Sex

Women: Don't Take on the "Low Sex Drive" Rap

And two more raps not to take on.

Posted Jan 21, 2021

Rap #1: Low Sex Drive

Some people believe that sexual desire is something inside you that just "bubbles up," which leads to sexual arousal experienced in the genitals that motivates you to want or seek some kind of sexual activity that results in orgasm.

This is called the “linear model of human sexual response” and it was adopted by Masters and Johnson—yes the famous M and J. This view was assumed to apply to both men and women.[1] While it may be closer to how men describe their experience, it has resulted in at least 30% of women being “diagnosed” as experiencing low sexual desire. Surprise! Surprise!

A more recent group of sex researchers that has included a critical number of women have questioned this linear mode for women. (Unfortunately, most of these researchers are not in the U.S. because of congressional hostility to financially supporting sex research.)  Their results suggest that sexual desire and sexual arousal cannot so easily be separated into distinct experiences. And, it is sexual desire that emerges out of being sexually aroused—desire does not just “bubble up” from nowhere.

Translation: You will feel the desire to have sex (of some sort) once you have experienced some sexual genital arousal. It is this physical arousal (that you have to be aware of—more about this is coming) that will goad you into wanting and doing something about it—seek sex of some sort.

Rap #2: Sexual Arousal in Women is in the Vagina

Meredith Chivers, a leader in studying sexual arousal in women, is the Director of the Sexuality and Gender Lab at Queens College in Canada.[2] She and her co-workers (including her husband—hooray for him) studied what turns women on, i.e. what gets them genitally aroused.

In a number of such experiments, they showed men and women videos of a variety of sexual activities: men and women having sex, lesbian and gay sex, masturbation activities, and even bonobo apes who are studied because of the frequency and variety of sexual acts they perform.  The researchers measured penile erection in male subjects and vaginal blood flow and wetness in women subjects. They also asked subjects which pictures aroused them, a self-report measure.

Men tended to respond physiologically, got an erection, to what they reported aroused them, primarily heterosexual sex. Women did not respond the same way. Women’s vaginas became aroused, i.e., lubricated (vaginal blood flow and wetness) by most of the previously described videos.

However, the women reported only being aroused by videos of straight couples having sex or women experiencing sexual pleasure. In other words, women were physiologically aroused by a wide variety of sexual stimuli but their self-reports were limited to more traditional sexual stimuli.

A very smart historian, bioethicist, author, and journalist writing about sexual development, social justice, and feminine theory, Alice Dreger, asked a very important question. What are these researchers measuring?

Why aren’t they measuring clitoral arousal?

As Alice Dreger says, why aren’t these researchers measuring clitoral arousal?[3] The vagina is not analogous (technically, the term is homologue, meaning similar in origin, position, or structure, etc.) to the penis, the clitoris is. Remember the clitoris?

The clitoris is that sensitive "love button" that sits at the head of the labia. But that’s just the external part, known as the glans. The clitoris extends back into the body (usually up to four inches) and around the vaginal canal. When you are stimulated, blood rushes to the erectile tissue that makes up the clitoris causing it to be engorged—this is a clitoral erection.[4]

Researchers didn’t measure clitoral response because they haven’t had a measuring device until an international group of researchers from the Netherlands redesigned the usual vaginal measuring device to also measure the clitoral response.[5] In studies using measures of clitoral arousal, researchers found that clitoral response to sexual stimuli does correlate with self-report of being sexually aroused. Big surprise! This suggests that vaginal lubrication serves to get you prepared for arousal rather than show direct sexual arousal, which is demonstrated by clitoral engorgement.

This suggests a new view of the function of vaginal arousal in the sexual scheme for women. Recall that vaginal arousal occurs to a wide variety of stimuli. Vaginal lubrication at the slightest provocation might serve a protective function because women have historically had to deal with sexual assault. This automatic vaginal lubrication may have protected them, to some degree, from injury. A rather grim theory that has made gained traction among researchers.

The earlier researchers seemed to be content with studying only vaginal arousal. Why? In addition to not having a good way to measure clitoral arousal, the vagina is the route through which women conceive. This fits the male model of penile erection being strongly associated with reproduction.  Viewing vaginal arousal as a protection from injury due to sexual assault would certainly be an evolutionary advantage.

