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Two male views of women’s sexuality:

(a) It is predictable, unchanging, easily conquerable once you’ve cracked their code. Favored by: “Pick-up artists” whose livelihood depends on purporting to know the code. See: Roissy in D.C., Roosh V.

(b) It is mysterious, unknowable, a foreign “Other” never to be understood. Favored by: Scientists, journalists whose theses depend upon sustaining the mystery. See: The New York Times’ Magazine‘s “What Do Women Want?

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Daniel Bergner‘s “What Do Women Want?” opens with the results of a study conducted by Queen’s University psychologist Meredith Chivers, which presented gay and straight males and females with different types of pornography and tested their physiological reactions to the scenes against their self-reported levels of arousal. Chivers’ results are summarized as follows:

Straight men responded physically and reported arousal only when shown heterosexual pornography, naked women, and two women having sex. – Gay men responded physically and reported arousal only when shown male homosexual pornography and naked men. – Straight women responded physically to all of the pornography—-including that which depicted bonobos having sex—-except a naked man walking on the beach, but only reported significant arousal to the pornography involving males. – Gay women responded physically to all of the pornography—-including that which depicted bonobos having sex—-except a naked man walking on the beach, but only reported significant arousal to the pornography involving females.

These results are intriguing, groundbreaking, and in Bergner’s hands, problematic. Chivers repeatedly refers to female sexuality as “a giant forest.” Bergner, for his part, concludes his eight-page piece similarly, by characterizing female sexuality as a wild, uncharted terrain that men—-and more importantly, women themselves—-will never understand. He writes:

How many could be done by all the sexologists in the world who focus on female desire, whether they were wiring women with plethysmographs or mapping the activity of their brains in fM.R.I. scanners or fitting them with goggles or giving them questionnaires or following their erotic lives for years? What more could sexologists ever provide than intriguing hints and fragmented insights and contradictory conclusions? Could any conclusion encompass the erotic drives of even one woman? Didn’t the sexual power of intimacy, so stressed by Diamond, commingle with Meana’s forces of narcissism? Didn’t a longing for erotic tenderness coexist with a yearning for alley ravishing? Weren’t these but two examples of the myriad conflicting elements that create women’s lust? Had Freud’s question gone unanswered for nearly a century not because science had taken so long to address it but because it is unanswerable?

Bergner’s summation can be taken two ways:

a) Women are individuals! Of course you can’t figure out what they want, they all want something different depending on their genetic make-up and cultural upbringing and sexual history. Don’t even try to generalize what “female desire” is—-it’s insulting to the unique experience of all women, and more importantly, it will not help you get laid.

b) “Female desire”—-which will never be understood—-should not be confused with male sexuality, which is simple, clear, and unfussy. Men know what they want. They have no mental problems in understanding their own desires. They are either gay or straight. Women are still from Venus, but men are from Earth.

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Allowing that both have some truth to them, let’s entertain option (b) for a moment. Chivers does fascinating work, and Bergner has his hands full unloading it for us. He does a pretty good job, we learn a lot about each other, etc. But by segregating the problem of female sexuality from the male experience, Bergner suggests that only women beg understanding, and that the book on men and sex is open and shut. Part of the problem is the scientific nature of the inquiry If outliers exist in Chivers’ study, they are not discussed. The idea that a man could possibly identify as bisexual doesn’t warrant a mention. Also unmentioned: Any psychological disconnect men might have with their own sex lives. Women alone are implicated in the “unanswerable” thesis. Only “female desire” cannot be understood. Importantly, the disconnect between the physiological and mental arousal reported in Chivers’ study suggests that only women don’t understand their own sexual experiences. The male mental faculty escapes unscathed.

The overarching implication of Bergner’s piece can be articulated in two ways:

(a) Women experience sex in ways that can never be explained by the male-centered scientific or journalistic processes employed to understand them.

(b) What is wrong with women?

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Photo by trialsanderrors