New York Times’ Post-accurate Framing of Female Desire

In the New York Times Sunday magazine cover story yesterday journalist Daniel Bergner goes in search of female sexologists who are asking the question, “What do women want?” in a variety of clinical trials and philosophical posturing. It’s all, of course, very confusing and mysterious. But for starters, I thought I’d let Bergner know a few simple things that women DON’T want:

  • Misleading and even inaccurate subtitles, like “A postfeminist generation of researchers discovering things Dr. Freud could never have imagined.” The very researchers featured in the article identify as feminists. I understand that the NYT wants to sell papers, but these kinds of sensationalistic headlines undermine their integrity as a news organization purportedly trying to attract more and maintain their current feminist readers.
  • Photo illustrations that, once again, indicate that the New York Times Magazine thinks that all women are white. Seriously? It’s 2009 people.

Now that we’ve gotten those obvious offenses out of the way, let’s look more closely at the piece itself, which is actually quite fascinating. Bergner hangs out with a few really interesting, fairly young scientists and psychologists who are trying to understand what it is that really turns women on. As you might imagine, it’s more complicated than any of their academic fields have historically let on.
Lisa Diamond, author of Sexual Fluidity, explores her theory that women generally tend to experience sexual arousal across a spectrum, rather than identifying as hetero, homo, or bi, and that it has a lot more to do with emotional intimacy than the gender of the human being dishing it out. To me this is all sort of “duh” but I understand that the mainstream media, and to much of America, this, in itself, is a shocking take on female desire.
Meredith Chivers, a researcher from Ontario, finds clinical results that jive with Diamond’s ethnographic research: women, regardless of sexual orientation, are turned on my just about anything and everything, including a pair of apes fucking. The surprising and important thing about Chivers’ research is that she found that there was a larger gap between women’s self-identified arousal and their physiological actual arousal (tested by “a little plastic probe that sits in the vagina and, by bouncing light off the vaginal walls, measures genital blood flow”…cool right?!).
Lots of discussion follows about why women wouldn’t know when they’re turned on. Is it socialization–girls taught not to pay attention to their own desire? Is it something anatomical–it’s not like we have erections to give us the loud and clear signal? Chivers sums it up smartly: “The horrible reality of psychological research is that you can’t pull apart the cultural from the biological.” So there we are.
Another researcher Marta Meana of the University of Nevada at Las Vegas (the one who identified as a feminist, despite the article’s framing), has another interesting theory that flies in the face of stereotypes about women:

“The generally accepted therapeutic notion that, for women, incubating intimacy leads to better sex is, Meana told me, often misguided. ‘Really,’ she said, ‘women’s desire is not relational, it’s narcissistic’–it is dominated by the yearnings of ‘self-love,’ by the wish to be the object of admiration and sexual need.

Wowzer. I think this is fascinating. In a world where women are often objectified against their will, is the ultimate turn on being able to control and even illicit our own objectification? This line of thinking also holds up when considering the number of women who have fantasies of being dominated, and sometimes raped. Is it sexually arousing to feel a sense of power over your own decision to submit in a world where you feel vulnerable to others domination against your will? (See Stacey May Fowles’ essay in Yes Means Yes.)
And if this is the case, is it something we should problematize (i.e. why should my sexuality be determined by my experiences of a patriarchal society? what would it look like if it was truly created from my own original physiology, emotional states, and ideas? is that even possible?) or should we embrace it and get off, counting it as sweet revenge on a half-changed world?
All fascinating questions, not really explored in much depth by Berger, who by virtue of writing this piece, controls how the researchers’ voices and ideas get organized and communicated (interesting parallel to how female sexuality gets processed through a male lens so often).
Check out these great takes from our community bloggers:
Why does it have to be either/or…?
I Don’t Know What All Women Want–But I Want My Sexuality Respected!
Reconceptualizing Sexuality

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