Women Are Not Lying…

Historically as well as currently, women have been accused of “lying” about being raped based on showing vaginal arousal (wetness) yet saying they didn’t want sex. The finding that vaginal preparation does not signal sexual awareness or desire tells us that women who are raped really don’t “want it.” They don’t and they are not lying about it!

Rap #3: Vaginal vs Clitoral Orgasm

The new information about female sexual functioning based on the more complete study of female "parts" suggests that we should challenge the idea that vaginal vs clitoral orgasm exists.

About 25% of women experience orgasm through vaginal penetration alone.[6] Most women experience orgasm through direct stimulation of the clitoral glans. Remember, the clitoris is not just the glans, which is easy to manipulate. (see What is the clitoris? And where is it?) Clitoral stimulation, however it is achieved, is responsible for the experience of an orgasm.[7]

Primarily based on Freudian theory, many professionals previously argued that women should only achieve orgasm through vaginal penetration by a man. Any other kind of female sexual pleasure—including masturbation, queer sexuality, and any stimulation of the clitoris—was considered an "immature" form of sexuality. Such thinking has contributed to what is called an orgasm gap, i.e. that men experience orgasm more frequently than women. Recent figures indicate about 95% of straight men and about 65% of straight women experience orgasm during sex. Hark! Most women need direct clitoral stimulation to experience an orgasm. [8]

The Wrap (Not Rap) Up

Some women may not be tuned into their bodies, which may result in less than satisfactory sexual outcomes. Masturbation may hold a clue. Women who masturbate more often (than other women) will be more in tune with their bodies—more aware of their arousal. Men who are more sexually aware tend to just “check in” with their genitals more often, adjusting and prodding them throughout the day.

Meredith Chivers and Lori Brotto also have a hunch.[9] A little girl’s environment may shape how she judges her sexual feelings. Messages that sex is wrong or "gross" could foster a disconnection between sexual feelings and awareness. Were you told, “It’s dirty,” “Keep your hands to yourself,” or “Don’t touch?” If you got these kinds of messages as a little girl, you are certainly going to avoid the usual process of touching and exploring yourself. Boys may get negative messages about masturbation but may also get the subtle nod that while you shouldn’t do it, we’ll understand if you do.

A Final Note

The best instigator of sexual arousal for women is to have had “good sex”—to have orgasmed before and expect to again. The best aphrodisiac!

Another basic ingredient in female sexual arousal and satisfaction is to have a good relationship with your partner. You and your partner need to be in sync when it comes to knowing that clitoral stimulation is not "foreplay."

Finally, don’t get caught up in the vaginal vs clitoral orgasm trap. Orgasm is a significant part of the deliciousness of sex—don’t miss out. Expect to orgasm, if that is your desire.

References

1.        Chivers, M.L. and L.A. Brotto. “Controversies of Women’s Sexual Arousal and Desire.” European Psychologist. 22(1) (2017), 5-26.

2.      Barmak, S. “Building a Better Female Orgasm.” The Walrus. April 6, 2020. (https://thewalrus.ca/building-a-better-female-orgasm/)

3.      Dreger, A. “The Problem with Sexual Arousal Studies.” Pacific Standard.  June 14, 2017.

4.        Telfer, N. and McWeeney, Clar. “What is the Clitoris? And where is it?” helloclue.com. July 1, 2019.

5.         Mechelmans, D.J., Wendelin L. Sachtler, E von Wiegand, David Goodrich, Julia R. Helman, and Erick Janssen. “The Sccessful Measurement of Clitoral Pulse Amplitude Using a New Clitoral Photoplethysmograph: A Pilot Study”. The Journal of Sexual Medicine. 17(6) June, 2020, 111-1125.

6.         Aponte, C.E.  A. Marriage of Equals. Berkeley, She Writes Press, 2019

7.        Conley, T. “Women’s Orgasms. Huffpost: The Blog. December 6, 2017.

8.        Rowland, K. “What I Learned Talking to 120 Women About Their Sex Lives and Desires.” The Guardian.  February 5, 2020.

9.        Chivers, M.L. and L.A. Brotto.