A Billion Wicked Thoughts

The world's largest experiment on human desire.

Why Gender Equality Does Not Always Work In The Bedroom

The neural circuitry of dominance and submission


Being submissive in the bedroom is really fun...You get to be a little lady, to have somebody be macho and in charge of your s**t.
Rihanna

I have struggled with two competing images of the opposite sex: oppressor, and dream date.
J. Courtney Sullivan

I blame my recurring rape fantasy on the fact that I'm a feminist.
Tracie Egan

One sexual enigma perplexes both women and their clinicians: Why do so many American women have difficulties in bed?

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Twice as many women as men report trouble getting turned on. Health professionals report that low desire is the most common sexual complaint they hear from women. Though several factors specific to the design of the female brain contribute to this problem, there is one important psychological factor that may be unique to modern democracies. This factor is one of the unmentionables of sexual science, but since our book is filled with unmentionables, we'll whisper it here:

Gender equality inhibits arousal.


The majority of women have submission fantasies. From classic romance The Flame and The Flower to classic erotica The Claiming of Sleeping Beauty to Twilight BDSM fan fiction, submission themes are immensely popular in cross-cultural female erotica. The fact of the matter is that most heterosexual women are wired to find sexual submission arousing--and so are most female mammals.

Consider Rattus norvegicus, the Norwegian rat. The female performs stereotyped physical actions associated with sexual interest. First is pacing: running and stopping, inducing a male to chase her. This culminates in lordosis: assuming a submissive stationary posture with arched back and raised hips. Lordosis is controlled by a specific region of the hypothalamus, a subcortical brain structure. An analogous part of the brain controls submission postures in female primates.

In male rats, another part of the hypothalamus controls stereotyped dominance activity, such as mounting a female and performing intromission.

Though a woman's preference for physical sexual submission appears to be controlled by the unconscious, inaccessible subcortical part of her brain, this unconscious physical preference is complemented by an independent psychological preference for dominant men. [See footnote 1.]

Almost every quality of dominant males triggers arousal in the female brain: dominant scents, dominant gaits, deep voices, height, displays of wealth. Romance heroes are almost always high status alpha males—billionaires, barons, surgeons, sheriffs. Avon Books and Ellora's Cave feature no heroes who are kindergarten teachers, accountants, or plumbers. Even though there's been a trend away from the conspicuously rapey bodice-rippers of the seventies and eighties, women still want strong, dominant men.

"I think this is one of the problems we're having in romance in general right now: our heroes have gotten a little too PC. We're portraying men the way feminist ideals say they should be—respectful and consensus-building," muses erotic romance (EroRom) author Angela Knight. "Yet women like bad boys. I suspect that's because our inner cavewoman knows Doormat Man would become Sabertooth Tiger Lunch in short order. In fact, this may be one reason why EroRom is gaining popularity so fast--writers feel free to write dominant heroes with more of an edge."

On the other hand, most men are aroused by being dominant, as evidenced by the massive cross-cultural popularity of dominance-themed adult Web sites for men. These include some of the most inventive and varied genres of male erotica, such as hypnotism porn (where Svengalis hypnotize woman into having sex), drunk porn (where men trick inebriated women into having sex), sleep porn (where men take advantage of sleeping women), and a wide diversity of exploitation porn (where women exchange sexual favors for school books, a ride, or a rent-free apartment).

Our mammalian brains come wired with very ancient sexual preferences, quite prominent in the most popular forms of male and female erotica preferred by Homo sapiens. Men are aroused by being dominant and by submissive women, women are aroused by being submissive and by dominant men. In the bedroom, inequality beats equality.

If you suspect this is some kind of stealth agenda for justifying belligerent or misogynistic male behavior, read on, for there is a fascinating neural caveat. One of the most startling findings from our desire research is this: men and women's brains each come wired with the neural circuitry for both sexual dominance and sexual submission. When Nature builds our brains, it installs both the "male" and "female" subcortical circuits, but apparently only links one of these circuits to the arousal system. Scientists can trigger lordosis in male rats by activating their dormant submission circuitry, and can trigger masculine mounting in female rats by activating their dormant dominance circuitry.

But here's the intriguing part. In humans, the hormonal vagaries of prenatal development appear to cause a substantial portion of men to be born with active submissive circuitry. These men find sexual submission as arousing—or, quite often, far more arousing—than sexual dominance. Such submission-wired men are fans of the equally popular, inventive, and varied genres of male submissive erotica, such as femdom porn, transformation fiction, golden showers, CBT (penis and testicle torture), and CFNM (clothed female naked men).

So if your boyfriend is wired to prefer sexual submission, then role-playing "The Rape of the Sabine Women" probably won't solve your arousal problems... not unless you're one of the even smaller portion of women born with active dominance circuitry—and your boyfriend plays the Sabine.

So what's a loving couple committed to equality, consensus, and mutual compromise to do? Negotiating sexual politics has always been difficult, but paradoxically the laudable and necessary victories of gender equality activism might make it even more challenging. We're all figuring out how to live in the first society in human history where women have such power, independence, and clout. But just as democracy has no effect on our basic taste preferences for sugar and fat, democracy doesn't affect our basic sexual preferences for domination and submission.

You can read Part 2 to this post: "Do men want to rape? Do women want to be raped?"

You can read Part 3: We are all sexually intolerant

You can read ABC News' article on this blog post: Feminism as the Anti-Viagra

Footnote 1: It's important to distinguish between sexual dominance and submission and social dominance and submission. In mammals, sexual dominance and submission refer to very specific physical actions (such as lordosis and intromission) controlled by circuits in the subcortex. In contrast, social dominance and submission refers to an individual's status in the social hierarchy. Social dominance is managed by a testosterone-mediated neurohormonal brain system that drives status-seeking behaviors in male mammals, including kangaroos, elk, coyotes, and stockbrokers. There are clear sexual benefits from being dominant: high status males have more sex, more vigorous sex, and ejaculate higher volumes. On the television show Breaking Bad, high school chemistry teacher Walter White indulges in intense, fevered sex each time he unexpectedly asserts his dominance over drug-dealing alpha males, leading his overwhelmed wife to gasp, "Where did that come from?"

 

 

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Ogi Ogas, Ph.D., studies computational neuroscience. He is co-author of A Billion Wicked Thoughts.

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