Love and Sex in the Digital Age

Technology and the intimate relationship

Female Sexual Arousal: Why Viagra Doesn't Work on Women

While male sexual desire is a physical thing, women operate very differently.

Women vs. Men: Not the Same Brain

It will likely come as no surprise to you that men and women are very, very different. And I’m not just talking about the exterior stuff that you can see pretty clearly any time you want if you know where to look on the Internet. The simple truth is that our interior construction is different, too - especially our brains. For starters, male brains are approximately nine percent larger, with the extra brain matter being mostly white matter, the part of the brain that transmits signals between cells. However, women have a more evolved corpus callosum, the portion of the brain that facilities communication between the left hemisphere and the right. (Generally speaking, our left brain controls logic, analytical thinking, and objectivity, whereas our right brain controls intuition, synthesis, and subjectivity.) So we conclude that that male brains have more connectivity between nearby cells, while female brains have more connectivity between the two hemispheres. These basic structural differences explain, at least in part, many of the readily observable differences in male and female behavior - differences that are apparent from birth onward.

For example, one-day-old baby boys are more likely to spend time looking at a mechanical mobile than at a live face, whereas one-day-old girls tend to focus on faces. As they grow older, boys tend to be more physically active and aggressive, while girls tend to be more verbal. As adults, males typically (but not universally) score higher on physics and engineering problems, while females typically (but not universally) rate higher on tests of emotion, social sensitivity, and verbal fluency. At all ages and life-stages, men tend to be more left-brain (more analytical) and women tend to be more right-brain or integrated-brain (more likely to see the big picture). This means that men are usually better systematizers, addressing issues in a straightforward and logical fashion, whereas women are usually better empathizers, addressing issues holistically and considering things like feelings and emotions. In short, as author John Gray famously wrote: Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus.

Why Viagra Doesn’t Work for Women

These deep differences in male and female neural structure and behavior extend far beyond readily observable play/school/work activities, seeping into the dating game and even the bedroom. Interestingly, several major pharmaceutical companies recently expended (wasted) hundreds of millions of dollars proving this fact for us.

This failed experiment started in 1998, after Pfizer launched its erection enhancing wonder drug, Viagra. Pfizer’s stock price doubled within days, and Pfizer’s competitors immediately pushed to unveil their own erection enhancing pills. Before long we had Cialis, Levitra, and several other medications, all of which operate on the principal that increased blood flow to the penis makes for better erections and an increased psychological interest in sex. And guess what? That is exactly what happens. After taking these medications, men have stronger erections that last for longer periods of time, and they are far more interested - not just physically but emotionally and psychologically - in sexual activity.

Unsurprisingly, the manufacturers of these drugs (plus a few other drug companies) sought to similarly address female sexual desire, perhaps recognizing that women actually report low sexual desire even more often than men. Reasoning that what worked for the gander would also work for the goose, they created a variety of “vasodilators,” drugs that increase blood-flow to a woman’s vaginal region. The thought was that - as occurs with men and drugs like Viagra - if the essential physical parts were stimulated, then the psychological half of sexual desire would take care of itself. However, every single attempt at increasing female sexual desire through peripherally acting agents was a colossal failure. In short, the drug companies found that the male brain responds to medically induced physical sexual arousal with a corresponding increase in psychological sexual arousal, but the female brain does not. If a man is physically turned on, he will also become psychologically turned on. Women, however, seem to require more than just physical stimulation.

The Romance Novel Template

It has long been known that male sexual desire is driven more by physiological than psychological factors. In other words, if a man’s penis is erect, you can make a very accurate guess as to what’s going on in his mind. This is why drugs like Viagra are so successful. It’s also why male porn sites (including sites for gay men) feature sexual body parts and/or overt sexual acts and not much else. There is rarely any storyline, kissing, foreplay, or romantic interaction. In short, there is not a “real person” on the receiving end of whatever it is that’s being inserted. For the unbridled male brain, it’s just sex, sex, and more sex. Even porn literature written for a male audience tends to focus much more on body parts and sexual acts than on the development of relationships and feelings.

Women, however, operate differently. Open up a romance novel or tune in to either True Blood or the Twilight movies and you’ll see this rather clearly. In these stories, you’ll find very little in the way of objectified, non-relational sex. Instead, you’re going to get a whole lot of broad-chested, square-jawed, deep-voiced bad boys turning into goo whenever they spot the story’s heroine. Whereas male porn stories will lovingly describe the size of a woman’s breasts and buttocks, not to mention the man’s gargantuan penis, erotic stories for women barely mention these things, focusing instead on how the man makes the woman feel and, perhaps more importantly, how she makes him feel. Given this, it is clear that women are much more turned on by emotional connection (preferably when it arrives in a traditionally masculine package) than by sexual body parts and/or the grunting and groaning of an actual sexual act.

This is the case even in the more explicit “mommy porn” stories that are now so popular. The best example of this is the bestselling novel, Fifty Shades of Grey, featuring the typical romance novel alpha male, Christian Grey, falling head over heels in love with the typical romance novel naïve virgin, Anastasia. The only real difference between Harlequin romances filled with lusty pirates and kidnapped maidens and Fifty Shades is that Fifty Shades tracks the action through and past the proverbial “money shot,” whereas traditional bodice rippers usually cut to the next scene immediately following said bodice rip. Not surprisingly, reader reviews and anecdotal evidence suggest that the overwhelming majority of Fifty Shades vast and mostly female readership is entranced not so much by the book’s many depictions of sexual bondage and domination as by the development of the relationship between Christian and Anastasia - in particular Christian’s slow but steady transition from cold, unemotional “master” to caring lover and devoted husband.

