Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Talking About Sex

Natalie Angiers has an interesting article in the New York Times. A snippet:

Heather Rupp, a graduate student in Dr. Wallen's lab, tried to determine whether the divergent brain responses were a result of divergent appraisals, of men and women focusing on different parts of the same photographs. "We hypothesized, based on common lore, that women would look at faces, and men at genitals," Dr. Wallen said.

But on tracking the eye movements of study participants as they sized up erotic photographs, Ms. Rupp dashed those prior assumptions. "The big surprise was that men looked at the faces much more than women did," Dr. Wallen said, "and both looked at the genitals comparably."

The researchers had also predicted that men would be more drawn than women to close-up views of genitalia, but it turned out that everybody flipped past them as quickly as possible. Women lingered longer and with greater stated enjoyment than did their male counterparts on photographs of men performing oral sex on women; and they noticed more fashion details. "We got spontaneous reports from the women that we never got from the males, comments like 'I would have liked the photos better if the people didn't have those ridiculous '70s hairstyles,' " Dr. Wallen said.

He proposes that one reason men would scrutinize faces in pornographic imagery is that a man often looks to a woman's face for cues to her level of sexual arousal, since her body, unlike a man's, does not give her away.

Nothing about multiple orgasms in the article, though, which I found quite disappointing, although the idea that we have both a gas pedal and a break pedal for sex is interesting and might explain some mysteries I have been musing over.

The article has this to say about women's arousal and desire:

"We started putting together focus groups, asking women to tell us the various things that might turn them on and turn them off sexually, and how they know when they're sexually aroused," said Stephanie A. Sanders of the Kinsey Institute and Indiana University. "They mentioned a heightened sense of awareness, genital tingling, butterflies in the stomach, increased heart rate and skin sensitivity, muscle tightness. Then we asked them if they thought the female parallel to an erection is genital lubrication, and they said no, no, you can get wet when you're not aroused, it changes with the menstrual cycle, it's not a meaningful measure."

Through the focus groups, Dr. Sanders and her colleagues compiled a new, female-friendly but admittedly cumbersome draft questionnaire that they whittled down into a useful research tool. They asked 655 women, ages 18 to 81, to complete the draft survey and scrutinized the results in search of areas of concurrence and variability.

The researchers have identified a number of dimensions on which their beta testers agreed. For example, 93 to 96 percent of the 655 respondents strongly endorsed statements that linked sexual arousal to "feeling connected to" or "loved by" a partner, and to the belief that the partner is "really interested in me as a person"; they also concurred that they have trouble getting excited when they are "feeling unattractive."

The idea that women are more likely to want sex in a loving relationship than men is an old one and often explained by using evolutionary psychology theories about women preferring a mate who will stay around to care for the child that might appear. But it seems to me that the potential for violence in one-night stands could also explain why women don't get as excited about sex without strings. It's difficult to make a study design that would differentiate between the two causes or the impact societal disapproval of "round-heeled" women might have on women's choices. Maybe asking about sexual daydreams is a way around some of these problems, though I still think people are not necessarily going to ignore the societal expectations when they describe such daydreams to a researcher.

Which reminds me: Waterfalls and fire in the fireplace do nothing for me. Nothing at all. Neither do flowers or candles or bubble-baths. Now, a nice butt in faded jeans...