Let’s All Freak Out About Arousal Studies

Arousal Studies by John Lund Getty Images Lynsey G
Image: John Lund/Getty Images

I’m not sure how closely other people follow the obscure world of sexual arousal studies. But I do know that I pay attention to it pretty closely. The subject matter is fascinating: What turns people on, and why? And the methodology is also riveting: How does one go about finding out the answers to these questions? How reliable can the answers ever be when it comes to something as subjective as arousal? (For some really entertaining answers, and a lot more questions, I’ll point you in the direction of Mary Roach’s bestselling book Bonk. It’s a hilarious and far-reaching round-up of hundreds of years of sex research, and it’s brillz.)

And that’s really the crux of most studies on human sexuality: If one finds a way to measure something about a human, does that measurement really represent the inner reality of the human in question? Especially when it comes to the female of the species, the prevailing wisdom on sexual arousal has long been a sort of collective shrug. Women, it turns out, are complicated. And that’s confusing to science, which really wants to put everything into neatly separated little boxes that can be labeled. But female sexuality routinely slides around between boxes or refuses to sit in them in the first place–as fluid things tend to do. This makes room for plenty of wild speculation and thus leads to headlines that get plastered all over the Internet about the (yawn) mystery of the female gender.

Like this latest one led by Dr. Gerulf Rieger from the Department of Psychology at the University of Essex, which has the Internet abuzz with tantalizing headlines denying that women can ever be straight. The findings will be published soon in The Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, and the media is already having a field day with it. Based on a study of 345 women’s arousal responses (vaginal blood flow, pupil dilation, pulse) to sexual videos featuring both men and women, researchers concluded that women are physiologically turned on by a variety of erotic visual stimuli. “Even though the majority of women identify as straight, our research clearly demonstrates that when it comes to what turns them on, they are either bisexual or gay, but never straight,” Dr. Rieger has said.

The media, naturally, is having a field day with this quote and with the study itself, which basically reinforces numerous other studies that have already been done in this area, and which have found that women’s vaginas self-lubricate when women are shown a very wide variety of erotic entertainment, ranging from naked men or women to gay male sex to lesbian sex to straight sex, and even animal sex. In this new study, 82% of the women whose vaginas were hooked up to plethysmographs got all sexed up at the sight of both men and women (although lesbians were far less likely than the straight- or bisexual-identified women to be turned on by men, which really seems to have fascinated the research team). So the takeaway for quite some time has been that women are much hornier than they let on, or even than they are consciously aware of. Yep, women are complicated. Whoopie!

Meanwhile, studies have shown that men, when hooked up to arousal-measuring plethysmographs, tend to be turned on only by whatever they’ve reported to be interested in: gay men respond to nude men and gay male sex, but not females or lesbian sex, and so on. So the clear divide between the “male” and “female” categories, scientifically, is somewhat complicated by lesbians, but basically, women are way harder to pin down than men when it comes to arousal, and they can be kept in their separate boxes. Women just need a much bigger box.

And yet it’s always seemed to me that, given the intricacies of the female sexual response, something has been lacking here. And now, in response to Rieger’s recent study and the ensuing media circus, there’s a been clear rebuttal to the existing research! One that makes sense and is definitely worth further study and a lot of thinking. In “The Problem With Sexual Arousal Studies,” Alice Dreger points out that women’s vaginal response to sexual stimuli is not analogous to men’s penile response, because the vagina and the penis are not, in fact, analogous body parts. The penis and the clitoris are. So all this vagina-centric study is way off-target (much like the vagina-centric models of female orgasm, perpetuated by Freud, which have long been enforced in the patriarchal medical community and which have caused unknown depths of damage to the female psyche and which entirely obscured the existence of the clitoral orgasm for far too long, but I digress).

And Dreger is not just speculating: She points to a study from the Netherlands in 2009 that actually did measure clitoral arousal to sexual stimuli and allowed for mental stimulation versus bodily stimulation. Not surprisingly, to this way of thinking, the results were far different. To whit:

“Women’s arousal patterns may be a lot more specific—more like men’s—than the vaginal measurements reveal. A woman’s vagina may indeed lubricate to sexual signals from both Jif and Joe, and even Jif’s monkey and Joe’s dog, but her clitoris might reveal that she is, in fact, much more aroused by Jif than any other option. And if she’s in an environment that allows her a choice of sex partner, that differential arousal may well matter to evolutionary history.”

What blows me away is that this research has been available to the scientific community for six years now, and yet we’re still clunking around with vaginal plethysmography and getting wide-ranging, difficult-to-use results. Come on, scientific community! Get with the clitoris! Get with examining the complicated-ness instead of marveling at it!

But! And there’s a very big “but” here… There’s a much larger problem that I keep coming back to as an armchair know-it-all on matters of human sexuality: the easy-to-label categories that almost every study of sexual arousal wants to plunk people into. While some studies take at least sexual orientation into consideration (Rieger’s recent study, for instance, allowed the women to place themselves on the Kinsey spectrum for the purposes of the study and in fact focused heavily on masculine behavior in women), almost every researcher classifies people as simply “male” or “female.” Before classifying them, researchers seek out cisgendered male and female people for study in the first place. I understand that this makes studies easier to conduct, but it also makes the results enormously frustrating. Almost every study ends with some kind of nod to the fact that variation within each gender is larger than the differences between genders, and almost every researcher is left scratching their head on a number of fronts. Speculation must thus be made into the distant evolutionary past in order to cover the grey areas. (Case in point: One of the justifications for vaginal lubrication at the mere mention of sex in the animal kingdom is that we may have had very rape-y ancestors, so (cis)women’s bodies learned to prepare for sex at the drop of a testicle rather than risk being penetrated without permission or lubrication. This is a totally acceptable theory, but, frankly, we have no way of proving it true or untrue. It’s all speculation.) And much of this speculation arises specifically to try to answer lingering questions about the differences between (cis)male and (cis)female.

I won’t say that the science is all wrong and that there’s no difference between a typical cismale and cisfemale brain–I have not the qualifications. But I will say that all the head-scratching that occurs when a new study indicates that “(cis)women do this” and “(cis)men do that” just riles me up. So much speculation goes into how the “two” kinds of brains work, and all the nature-versus-nurture, evolution-versus-society talk gets impossibly old… all while people with different gender identities than just “male” and “female” are out there living their lives, exemplifying the fact that “male” and “female” are not the only two categories that humans fall into! There is a massive amount of new (or new-to-science) information out there just waiting to be understood better! And, hell, waiting to be recognized by science as legitimate.

I can’t help but wonder why in the hell scientists don’t look into the spaces between the frustrating binary categories they’re having so much trouble shoving us all into. Hey, researchers: Try plethysmograph-ing some people who don’t identify as neatly cismale or cisfemale! Ask trans and nonbinary and agender people how they identify sexually and see what kind of fascinating window their experiences can open into the huge gulf between the “male” and “female” brain! For god’s sake! What are you doing?

Okay, armchair scientist rant over.

Hey! Here’s something to cheer you up! A great list of places to look for non-mainstream porn that could edify the tastes of non-male humans at The Debrief! Go read it!

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