Saturday, January 24, 2009

The Intricacies of the Erotic (by Phila)

A long article by Daniel Bergner, evocatively entitled "What do women want?," details the research of female sexologists who hope to solve the "riddle" of female desire.

To begin with, Meredith Chivers measures the relative sexual arousal of straight and gay men and women in response to sexual images that -- for reasons that are not made as clear as one might wish -- include copulating bonobo monkeys.
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 vaginal 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 that they could rate how aroused they felt.
Chivers found that straight men weren't aroused by men, gay men weren't aroused by women, and neither were aroused by bonobos:
Any expectation that the animal sex would speak to something primitive within the men seemed to be mistaken.
So there.

As for the women...well, I'll let Bergner explain:
No matter what their self-proclaimed sexual orientation, they 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 they watched the apes. And with the women, especially the straight women, mind and genitals seemed scarcely to belong to the same person....

"I feel like a pioneer at the edge of a giant forest," Chivers said, describing her ambition to understand the workings of women's arousal and desire. "There's a path leading in, but it isn't much."
Chivers' conclusion is not that women are inherently attracted to bonobos, but that there's a disconnect in women between physiological response and the "conscious sense of desire":
For the discord, in women, between the body and the mind, [Chivers] has deliberated over all sorts of explanations, the simplest being anatomy. The penis is external, its reactions more readily perceived and pressing upon consciousness. Women might more likely have grown up, for reasons of both bodily architecture and culture — and here was culture again, undercutting clarity — with a dimmer awareness of the erotic messages of their genitals.
This explanation makes no sense whatsoever. But it's child's play compared to what comes next:
[Chivers] is familiar...with the preliminary results of a laboratory study showing surges of vaginal blood flow as subjects listen to descriptions of rape scenes [by whom, and from where?--P]. So, in an attempt to understand arousal in the context of unwanted sex, Chivers...has arrived at an evolutionary hypothesis that stresses the difference between reflexive sexual readiness and desire. Genital lubrication, she writes in her upcoming 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."

Evolution's legacy, according to this theory, is that women are prone to lubricate, if only protectively, to hints of sex in their surroundings.
There are lots and lots of problems here, but let's consider the obvious one: given that we're talking about rape, the "sexual cues" to which Chivers refers are going to include forms of sudden, unexpected violence that I needn't detail here. It's pretty reprehensible to suggest that an "automatic vaginal response" to this sort of brutality has an evolutionary upside, not least because women who are raped do often suffer serious injuries of this sort (and others). Bergner's reference to "hints of sex" is particularly troubling in this regard, since it seems to equate rape with overeager mating behavior, rather than specifically misogynist violence.

Chivers' work also suffers from the typical sexological problem of relying on tiny sample sizes that, in the above case, comprise people who are willing to watch porn in the company of complete strangers of various sexual orientations, with a bunch of invasive machinery hooked to their genitals.

Bergner, to his credit, shows some grasp of this problem in his section on the sexologist Lisa Diamond, who studied a whopping 100 women over a period of more than ten years, all of whom were happy to provide "detailed descriptions of their erotic lives."
I called ask whether it really made sense to extrapolate from the experiences of her subjects to women in general. Slightly more than half of her participants began her study in the bisexual or unlabeled categories — wasn't it to be expected that she would find a great deal of sexual flux? She acknowledged this. But she emphasized that the pattern for her group over the years, both in the changing categories they chose and in the stories they told, was toward an increased sense of malleability.
Maybe Bergner is simply garbling her explanation, but it sounds as though she's defending her use of a small, heavily biased group in terms of the results it provided, which doesn't make a hell of a lot of sense.

Next up, we have Marta Meana, whom Bergner acknowledges for her emphasis on "the role of narcissism in female desire" though the desire to be the object of someone else's desire were the same thing as "self-love." Meana goes in for the common EP strategy of saying something reasonably measured and cautious, and then undercutting it with a mixture of anti-feminist ressentiment and half-baked value judgments:
Meana made clear...that she was speaking in general terms, that, when it comes to desire, "the variability within genders may be greater than the differences between genders," that lust is infinitely complex and idiosyncratic.

She pronounced, as well, "I consider myself a feminist." Then she added, "But political correctness isn't sexy at all." For women, "being desired is the orgasm," Meana said somewhat metaphorically — it is, in her vision, at once the thing craved and the spark of craving.
If "political correctness" isn't sexy, then what is? Meana helpfully explains:
"Women want to be thrown up against a wall but not truly endangered. 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."
This seems to be too much for Bergner, who wonders, "Could any conclusion encompass the erotic drives of even one woman?" and goes on to spotlight Chivers' heartening doubts about her own theories:
And sometimes Chivers talked as if the actual forest wasn't visible at all, as if its complexities were an indication less of inherent intricacy than of societal efforts to regulate female eros, of cultural constraints that have left women's lust dampened, distorted, inaccessible to understanding. "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, in her words, that she might never illuminate her subject because she could 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.
One might wish that this concern had inspired her to think a bit more carefully about her upcoming paper on rape...but still, fair enough.

Bergner continues:
[T]he long history of fear might have buried the nature of women's lust too deeply to unearth, to view.
There's progress for you. Having taken a step away from biological essentialism, we seem to be moving towards an equally dispiriting cultural essentialism, in which something called "the nature of women's lust" is not only assumed to exist (in a form that is apparently not "infinitely complex and idiosyncratic"), but also to be inherently beyond women's grasp and control...thanks to a power structure that is no more subject to change and revision than the "underlying truth" of female desire.