Thursday, October 1, 2009

New study on women's sexuality reaches startling conclusion: women are complicated

by Jordan Kisner

Two psychologists at the University of Texas at Austin have spent the last three years conducting extensive research on the subject of women’s sexuality, leading them to a conclusion that, for most of us sexually active women, seems obvious: women have sex for lots of different reasons. “It turns out that women’s reasons for having sex range from love to pure pleasure to a sense of duty to curiosity to curing a headache,” notes the CNN article.

It turns out, huh? Who’da thunk it.

In all seriousness, while the reporting on the results seems a little fatuous, the study deserves some attention, not least because it was inspired by the desire to understand female sexuality on its own terms. “We do bring in men occasionally by way of contrast,” says David Buss, who co-led the study with colleague Cindy Meston, “but we wanted to focus exclusively on women so that the complexity of women’s sexual psychology was not given short shrift.”

If this last comment were not enough to make me leap from my seat in celebration, the nuance and evenhandedness of the results would do the trick. Meston and Buss found that, yes, some women suffer blows to self-esteem due to sexual experiences, but that many others reported that “their sexual experiences provided the soaring height of euphoria and made them feel alive and vibrant.” The study also notes that many young women are defying the social pressure to be more chaste than their male counterparts, and that, female arousal relies on a much wider array of psychological and physical factors than it does for men. The element of the study that I suspect will prove most relevant to a feminist discussion is the conclusion that women’s interest in their own pleasure during sexual encounters seems to decrease with age and emotional attachment to their partner (though I wonder why CNN decided to make this their closing remark).

Most of all, the study seems inspired by a respect and genuine curiosity for the complexity of female sexuality, so hip hip hoorah for Meston and Buss, and may many other promising psychologists follow their lead in giving women equal attention in the study of sex and sexuality.


At October 1, 2009 at 10:13 AM , Anonymous LSG said...

The CNN article does make the study sound fairly positive -- this Guardian article ( so. With both, though, I'm not inclined to celebrate this study.

My first, quick reasons -- I couldn't get past the fact that they included "rape and coercion" as reasons women "have sex." It makes me think they're not actually as interested in studying women's motivations for intercourse as they say they are. (If they delve into the ways fear and coercion affect sexual behavior they could salvage it, but neither article mentions any such analysis.) I'm also suspicious of their insistence on proposing evolutionary explanations, which can quickly veer away from evidence and into speculation. Why don't they just stick to analyzing what they have that's solid? Finally (for now), while I appreciate that they attempted to survey women from varying socioeconomic and ethnic backgrounds and from several countries, I must say that I don't consider the USA, Canada, Europe, Australia, New Zealand, Israel and China to be a truly representative range of women -- if the authors are open about their limitations, context, and personal framing the book might be tolerable, but it sounds like they jump into generalizations about All Women Now and Historically based on deeply insufficient evidence and a very limited viewpoint. When the book comes to my public library I'll read it before condemning it utterly, but I am very dubious at this point.


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