Evolution of the Self

On the paradoxes of personality

The Triggers of Sexual Desire Part 2: What’s Erotic for Women?

What turns men on won’t work for women.

If there’s such a thing as porn for women, it revolves around the romance novel. And the amazing popularity of this literary genre suggests the vast differences that distinguish what arouses a woman’s libido vs. a man’s.

As mentioned earlier, the volume that represents the basis for this extended series of posts on human sexual desire is Ogi Ogas and Sai Gaddam’s A Billion Wicked Thoughts (2011). These authors carefully describe the nature of women’s escapist fiction, tailor-made to so many of their tastes. And they also take pains to underscore how prevalent—and profitable!—it’s been as a form giving voice to female eroticism. For example, they report that in 2008 the genre generated some $1.37 billion in sales, constituting “the single largest share of the fiction market.” Additionally, in that year at least 74.8 million people read a romance novel, over 90 percent of whom were women (p. 87).

These numbers are compared with the approximately 100 million men in the U.S. and Canada who accessed porn online in 2008. And the authors note that although women aren’t willing to pay for such typically male-oriented visual porn, they’re quite happy to pay for the privilege of reading romance fiction. So happy in fact that such erotica actually produces more revenue than does online pornography for men.

Even more curious is the fact that while sex is ever-present in romance, it doesn’t really appear to be crucial to the woman’s enjoyment. What is crucial? Ogas and Gaddam cite Sarah Wendell and Candy Tan’s book on the subject (Beyond Heaving Bosoms, 2009), which reflects that the central fantasy in such fiction is the “awakening to love” (p. 88)—which is glorified all the more by a sexual awakening. But even then, sex scenes depicted in romance novels are comparatively tame as compared to erotic stories written with males in mind. And there’s far more emphasis on the emotions and relationship of the two principals than in male-fashioned fiction. Which might well explain why generally people are inclined to talk about ”erotica” for women and “pornography” for men. (And in this respect, see my earlier post “What Distinguishes Erotica from Pornography?”.)

The hero in romance novels may be, as Ogas and Gaddam describe him, “virile, dangerous, and lusty” (p. 87), but he’s not reduced to a sex object either—as, so commonly, are women in “adult” fiction for men. In fact, the hero in romances becomes increasingly human—and vulnerable—as the story develops and, unexpectedly, he falls head-over-heels in love with the much more innocent (and less experienced) heroine.

These heroes are virtually always alpha males, to whom a considerable majority of women seem almost magnetically attracted. And romance novels exploit this preference in various ways. It’s not simply the hero’s physical prowess that is so compelling to female readers: it’s also his “status, confidence, and competence” (p. 95). Each of these traits contributes to his overall dominance—and such male authority, or ascendance, is what most women appear hard-wired to be susceptible to, as well as willing to submit to. Ogas and Gaddam, observing that studies have repeatedly demonstrated the erotic appeal of alpha dominance to women—from the sensory cues of the male’s voice, to his scent, to his movement and gait, to his sharply defined facial features—provide an illustration from Angelle Trieste’s Devil Falls (2008). Note how well this excerpt illustrates what research has by now many times validated:

"Victoria looked up and to her relief saw a man trotting toward her. An umbrella dangled from his hand, and casual but expensive clothes wrapped his long, lean frame. He was gloriously golden, with a face that rivaled Lucifer’s in the moment of his fall from grace.

Damien Kirk. A cellist celebrated the world over.

The magazine photos didn’t do him justice. They had failed to capture the magnetic vividness of his blue eyes and the electrifying vitality of his presence. She could feel it through the gates, even over the ferocity of the dogs, and she had no doubt he had dominated the vast concert halls, driving the crowds wild. Her heartbeat picked up the pace, and it wasn’t all from relief."

No coincidence, then, that the ten most popular vocations of the hero—as Ogas and Gaddam’s determined through reviewing the titles of more than 15,000 Harlequin romance novels (!)—are doctor, cowboy, boss, prince, rancher, knight, surgeon, king, bodyguard, and sheriff. Moreover, swaggering alphas aren’t simply natural, born leaders and hyper-confident about their abilities, they’re also fiercely protective. So even though, rationally, contemporary women are less and less in need of a forceful male savior, they still find them immensely attractive as romantic partners.

Inevitably, men have become increasingly aware of this fundamental sexual cue for women, which is what accounts for the Pickup Artist culture made famous (notorious?) by Neil Strauss in his book The Game (2005). The seduction techniques delineated there are contrived (as Ogas and Gaddam put it) “to activate women’s psychological cues in the same way that Botox, collagen, and implants are designed to artificially trigger men’s visual ones.” And the main requirements for successful seduction is, well, to “always be an alpha” (p. 96).

Focusing more on the distinct differences between erotic cues for females vs. males, I might begin by emphasizing that males betray a strong preference for very young women. Minors, specifically 16-year-olds, actually represent the single, most popular age category for male porn searches. On the contrary, women show a predilection for older men—sometimes much older than themselves. Which isn’t particularly surprising since the confidence and competence they so highly value in males is largely a factor of maturity and experience.