In their engaging and fascinating book, A Billion Wicked Thoughts, looking at the interplay of Internet activity and human sexuality, authors Ogi Ogas and Sai Gaddam propose a possible bio-evolutionary reason for this powerful and obvious difference in sexual desire. “When contemplating sex with a man, a woman has to consider the long-term. This consideration may not even be conscious, but rather is part of the unconscious software that has evolved to protect women over hundreds of thousands of years. Sex could commit a woman to a substantial, life-altering investment: pregnancy, nursing, and more than a decade of child-raising.” Thus the desire for an emotional commitment (or at least the illusion of an emotional commitment) from the man before a woman can be properly turned on. Ogas and Gaddam also posit the basic reason that women prefer square-jawed, deep-voiced, broad-chested alpha males: “If a man turns out to be weak or incompetent, he might fail to protect her from threats.”

Meet Miss Marple

Certainly in today’s world women are perfectly capable of raising children, providing for themselves and their children, and avoiding attacks by wild animals - all without the assistance of some John Wayne wannabe. As such, in modern parenthood the involvement of a male (alpha or otherwise) is not necessary (except for the basics of impregnation). Nevertheless, hundreds of thousands of years of evolution are not easily overcome. For one thing, there is that pesky corpus callosum to think about, which causes women to integrate logic and emotion, and also to communicate verbally much more fluidly than males typically do. And, just in case you’re wondering, one of the things they most often talk about is men: Is this one worthy? Does he have a history of cheating? How much money does he make? Is he abusive? Will I be safe with him? Etc.

Ogas and Gaddam call this female vetting process the “Miss Marple Detective Agency” (a reference to Agatha Christie’s elderly and curmudgeonly yet incredibly astute female detective). Ogas and Gaddam note that the Miss Marple portion of a woman’s brain is not satisfied (not willing to approve sexual arousal) until multiple conditions are met. When a man looks at a woman, a nice butt will probably get his engines revving both physically and psychologically. But for the cautious, always-observing-prior-to-taking-action Miss Marple, a good looking posterior is simply not enough. A cute butt PLUS a good job PLUS a nice car PLUS big biceps PLUS he smells like sandalwood PLUS he shows interest in me personally? Yeah, that might do it.

Men do not have a Miss Marple. For males - regardless of culture, class, race, etc. - even relatively mild physical sexual arousal is usually enough to trigger psychological interest in sexual activity. But this is just not the case with healthy female desire. You can pump a woman so full of vasodilators that her genitalia are throbbing, but if she doesn’t feel some sort of emotional attraction and connection, she’s unlikely to want sex. Period. In other words, most women want a man (preferably an alpha male) who connects with them emotionally. (They don’t care if the alpha male is soft and sweet to others, as long as he’s kind and engaging with them.) Thousands of years of “safety first” evolution has hardwired the female brain to pretty much demand this. So that pesky Miss Marple is constantly looking for clues that indicate a particular man does or does not qualify. If he does, then game on. If not, then it’s probably game over.

“Or” vs. “And”

Perhaps the best metaphor for the difference between male and female desire comes from Ogas and Gaddam. Males have what they call an OR gate, whereas females have an AND gate. In other words, with men, a nice smile OR nice breasts OR a nice rear end OR a reputation for being good in bed OR just about anything else will open the pathway to being turned on both physically and psychologically. But with women (and that pesky Miss Marple), more is required. It’s all about the AND. Sure, you’ve got broad shoulders, but what else do you bring to the table? And usually this “What else?” question will be asked several times before a woman - even a woman who’s ingested a vasodilator - becomes interested enough in sex to say yes.

At the end of the day, the stereotypical assessment of male sexuality - men are pigs - is not that far off-base. Essentially, males will chow down on whatever slop is served them, so long as there’s a least one yummy banana peel tucked in the pile somewhere. (OK, for about a hundred reasons that’s a pretty awful metaphor, but you get the point.) And this is true whether a guy is straight or gay or bisexual. Women, however, typically require a seven-course gourmet dinner before they get interested. This is how their brains are constructed. Again, this is true whether a woman is straight or lesbian or bisexual. Yes, there are always ways to circumvent Miss Marple. For instance, a lavish gift will sometimes send the crusty detective on temporary hiatus, as will a couple of well-placed cocktails. And sometimes Miss Marple short-circuits entirely in women with a history of early-life sexual abuse, which, sadly, opens these women up to further abuse as adults. Most of the time, however, sexual desire is not just a physical thing for women. Instead, it’s a combination of the physical, the emotional, and the practical.

To learn more about healthy human sexuality, visit the websites of the American Association of Sexuality Educators, Counselors, and Therapists and the Society for the Advancement of Sexual Health. To learn more about Miss Marple, pick up any number of Agatha Christie books.

 

Robert Weiss LCSW, CSAT-S is Senior Vice President of Clinical Development with Elements Behavioral Health. A well-known subject expert on the relationship between digital technology and human sexuality, he has served as a media specialist for CNN, The Oprah Winfrey Network, the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and the Today Show, among many others. He is author of Cruise Control: Understanding Sex Addiction in Gay Men and Sex Addiction 101: A Basic Guide to Healing from Sex, Porn, and Love Addiction, and co-author with Dr. Jennifer Schneider of both Untangling the Web: Sex, Porn, and Fantasy Obsession in the Internet Age and Closer Together, Further Apart: The Effect of Technology and the Internet on Parenting, Work, and Relationships. For more information visit his website

Robert Weiss is the author of Closer Together, Further Apart: The Effect of Technology and the Internet on Sex, Intimacy and Relationships.

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