Paradox and Pragmatism in Women’s Sexual Desire

Women can at once be physically turned on—and psychologically turned off.

Posted May 17, 2012

Sex Differences / Wikipedia
Source: Sex Differences / Wikipedia

It’s intriguing—if not downright mystifying—how a woman’s mind and body, sexually speaking, can be at war with one another. It’s doubtless true that, however indiscriminately, Nature wants babies. After all, that’s what keeps the human species going. But consciously, women require that many conditions be met—call them prerequisites—before they’re actually ready to give in to powerful mating instincts.

This post, which comes directly on the heels of “The Triggers of Sexual Desire, Part 2—What’s Erotic for Women?”, is designed both to expand on some points I made earlier and to qualify still others. Previously my goal was to contrast what generally turns women on vs. what typically is arousing for men. But here my purpose is to explain why sexual desire is far more complicated in women—as well as to further delineate the nature of their erotic cues. As before, the main source for my discussion will be Ogi Ogas and Sai Gaddam’s comprehensive volume A Billion Wicked Thoughts: What the World’s Largest Experiment [based on massive Internet data] Reveals About Sexual Desire (2011).

These two authors report on an experiment done by Meredith Chivers, a prominent researcher in the neuropsychology of female desire. And the results, as described, are as surprising as they are revealing. Using a plethysmograph to measure blood flow in her women subject’s vaginal walls (to accurately gauge their physical arousal), Chivers showed them many different erotic images. These images included photographs of men exercising, women exercising, gay and lesbian sex, straight sex . . . and monkey sex (!). It turned out that all the pictures induced physical arousal in them. However, when the women were explicitly asked which photos they consciously found arousing, their responses were much more selective. Number one was heterosexual sex, then lesbian sex, with the other bodily images generally lagging behind—and the, ahem, “primate porn” registering an absolute zero on their psychological arousal meters.

After reviewing this provocative outcome, Chivers decided to examine 132 different laboratory experiments that focused on physical and psychological sexual arousal in both sexes. The results clearly showed that in males there was a strong correlation between objective and subjective arousal. But such a correlation was so weak in females that Chivers was forced to conclude that a woman’s vaginal lubrication was a poor indicator of what she was feeling inside. As Ogas and Gaddam sum it up: “Many women report lubrication and even orgasm during unwanted and coercive sex: a woman’s body responds, even as her mind rebels. In contrast, if a man is erect, you can make a very reasonable guess about what’s going on in his mind” (p. 70).

The authors further explain why this body/mind disconnect in women accounts for the fiasco of the pharmaceutical industry's attempts to come up with a female version of Viagra (though they’ve poured many millions of dollars into the effort). For increasing blood flow to their primary sex organ is totally independent from sexually "heating up" their mind. And it’s undeniably suggestive that currently the most promising drug for effectively dealing with a woman’s low sexual desire is an antidepressant (i.e., acting not on female genitalia but the regions of the brain affecting the conscious processing of emotions). Though this drug, Flibanserin, failed in its Phase III trials as a fast-acting antidote for depression, its researchers discovered that it led to a “surging libido in its female subjects.”

To gain a deeper understanding of women’s curious dissociation from the messages they receive from their body, we need to delve into evolutionary biology. But first let’s look at what Ogas and Gaddam refer to as “The Miss Marple Detective Agency”—their metaphorical counter to Looney Tunes’ Elmer Fudd.

Who, exactly, is Miss Marple? She’s the famous fictional creation of mystery writer Agatha Christie: an elderly, somewhat eccentric woman, who is at once pleasant and frail, yet extremely shrewd both in picking up on clues others miss and in plumbing the depths of human character. To Ogas and Gaddam, women’s inner Miss Marple won’t allow them (despite whatever physical arousal they might be experiencing) to become psychologically aroused till sufficient non-sexual criteria are met. To these authors, such requirements result from “wisdom inherited from millions of sexual transactions conducted by women over a period of a few hundred thousand years.” Which is why their deeply probing “Detective Agency is nature’s most successful long-term planner” (p 82).

And that’s the key point. Biologically, men are wired (or “propelled”) to spread their seed far and wide—and indiscriminately. That’s their “ordained” role in perpetuating the species. On the contrary, women are equipped with very different species-survival programming, which obliges them to think ahead before acting. They must scrupulously consider how their choice of mate will affect their, and their prospective family’s, welfare—the other critical element in preserving the human species.

In this context, however contradictory or paradoxical it may seem, it’s well known among sexologists that women generally masturbate less frequently than men, have fewer sexual fantasies, and initiate sex less often. Also illuminating is the fact that females are much less likely than males to pursue sex simply for its own intrinsic pleasures. They may even pursue sex for reasons quite apart from erotic enjoyment (see, e.g., my post “Fear-Inspired Sex”). And again, their motives (whether conscious or not) relate both to evolutionary psychology and -biology—just as (inversely) so do males’.

