Friday, June 21, 2024

Psychologist Richard Lippa teamed up with the BBC to survey over 200,000 people of all ages from all over the world concerning the strength of their sex drive and how it affects their desires.13 He found the same inversion of male and female sexuality: for men, both gay and straight, higher sex drive increases the specificity of their sexual desire. In other words, a straight guy with a higher sex drive tends to be more focused on women, while higher sex drive in a gay guy makes him more intent on men. But with women — at least nominally straight women — the opposite occurs: the higher her sex drive, the more likely she’ll be attracted to men and women. Lesbians showed the same pattern as men: a higher sex drive means more women-only focus. Perhaps this explains why nearly twice as many women as men consider themselves bisexual, while only half as many consider themselves to be exclusively gay.

Those who claim this just means men are more likely to be repressing some universal human bisexuality will have to consider sexologist Michael Bailey’s fMRI scans of gay and straight men’s brains while they viewed pornographic photos. They reacted as men tend to do: simply and directly. The gay guys liked the photos showing men with men, while the straight guys were into the photos featuring women. Bailey was looking for activation of the brain regions associated with inhibition, to see whether his subjects were denying a bisexual tendency. No dice. Neither gay nor straight men showed unusual activation of these regions while viewing the photos. Other experiments using subliminal images have generated similar results: gay men, straight men, and lesbians all responded as predicted by their stated sexual orientation, while nominally straight women (“I contain multitudes”) responded to just about everything. This is just how we’re wired, not the result of repression or denial.14

Of course, signs of repression aren’t hard to find in sex research. There’s plenty. For example, one of the long-standing mysteries of human sexuality has been that heterosexual men tend to report having more sexual encounters and partners than heterosexual women do — a mathematical impossibility. Psychologists Terry Fisher and Michele Alexander decided to take a closer look at people’s claims regarding age of first sexual experience, number of partners, and frequency of sexual encounters.15 Fisher and Alexander set up three different testing conditions:

  1. The subjects were led to believe their answers might be seen by the researchers waiting just outside the room.
  2. The subjects could answer the questions privately and anonymously.
  3. The subjects had electrodes placed on their hand, arm, and neck — believing themselves (falsely) to be hooked up to a lie detector.

Women who thought their answers might be seen reported an average of 2.6 sexual partners (all the subjects were college students younger than twenty-five). Those who thought their answers were anonymous reported 3.4 partners, while those who thought their lies would be detected reported an average of 4.4 partners. So, while women admitted to 70 percent more sexual partners when they thought they couldn’t fib, the men’s answers showed almost no variation. Sex researchers, physicians, and psychologists (and parents) need to remember that women’s answers to such questions may depend on when, where, and how the question is asked, as well as who’s asking.

If it’s true that women’s sexuality is much more contextual than most men’s, we might need to reconsider a lot of what we think we know about female sexuality. In addition to the distortions created by the age bias we discussed earlier (are twenty-year-olds representative?), how useful are the responses of women answering questions in a cold classroom or laboratory setting? How would our understanding of female sexuality be different if George Clooney distributed the questionnaires by candlelight and collected them after a glass of wine in the Jacuzzi?

Sexologist Lisa Diamond spent over a decade studying the ebb and flow of female desire. In her book Sexual Fluidity, she reports that many women see themselves as attracted to specific people, rather than to their gender. Women, in Diamond’s view, respond so strongly to emotional intimacy that their innate gender orientation can easily be overwhelmed. Chivers agrees: “Women physically don’t seem to differentiate between genders in their sex responses, at least heterosexual women don’t.”

Apparently, many women see the Mona Lisa looking back at them from the mirror.

What are the practical effects of this crucial difference in erotic plasticity? To start with, we’d expect to find far more transitory, situational bisexual behavior among women than among men. Various studies of heterosexual couples engaging in group sex or “swinging” agree that it is common for women to have sex with other women in these situations but that men almost never engage with men. Additionally, while we’d be the last to suggest popular culture is a reliable indicator of innate human sexuality, it’s probably significant that women kissing women has quickly become accepted as mainstream behavior while depictions of men kissing each other on television or films remains unusual and controversial. Most women presumably wake up the morning after their first same-sex erotic experience more interested in finding some coffee than in conducting a panicked reassessment of their sexual identity. The essence of sexuality for most women seems to include the freedom to change as life changes around them.

There is, after all, a liberating simplicity in Mona Lisa’s complexity, which Freud seems to have missed. The answer to his question couldn’t be simpler, yet it contains multitudes. What does woman want? It depends.