Saturday, January 24, 2009

Women are tramps, but they won't admit it: Part 1

From Canada, of all places, comes the research of Meredith Chivers, a psychology professor at Queens University in Ontario. As reported in Daniel Bergner’s article in the New York Times, Chivers’ research suggests that women are aroused by more and different visual stimuli than are men. But when asked to self-report their level of arousal, the women in her experiments consistently get it wrong. Their heads and their vaginas don’t agree. The men, both gay and straight, seem much more aware of what their penises are telling them (or are less embarrassed about what’s being said).

Chivers hooked up a bunch of straight men, gay men, lesbian women and straight women to plethysmographs, devices that measure genital swelling and blood flow and which, under other circumstances, might make amusing sex toys. She showed her subjects film clips of same-sex couples having sex, opposite-sex couples having sex, a naked woman exercising vigorously and a flaccid, yet buff, guy walking down the beach. For reasons known only to her, she also showed each group a film of a male and a female bonobo chimpanzee having sex, with screeching and hooting dubbed in from the other chimp species. Apparently, the bonobos are quiet lovers.

Each set of men responded “categorically,” as Chivers calls it. Straight men were turned on any time they saw a woman. Gay men were turned on any time they saw a man. Neither group was turned on by the chimps. And, as stated, the men’s reports of their various levels of arousal matched, for experimental purposes, the data compiled by the plethysmograph.

The women, those tramps, got turned on by everything. Bergers reports Chivers’ report of “strong and swift” genital arousal at every pairing of humans and, to a lesser degree but still noticeable, to the chimp pornography. The women did not care for the naked buff guy, whose member flapped gently in the breeze as he strolled down the beach.

The most fascinating part: on the whole, the straight women’s reports of their levels of desire were completely wrong, as compared to the plethysmograph measurements. They reported “much more” arousal than their vaginas did while watching the opposite-sex couple do it and “much less” while watching two men do it. And, natch, while watching two chimps do it. Lesbians were better in tune with their hoo-hoo’s (or more honest); however, they too underreported arousal with respect to the chimps, as well as the two men and the heterosexual human coupling.

The rest of the Chivers section of Bergers’ article describes her blue-skying theories as to why these data might be true. She’s an intelligent woman and knows that at her experimental subjects’ ages (I assume they’re all at least 18 years old), the influences of genetics and culture are impossible to separate (if, indeed, they ever are). Working with what she has, though, she cites a study by a colleague at UC Davis finding that men with “higher sex drives” (it is not clear how or if this is measured or whether it is self-reporting) have more strongly polarized desire (i.e. men or women only) than other men, whereas women with strong libidos report less polarization than other women (i.e. men, women, chimpanzees, shoes(?)).

Chivers’ data support the cultural discourse of the fluid and still-mysterious female sexual desire, as well as ancient myths about goddesses devouring everything with their vaginas. Yummy! By extreme extrapolation, Chivers’ data can also lend some credence to the common evolutionary psychological assertion that men are “hunters”—their brains adapted to scan the visual field, pinpoint a precise stimulus and kill it or screw it—and that women are “gatherers”—brains adapted to scan the visual field with “softer” eyes and observe and respond to a wide range of subtler stimuli (e.g. this green plant is OK but this green plant, which looks a lot like the other one but it slightly different, will kill you).

If we posit the existence of Ruby’s Evolutionary Psych Pleasure Feedback Mechanism (Is Good, Feels Good) (REPPFMIGFG) in some form, we might safely assume that the wise human organism experiences pleasure in connection with those behaviors that are evolutionarily beneficial. I have read only one study (inevitably, I have forgotten where or when) that addressed the possibility of this pleasure mechanism. The researcher in question noted that, for example, not only are women more capable than men of distinguishing among 20 different shades of white, but that they enjoy sitting around with paint chips and discussing with their friends whether Winter White, Ecru, Antique Ivory, Modern Ivory, Butter Cream or Polar White would look best in the living room.

Anecdotal data from my life suggests that men do not derive any pleasure from this sort of activity. “They’re all white,” a male person was heard to say impatiently in my presence, “what’s the fuss?”

On the other side, the Great Lost Demographic for gaming is the demographic that buys the most other stuff: women from 18-45 or so. Game publishers and retailers dream of making video games women will buy in the quantities they buy everything else. I suspect this project is doomed through the operation of REPPFMIGFG. Males, as “hunters,” enjoy perceiving, focusing on and killing or otherwise interacting quickly with objects flying across the visual field. They will always be the most likely to buy games that mimic this behavior. Of interest here: women play massively-multiplayer-online-role-playing-games (MMORPGs) at about the same rate as men do; such games do involve shooting and killing and acting quickly in three-dimensional space, but they also require the establishment of relationships and, of greater interest to this subject—buying, selling and haggling.

