Sunday, January 25, 2009

Women: a complex cocktail of oxytocin and narcissism

by Amelia Thomson-DeVeaux

I was amused by the title of this week's New York Times Magazine lead story, "What Do Women Want - Discovering What Ignites Female Desire" before I sat down to read the lengthy and rather technical article, because I had just been flipping through an issue of Cosmopolitan that a friend stole from the gym. Looking at the cover of Cosmo, it seems that women are just as confused about what men want; there were articles in October about how long men want sex to last (because all men are the same), scents that will "seduce any man" (because, again, all men are the same), and outrageous things that "chicks" can do in bed to make sex "crazy-hot" (have I mentioned before that all men are the same?). The NYT article, while far more thoughtful, scientific, and exponententially less sexist than Cosmo, mostly falls victim to the same assumption: that there are more differences between the sexes than within them, and that women's desire is a complex equation which, when solved, will result in simultaneous clitoral orgasm worldwide.

This is not to say that the article isn't interesting, and that it isn't frustrating. The author, Daniel Bergner, whose book about sexual fetishism will be published next month (review here), documents the studies of several sexual researchers who quest to unlock the hidden treasure (pardon my mixed metaphors) of female desire. One scientist pointed out one of the problems with this research, which seems to follow an inexorable modern trend toward biological determinism. “Masters and Johnson saw men and women as extremely similar,” said Julia Heiman, the current director of the Kinsey Institute. “Now it’s research on differences that gets funded, that gets published, that the public is interested in.” And many of the researchers acknowledge the power of cultural conditioning, although this is admittedly harder to measure. But they still struggle to explain the differences between male and female arousal, why women seem to respond to a much wider range of stimuli, and they assume that desire is gender-determined, and somewhat invariable.

And they question the sources of female desire, whether they are physical or mental. One of the most interesting parts of the article dealt with the search for a female form of Viagra, which apparently has plagued scientists for years. But other scientists question whether, for women, a drug is the answer. Viagra simply allows men to act on the desire that always seems to be there - while for women, it would be more difficult to chemically manufacture wanting. And each of the scientists returns, again and again, to the female mind, something which, looking at the cover of my Cosmo, doesn't seem to be the focus of female puzzlement over male desire. The suggestions in Cosmo are all fairly tangible - smell this way, and he'll want you, do it in a chair instead of in bed and he'll go crazy - rather than the musings of the scientists in the NYT, who speculate that female desire could be about narcissism, about the actual sensation of being desire, about focus on the person rather than the gender, about the neurotransmitter of the year, oxytocin.

This seems to me to signal a basic problem with the way we're looking at desire, whether it's female or male. We first make the assumption that we're not on a continuum, that attraction is variable in both of the sexes, that there are men and women who have varying levels of sexual desire, varying desires for certain kinds of relationships. We look for the differences between the sexes, because it allows us to generalize, when really we should be examining the varying forms that desire can take. I was talking with my same friend about the value of sex-positive education, which she has recently become interested in. Sex-positive culture embraces the infinite variance of sexual preference and desire, and the idea that you figure out what your sexual identity is through education and experimentation, and above all by conquering our society's crippling fear of sex. And we need to accept that the way that we talk about sex is inherently sexist - we assume that we have no idea (and may never know) what women want, and that men are simply cavemen, their desires triggered and ignited by a perfume or a new sexual position.

The end of Bergner's article, which questions the use of scientific investigation, was interesting and essentially on the right path. He talks about our long history of fear of female sexuality, how that may have buried female desire deeper than science can delve. I would argue, though that male sexuality is buried deep as well - and oversimplified to the point where we can't accept either male or female sexuality as complex, as dynamic, as specific to an individual. We need to stop asking what women want - and teach both men and women to ask themselves what they want.


At January 27, 2009 at 1:15 AM , Anonymous Male bonobo #1 said...

"I would argue, though that male sexuality is buried deep as well"

I think that most men would disagree with this argument. The fact is that sexual desire IS pretty simple for most men. And the experimental results cited in this NYTimes article back it up.

As for female sexuality, maybe it's equally straightforward. But that is not what the evidence suggests. Hence the implication that male and female sexuality are inherently different.


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