Erotic female fantasies also differ from most males’ as regards the powerful rendition of the hero and heroine’s thoughts and feelings. Whereas the woman in male porn is pretty much devoid of real human dimensions—being obsessed with “an overwhelming urge to have [indiscriminate] sex with plumbers, pizza boys, and her BFF” (p. 104), the heroes of romance novels are regularly presented as discerning, clever, and intelligent (if somewhat distant, brutal and untamed). Uncomplicated, sexy scatterbrains may be sufficient for most males’ arousal, but women demand much more from their heroes. Sure, they prefer them handsome, tall, and strong. But they’re not interested in their simply being sex machines either. And romance novels pay scant attention to details of their genitalia—again, as contrasted with sex fiction written for males, which depicts a woman’s curvaceous body in the most lavish, graphic terms possible (and here I’ll omit any examples).

Ogas and Gaddam’s summary of the above differences seems almost pitch-perfect: “This strange clash of busty, giggling airheads and tall, brooding dukes produces mutual dismay. Where men see sexy, women often see misogyny. Where women see sexy, men often see arrogant jerks with split personalities” (p. 105). And many of the key ingredients of porn and romance seem forever incompatible. The impersonal, anonymous, orgasm-driven sex that typifies male porn is far removed from romantic fiction, which centers on a melodramatic story line and emotionally-imbued character development that culminates in a deeply loving—and committed—relationship between hero and heroine.

Doubtless, on the road to marital bliss, the romance formula will include a torrid sex scene or two, but still the tale doesn’t end with images of simultaneous orgasms but sounds of wedding bells—or at least “a long-term monogamous relationship.” This may be a woman’s ultimate fantasy, but it hardly seems to reflect a male’s, whose less judicious ideals are unquestionably more carnal than conjugal. How extraordinarily revealing that Ogas and Gaddam, in exploring the most frequent searches on Dogpile, discovered that the two most common queries ending in ”-ing” were, ahem, “wedding” and “f**king” (p. 106).

Even in explicit porn sites seeking to attract heterosexual women—and apparently only two have seen a profit doing so—the woman’s more romantic bias is demonstrated. Sssh.com is one of these two sites. And besides its erotic stories and videos, it also includes articles on health and diet, a section offering sexual advice, and a very active forum for female chat. Angie Rowntree, who founded this site in 1995, not to supply women with their own version of Playboy but (as she puts it) “to create Cosmo with balls,” is quoted by Ogas and Gaddam on her findings about the site’s pornographic videos: “We’ve listened to what women wanted to see,” claims Rountree, “and gotten pretty good at it.” And good at what exactly? “Women want to see foreplay, a lot of kissing, a lot of talking before the action gets going. . . . The guys have to be clean, well-dressed, and well-kept. They hate men that are sloppily dressed” (p. 161). Needless to say, such considerations are hardly relevant for anyone motivated to create alluring porn videos for males.

Visual cues do matter for women, but not really more than other sensory ones. And to become significantly aroused, women definitely need more cues than men. As already suggested, a man’s voice and scent is important—as is the sensuality of his touch. Visual cues—which do not focus on sex organs at all—include a man’s face, eyes (as in, the more intense the better), color of his hair, and his general body shape. And (actually similar to men here) women do care about butts. As Ogas and Gaddam observe: “The gluteus maximus is a ‘universal cue’: it’s the one piece of anatomy that straight men, gay men [and women], and straight women all find exciting” [not to mention primates!] (p. 166). Still, more than anything else, it’s the combination of many physical and psychological cues that succeeds in turning women on. And this is why romantic stories, using the written word to capture both their imagination and libido, have from the start been the most popular form of erotica for them.

There are additional triggers that activate female (and, somewhat differently, lesbian) sexual desire. But here I’ll refrain from exploring them, since these stimuli are more appropriately discussed in later segments of this series (e.g., “Paradox and Pragmatism in Women's Sexual Desire” and “Why Erotic Illusions Can Turn You On Much More Than the Real Thing”). Instead, I’ll conclude this post by quoting from Ogas and Gaddam’s succinct summary on how women’s sexual cues contrast with men’s:

"Women respond to a truly astonishing range of cues across many domains. The physical appearance of a man, his social status, personality, commitment, the authenticity of his emotions, his confidence, family, attitude toward children, kindness, height, and smell. . . . Unlike men, who become aroused after being exposed to a single cue, women need to experience enough simultaneous cues to cross an ever-varying threshold. Sometimes, just a few overwhelming cues can take a woman there. Other times, it takes a very large number of moderate cues. . . . For women, no single cue is either necessary or sufficient" (p. 212).

NOTE 1: Here are the titles and links to each segment of this 12-part series:

NOTE 2: If you found this post informative (and hopefully, somewhat entertaining as well), I hope you’ll consider passing it on.

© 2012 Leon F. Seltzer, Ph.D. All Rights Reserved.

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Leon F. Seltzer, Ph.D., who holds doctorates in English and Psychology, is a clinical psychologist and author of Paradoxical Strategies in Psychotherapy.

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