Friday, February 13, 2009

What Do Women Want? What Will They Settle For?

As everyone I know seems to know, a few weeks ago the New York Times ran a long in-depth discussion of recent research on women's sexuality. Honestly, there were so many things there to make a person feel weird, it's hard to know where to start. It's exhausting. No wonder I haven't posted in so long.

One striking thing in the article is the proposal that women have a kind of "reactive," or, put less pleasantly, a "narcissistic" sexual nature -- that is, that what turns them on is knowing they are turning someone else on. A related point concerns the surprising list of things that turn women on. Bonobos having sex, yes. Woman exercising, yes. Cute guy walking along the beach, not so much.

One proposal suggested by the researchers profiled in the article is that women evolved to respond to a wide range of stimulation more in the way of "readiness" than "desire." In cases of "unwanted genital penetration," a woman is better off if she gets lubricated. Less risk of injury. So what we see as lubrication isn't reflective of sexual desire. The same researcher suggests that women have a kind of "receptive" sexual nature that is complementary to men's "aggressive" sexual nature. On the other hand, women can be sexually quite aggressive, so this can't be the whole story.

I got a few thoughts.

1. It's hard to tell from the article whether there's a way of distinguishing between clitoral arousal and lubrication, which on the face of it seem quite different. One recurring theme in these discussions is "it's so puzzling; women are like this, but they're also like that." If the clitoral systems and inside systems are distinct, it's hardly surprising that women are like this but they're also like that. To oversimplify: maybe the clitoral system is the aggressive one and the inside system is the receptive one? Or something like that?

Clearly the clitoris has got no need for "readiness" in the sense of receptivity. Am I right? The clit is all about direct desire.

For some reason this train of thought always leads me to remember those incredibly annoying ads that some diamond company came up with trying to sell women on buying diamonds for themselves. You remember? The idea was that while your right hand was, you know, applying lipstick and trying to be seductive and getting married, your left hand was climbing mountains and getting promoted to CEO and learning sign language, Your husband was supposed to buy the right hand ring, but you were supposed to buy the left hand ring yourself. The tag line was something like, "Women of America, raise your left hand." Which was supposed to empowering or something, but really, Oh My God, how stupid. I can get irritated just thinking about it now, all these years later.

But whatever, you get the idea. I'm not claiming superiority of one system over another. As I wrote before, it's good to be a hybrid. Two systems working together: we should all be so lucky.

2. The researchers make a point of reminding everyone that arousal does not equal consent, that just because something turns a woman on does not mean you are allowed to do it.

Well, jeez, yeah, of course. You'd think this would be 100 percent obvious, as in so obvious it doesn't need repeating, but somehow it's not quite sinking in for everyone, which is why I assume they brought it up.

The idea that a woman could be "asking for it" even when she has said "no" seems to persist. I don't know what is up with that, or even whether this is a simple problem or a complicated one, but really people, time for this to end.

3. There were some great letters in response to the Times piece, and one of them basically made the point that if you want to know what a woman wants, the best way to find out is to ask her. This simple point does seem to get lost in the shuffle surprisingly often. If I had to guess what was going to amaze our descendants 100 years from now about our sexual culture, it wouldn't be that we weren't sure whether women's sexual nature was "receptive" or "aggressive," or even that we were still stuck on whether arousal equals consent.

No, if I had to guess what would be most perplexing, it would be the fact that people continue to think that there's something wrong with women having orgasms mainly from direct clitoral stimulation rather than from intercourse, even though this is 100 percent standard normal woman operating procedure. Every advice columnist seems to regularly get some version of the question, "My girlfriend doesn't orgasm from intercourse alone. I'm trying to get her to go see a doctor, but she doesn't want to. What should I do?" Answer: She's fine. If you want to know what she wants, please ask her.

Maybe I'm wrong. But that's getting my vote for number one weird thing about sex in America in 2009.

4. In the excellent novel Straight Man, by Richard Russo, a wise and well-traveled guy character named Tony Coniglia says something like "What do women want? That's simple. They want everything, just like we do. The interesting question is, What will they settle for?"

Perhaps these researchers are asking the wrong question after all.