Of course, it is difficult to know with any certainty what is actually happening when women get turned on by men, women and chimpanzees and impossible to answer “why.” Perhaps the REPPFMIGFG is operating underneath the surface, rewarding women for being able to respond and take pleasure from so responding to a wide range of stimuli, perhaps women are just big ole’ tramps.

Next up: Why They Won’t Admit It

Bonus Ruby Blue-Sky Hypothesis About Why Women Dig Musicians: It is possible that men who are musicians, poets, painters, possibly architects and other artsy types have more feminine brains. That is, these men presumably enjoy the relative valuation of and the practice of distinguishing among subtle differences among thousands of stimuli: the right word, the right shade of red, the right instrumentation, the right rhythm. These girlie men attend to the minutest pieces of information to achieve their masterpieces and, given that none of these are particularly certain or financially rewarding careers, we must assume they dig doing it. A woman’s mind in a man’s body. Perfect.


  1. As a woman who has lived in a woman's body for 53 years (a woman's body that has, for the most part, responded more juicily to men than to women)

    Obviously, a man can't deny an erection; he can hide it, but it is what it is. A woman, on the other hand, is probably better at denying her response to sexual stimuli if she fears it might be viewed as unacceptable.

    And for the record, I can imagine no more perfect a mate than a woman's mind in a man's body.

  2. First, it's good to see that you're back in the saddle with Alluvial, Ms. Ruby. It's a shame that earlier posts have disappeared. Yet every skirmish of aesthetic conscience must, I suppose, have its casualties.

    Tip for future shutdowns: Always export your entire blog before impetuously yielding to the urge to destroy everything. There's no downside to this strategy.

    Alluvial has remained, and shall forever remain, listed on my Blogroll (q.v.) — for its full potential is patently evident to me. Its image is all but burned into the retina of my third eye.

    If you take Alluvial down again, and then if someone clicks on one of the broken links you've left in your wake, it will lead nowhere. Nowhere is an illegal destination in cyberspace, Ruby. The nowhere to which you may ultimately lead your treasured readers is in reality the start of an Endless Loop.

    Its reverberations self-amplify and finally spread to engulf the entire Eastern Seaboard in darkness, stranding thousands of claustrophobic pregnant women in elevators with smelly, unkempt lechers, their faces smeared with salty potato-chip oil, like me. You might unwittingly also bring down my entire blog (q.v.).

    Think, Ruby, think. Alluvial is not just about you anymore.

    Second, it is a near certainty that you have not found mention in the scientific literature of evolutionarily potent mechanisms analogous to REPPFMIGFG because your reading remains largely confined to the Puritanical (i.e., English-language) canon. Try reading more journal articles in French, Italian, Spanish, Xhosa, Old Norse, Cherokee, Maori, and, though resistant to mastery at first, Basque. I've heard good things about certain Filipino dialects, too, but have no first-hand knowledge.

    Or go to Paris and sit quietly at any café-terrasse over lunch or on a Saturday afternoon. Remember to take a notepad and an expensive miniaturized video camera. You will not need a plethysmograph.

    Third, your credibility will soar if you do a little field research before blogging. Had you done so here, you'd have known that real men do not use the term vagina. Let lepidopterists temper, objectify, and ultimately extinguish their passions with latinate labels, if that floats their boat(s). Any man with a whit of feeling for a woman, however, will not apply a lifeless Latin word (originally pronounced with a hard G, as sick as that seems to us today) to the Gateway to her Magic Kingdom.

    Continued use of the V-word by "scientists" with lay subjects will unfailingly result in skewed research results. Lives could be ruined. Please act responsibly.

    Fourth, you write that "Chivers' research suggests that women are aroused by more and different visual stimuli than are men. But when asked to self-report their level of arousal, the women in her experiments consistently get it wrong. Their heads and their _______s don’t agree."

    This is news to you? How many times have we men heard women say, obliquely, haltingly, "umm ... before we go back to the dungeon, I need to tell you that ... well, I may be a little [insert euphemism for "dry"] ... [insert euphemism for "down there"]." They base that assertion on past experience. Perhaps only one, during an earthquake, 10 years earlier. In reality, they just don't know.

    You have not carried your own reasoning to its logical conclusion. What evolutionary purpose might such confusion serve? The assertion of [insert euphemism for "dryness"] has what consequence on an aroused male? Yes, that's right: dissembled disbelief. The hunter (your analogy, not mine) does not loose his arrows randomly, nor does he re-sheath them arbitrarily and lapse into dysthymia. The villagers would perish if he did so.

    No, he always first confirms the condition of the prey. Confirmation pays. A rabbit languid with tularemia is a bad choice for the evening stew.

    It is the act of confirming [euphemism] status that confers an evolutionary edge, however slight. Even if it proved false only one time in one hundred, well, that could yield another hut thatcher. Confirmation usually constitutes a welcome and delightful break for the harried hunter, renewing his focus and clarity afterwards.

