, searching for spots where the inordinate height of a peak and the pattern that surrounded it told her that arousal wasn’t at work, that this particular instant was irrelevant to her experiment. She highlighted and deleted one aberrant moment, then continued peering. She would search in this way for about two hours in preparing the data of a single subject. “I’m going blind,” she said, as she stared at another suspicious crest.
It was painstaking work — and difficult to watch, not only because it might be destroying Chivers’s eyesight, but also because it seemed so dwarfed by the vastness and intricacy of the terrain she hopes to understand. She constantly conjured up studies she wants to carry out, but with countless aberrant spikes to detect and cleanse, how many could she complete in one lifetime?
How many could be done by all the sexologists in the world who focus on female desire, whether they are wiring women with plethysmographs or mapping the activity of their brains in MRI scanners, or giving them questionnaires, or following their erotic lives for years? What more could sexologists provide than intriguing hints and fragmented insights and contradictory conclusions? Could any conclusions encompass the erotic drives of even one woman? Had Freud’s question gone unanswered for nearly a century not because science had taken so long to address it but because it is unanswerable?
Sometimes, Chivers talked as if the forest wasn’t visible at all, as if its complexities are an indication less of inherent intricacy than of societal efforts to regulate female desire, of cultural constraints that have left women’s lust dampened and distorted. “So many cultures have quite strict codes governing female sexuality,” she said. “If that sexuality is relatively passive, then why so many rules to control it? Why is it so frightening?”
There was the implication that she might never illuminate her subject because she can not even see it, that the data she and her colleagues collect might be deceptive, might represent only the creations of culture, and that her interpretations might be leading away from underlying truth. There was the intimation that, at its core, women’s sexuality might not be passive at all. There was the chance that the long history of fear might have buried the nature of women’s lust too deeply to unearth, to view.
©The New York Times Magazine. Daniel Bergner’s book The Other Side of Desire (Allen Lane, £17.99) is published in the UK on Thursday
What is the key to female desire?
One British expert gives her view: and concludes it’s folly to study sexual arousal without considering cultural background
UK experts are no nearer to fathoming female desire than American researchers. For Dr Petra Boynton, a psychologist from University College London specialising in sex and relationship health, female desire is a complex subject. ‘What I can tell you about women and what turns them on is that it’s very varied. It ranges from being in love with your husband and dressing up for him and having him kiss and cuddle you, through to tying him up and beating him senseless, or having him do it to you.’ For Boynton, an interdisciplinary approach to the study of female arousal is crucial. ‘In the study of [sex] there is a huge range of perspectives, from social geography to biology.’
Boynton says women often respond to many erotic stimuli, ‘but they’ll tell researchers it doesn’t turn them on.
If you take a lab-based, hard-core biological perspective, either women don’t know their own mind or they are denying their own feelings.’
Boynton cautions that lab work needs to be measured against other factors. ‘There was a recent study that talked about what works in a kiss, but didn’t take into account the fact that kissing is viewed differently around the world. So french kissing, which might be erotic in the West, is seen as revolting in other countries. If you measured hormones and did brain scans in another part of the world, you’d get an entirely different outcome. Some of the research we do in the West is meaningless in other countries, which suggests to me that sometimes we’re measuring culture instead of arousal.’Found this Post interesting? Receive new posts via RSS (What is RSS?) or subscribe via email at the top of this page...