Long-term planners or investors that women are, at some level they realize that having sex could potentially be a life-altering experience. Getting pregnant, nursing, and for the better part of twenty years raising a child (not to say, children) involves a tremendous expenditure of time, energy, and resources. So having sex with the wrong person could end up being disastrous. Should her partner abandon her, she’d face all the challenges of single motherhood. If he’s vicious or cruel, she’d be defenseless against his onslaughts—unable to safeguard herself or her children. If, on the other hand, he’s weak, cowardly, or incompetent, not only wouldn’t he be able to protect her and her family from external threats, he might also fail in his attempts to supply the family with basic food and shelter.

No doubt this is why women have evolved to be sexually attracted to males most likely to successfully address their main concerns, which aren’t primarily sexual. In many ways the men they’re drawn to may be “jerks,” in that they’re relatively obtuse to female feelings (and frankly, not much interested in them either). But, adopting an evolutionary viewpoint, a sensitive—or beta—male simply isn’t perceived by their brain software as anywhere as crucial to their survival as an alpha, who typically is deficient in “softer” human attributes. And it’s probably no coincidence that there are probably far more betas than alphas in the gay community, and that women frequently talk about what wonderful (read, sensitive and understanding) friends they can be.

Needing to be so scrupulous in selecting a partner, women (unlike men) have developed a kind of sixth sense to appraise potential risks in whomever they might have sex with. Overriding their erotic impulses and desires are considerations that, ultimately, tend to make them far less romantic than men. Paradoxically, although women are routinely regarded as more into matters of the heart than men  (witness, for instance, the enduring popularity of romance novels, as well as women’s keen interest in romantic movies), their minds are typically governed by deliberations far more pragmatic than their male counterparts.

Billy Crystal once humorously observed, “Women need a reason to have sex. Men just need a place.” But what is it, exactly, that women need consciously to evaluate before permitting themselves to become psychologically aroused?

Ogas and Gaddam discuss the female brain as “equipped with the most sophisticated neural software on Earth” (p. 72). This software enables them to assess (in general, as astutely—and intuitively—as Miss Marple) whether a prospective spouse, and father, qualifies as marriage material. He must be strong in mind and body, kind (lest this strength be used against them!), sincere (or “emotionally authentic”), stable, loyal and devoted, competent, of adequate social status or rank (the higher, the better), and ready and willing to commit to a long-term, monogamous, child-rearing relationship. As unrealistic as these lofty standards may seem, they clearly represent Miss Marple’s ideal.

Perhaps the paradoxical nature of women’s non-hormonal sexual desire is most pointedly exemplified by the authors’ observation that “many women are willing to pay money for celebrity biographies in order to read about the private life of Leonardo DiCaprio or Johnny Depp, but they won’t pay money to see photos of them nude. Men whip out [their] credit card to see a naked Angelina Jolie or Scarlet Johannsen, though . . . [and you can easily finish this sentence yourself!]” (p. 73).

Metaphorically, it’s the Miss Marple Detective Agency that’s responsible for adaptively disconnecting a woman’s sexual mind from her sexual body. And such highly evolved sleuthing—at once counter to nature and consonant with nature’s evolutionary dictates—has the power to enable her to intercept bodily signals in a way that prevents any imprudent triggering of conscious, psychological arousal. Which, of course, can be incredibly valuable if the male doesn’t meet sufficient non-sexual criteria to pass the test for her sexual submission.

And this takes us back to women’s perennial favorite erotic stimulus: romance fiction (discussed at length in my previous post). Ogas and Gaddam quote Catherine Salmon and Donald Symons (from their book Warrior Lovers, 2003), who reflect that “the romance novel is a chronicle of female mate choice” and that “the hero . . . embodies the physical, psychological, and social characteristics that constituted high male mate value during the course of human evolutionary history” ( p. 86).

None of this is to imply that women in such works of fantasy fiction can’t find themselves attracted to jerks, and even misogynists. But once these inappropriate male candidates meet the heroine, they’re required to make major reforms. And it’s always the heroine—and the heroine alone—who has the power to bring out what, apparently, has been dormant in them all along. For to stand up to Miss Marple’s scrutiny, these males must eventually disclose a softer, more understanding, and compassionate (vs. passionate) side not evident earlier.

In my last post, I mentioned that heroes in fictional romances are generally quite a bit older than the heroine, emphasizing that age in males positively correlates with confidence, competence, authority, and wealth—features that light up women’s brain circuitry. And this represents yet another paradoxical element in female sexual desire. That is, women psychologically prefer someone less ragingly “hot” than a young stud, who (realistically) is much more likely to provide them with the protection, comfort, and security that—finally—matters most to them.

Not yet touched upon in this series of posts is women’s surprising attraction to gay porn and “slash fiction” (think here not about punctuation marks but strange romantic couplings, like Captain Kirk/Mr. Spock or Harry Potter/Severus Snape). Unquestionably, these “unnatural,” anomalous aspects of female sexual desire are also paradoxical. But they are better dealt with in two immediately upcoming posts where I’ll discuss what unusual erotic interests in men and women may yet fall within the parameters of sexual normalcy—as well as the involuntariness of what frequently can be arousing for both sexes.

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

NOTE 2: If you found this post in some way instructive (and maybe even illuminating), I hope you’ll consider sharing it.

NOTE 3: If you’d like to check out other posts I’ve done for Psychology Today online—on a broad variety of psychological topics—click here.

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

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