    In the cases of imputed [insert euphemism, but be gentle] described above, however, the self-reporters turned out to be wrong. Every time.

    Back to the drawin' boards wit' ya.

    Fifth, go ahead and delete Alluvial II, if you must, without saving a copy. I have copies of this comment, and I can, and will, edit it to respond to any post you make on Alluvial III.

    Last, may I suggest a future blog topic? (Suggesting one does not imply creating future Alluvials.)

    You are, it seems to me, supremely endowed to address one of the last, mysterious taboos: What's with the confusion about female ejaculate? And why can't anyone come up with better terms for it than the preceding and "squirting"? Why don't women believe men when the latter tell the former that there are almost no traces of [insert euphemism for urine] in it? If men aren't embarrassed about theirs (reportedly far less neutral in taste), why should women be? Whom should we be blaming? And why doesn't anyone know where it comes from, Miss Ruby?

    How can we be so ignorant 9% of the way through the 21st century? Have we not, after all, put a man on the moon and an intelligent person in the White House?

    And do stick with Alluvial II, Ms. Ruby. It's good.

  3. Utterly fascinating. I notice that one underlying assumption of the study seems to be that "arousal" and genital blood flow are one and the same. Do you think this is valid? If not, then perhaps the women were not "getting it wrong," but simply reporting psychological rather than physical arousal. In this case the study suggests that we men lack such a distinction.

    Oh, and your writing is, as usual, awesome. "Males, as 'hunters,' enjoy perceiving, focusing on and killing or otherwise interacting quickly with objects flying across the visual field." Priceless.

  4. Hm. Everyone seems to be skipping ahead to the next part which is clearly indicated as such in the form of "Next Up: Why They Won't Admit It." This was just the first part: why women might be tramps.

    Perhaps the former title is misleading, because it assumes that women are actually aroused and afraid to admit it. There is the alternate possibility, suggested by Xigent, that women are unaware of their own arousal or the state of their...Gateways to Infite Joy? Squish mittens? Kitties? I find this unlikely and perhaps his experience can be accounted for by other means, namely, female fear of disappointing her man during sexy bits. (uttered as a warning, in other words, rather than a description of an actual state).

    I tend to think as castlerook suggested, namely, that blood flow to the genitals and the subjective experience of desire are quite different matters. I doubt all those women wanted to have sex with chimpanzees, as does our researchers.

    On a related point, I wonder how arousal from voyeurism relates to or translates? correlates? to or with the desire experienced around potential sex partners. What's going on in people's bodies? Such a mystery.

  5. Also, dearest Xigent, I don't think I can spin an entire post on female ejaculation. All I have to say about it is that 1) I understand it is rare or at least unpredictable, unlike male ejaculation, 2) the stuff shooting across the room in porn is fake and 3) the common vernacular of "coming" in all its various manifestations fits well enough for my tastes.

  6. Interestingly enough, a friend of mine just sent me a link to this very article. Glad to have your insight on it, and looking for what next.

    On the subject of what women want, has anyone considered that the inaccurate reporting isn't a factor of not knowing, but more of their not wanting to tell? After all, it's hardly impressive for someone to deliver us exactly what we wanted after we've told them what it is. But what an impressive feat to have done so after having been given no idea, or indeed, perhaps evidence to the contrary!

  7. I don't need a scientific study to tell me that most women don't know what they want and are confused. Nor do I need one to tell me that men are controlled by their penis.

    I will give some serious props to you though for your theory in the last paragraph. Chicks totally dig a man that is big, strong, masculine and yet thinks like a woman.

  8. "I wonder how arousal from voyeurism relates to or translates? correlates? to or with the desire experienced around potential sex partners."

    Well if you decide to do a study and need some experimental subjects, let me know.

    In my, uh, experience, arousal from voyeurism is very much about "otherwise interacting quickly with objects flying across the visual field," whereas desire experienced around potential sex partners is considerably more complex and primarily psychological.

  9. Oh, Buffy. Quit trying to provoke me. We do need scientific studies of this type to confirm or deny cultural myths. What is interesting to me is that you see it as confirmation of what you already believe. I suppose that's natural. I would say that the experiment suggests that men confuse reflexive body responses with what they "want" and that women experience "want" as a more complex phenomenon. So it's actually men who don't know what they Want. In my experience, men require a great deal of care and feeding beyond their penises but are incapable of articulating exactly what that is and tend to become frustrated with simple questions like, "what is it that you want, specifically, from me?"

    castlerook, I will let you know. I'm getting into this "sexology" field. It lends academic legitimacy to dirty talk and gossip. What could be wrong with that?

  10. My Dear Ruby,

    Spin makes the world go round :o)