Monday, January 26, 2009

Does anyone know what women want? Women are Tramps...Part 2

When some people eat asparagus, their pee smells funny afterwards. When other people eat asparagus, their pee does not smell funny afterwards. There are two main hypotheses for this fascinating fact of human existence:

1. Some people have an enzyme in their bodies that breaks down molecules in the asparagus that makes their pee smell funny and other people do not; or

2. All people have the enzyme that makes their pee smell funny but only a certain percentage of people are able to perceive it.

(Grants for basic research of this type being severely limited, humanity may never know the answer.).

Now, my budding sexologists, we can develop homologous hypotheses for Chivers’ experimental results concerning the inaccuracy of her female subjects’ reporting of their level of arousal as compared to what the plesythmograph said:

1. Women are not aware of what their genitals are doing; or

2. Women are aware of what their genitals are doing, but they experience desire as a phenomenon distinct from (if related to) increased genital blood flow and swelling.

Given the complications of cultural myths about what is appropriate for women to want, the majority of women’s negative or fearful beliefs about their bodies in general and their hoo-hoo’s in particular, and a discourse of sexuality that centers around heterosexual complementarity and the penis, we’ll not likely figure anything dramatic out on this front either.

Chivers’ gives it a try. She cites a study that suggests men are more aware of physiological changes associated with emotion (e.g. increased heart rate) than are women and that men use those cues to assess and label their emotional states. The same study suggests that women are more likely to use situational cues to determine emotional response instead of being guided by interior phenomena. In the vernacular, women don’t know what they want until someone tells them or until they have time to sort out exterior stimuli and respond appropriately. Perhaps this is the origin of women’s polymorphous perversities—a general and flexible state of arousal which narrows to specific responses based on additional external cues.

This dovetails with yet another study I read but have forgotten where or by whom to the effect that little girls are more aware of subtle changes in the tone or the body language of their teachers than are little boys, creating a positive feedback loop with said teacher, which was suggested as yet another reason little girls consistently outperform little boys in school (even though little boys get called on more in class).

It makes sense to Chivers that there would be a “go-getter” sex and a “wait and see and figure stuff out” sex. If everyone were go-getting all the time, no one would be gotten and no genes get passed along, etc. Not surprisingly, her interpretation of this data recapitulates the nearly universal cultural myth of women as passive, intuitive, and receptive and men as aggressive, logical and grabby.

Our second hypothesis is then buttressed by our first, rather than being challenged by it. Women habitually formulate, cognitively, a thing called “desire” or “want,” that exists apart from, if related to, the swelling of their Gateways to Paradise. Chivers’ cites reports from rape victims who experienced genital arousal or in some cases orgasm during rapes. I think we can dismiss the possibility that women want to be raped, if only because rape is, by definition, unwanted. Add to that the trauma experienced by most rape victims well after the event and we can assume that, at least in this instance, genital arousal and the subjective experience of desire or want are two separate things. The body is smart; a woman whose genitals swell and dampen even under attack will likely suffer less physical injury than a woman whose genitals do not. Maybe that’s the reason for it.

Anyway, it’s time for a bit of Dr. Freud. According to Freudian theories, women are incapable of formulating desire because they lack phalluses (both the physical structure and the symbolic meaning attached to it). Women can “only” desire to be desired. Somehow desiring to be desired is less, uh, desirable than desiring a warm, wet place in which to place one’s phallus.

I prefer the Ruby Reformulation which is: because of their superior awareness of external stimuli and subtle gradations thereof, women are more capable than men of experiencing sexual desire (and even pleasure) associated with a dizzying array of activities, none of which require penetration, a penis or even genital stimulation. One of these is the pleasurable experience of being desired. Sometimes being watched is creepy (on a dark street); sometimes it is hot (across a crowded bar). In other words, maybe women don’t go and get because they’ve already gotten and their getting is different than men’s getting. Or they have gotten enough from that particular situation and easily move on to the next.

It is likely all animal societies, including human societies, have their bases in biological processes. However, the corollary to REPPFMIGFG is that human beings have been remarkably uncreative in organizing said societies and accompanying moralities. People don’t think or imagine enough; they let their bodies do the thinking for them. Massive doses of culture likely derived from biological propensities have hardened the dumb functions of the body into an organized, well-oiled social machine that everyone mistakes for truth.

In other words, please don’t mistake my fascination with science as biological determinism. Nothing could be further from the truth. To paraphrase Camille Paglia, whose thinking is hit or miss, but who can sure as hell turn a phrase, to be truly human, we must always fight against the fascism of Nature. Onward!


  1. “which was suggested as yet another reason little girls consistently outperform little boys in school (even though little boys get called on more in class).”

    I know that having prior knowledge of your positions is not a fair way to critique this piece but I’m confused. You normally fall down on the side that minimizes biological differences between male and female. In the posting you seem to be exploiting this data to support a position of natural/biological female superiority. I don’t necessarily disagree with that position (male infant mortality rates support it) but my need to “taunt the tiger” supersedes any position I may personally hold.

    On a personal note, I was called on all the time in school. It was the only way the teacher could get me to pay attention.

  2. A woman's prerogative, no?

    Seriously, on a re-read, it is a bit "women are awesome, men suck," but it shouldn't be. I'll tone it down.

    I'm not sure I've ever addressed the existence of biological differences between men and women. What I object to is the meaning given these alleged differences and the cultural narratives they inspire. Obviously men and women differ in some respects; I don't think it should make as much of a difference as it seems to.

    Sometimes I read studies, like this one, that seem well designed and that yield interesting data. Evolutionary psychology is one step away from myth-making, but sometimes it's fun to play that side of the field. I hope the ending makes clear that I consider all of it, in a sense, irrelevant with respect to ideal human societies and the like.