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Do Women Have a Sexuality?

Very interesting article in the latest New York magazine--The Science of Gaydar. A particular passage caught my interest. I'm pasting the entire thing below because it's really worth reading:

In many other studies, though, lesbians have appeared less unique than gay men, leading some people to wonder if their sexual orientation is innate. Michael Bailey—who, as a heterosexual researcher, is a minority in this field—even doubts the existence of female sexual orientation, if by orientation we mean a fundamental drive that defies our conscious choices. He bases this provocative gambit on a sexual-arousal study he and his students conducted. When shown pornographic videos, men have an undeniable response either to gay or straight images but not both, according to sensitive gauges attached to their genitals—it’s that binary. Female sexual response is more democratic, opaque, and unpredictable: Arousal itself is harder to track, and there is evidence that it defies easy categorization. “I don’t yet understand female partner choices very well, and neither does anyone else,” Bailey wrote me in an e-mail. “What I do think it’s time to do is admit that female sexuality looks in some ways very different from male sexuality, and that there is no clear analog in women of men’s directed sexual-arousal pattern, which I think is their sexual orientation. I am not sure that women don’t have a sexual orientation, but it is certainly unclear that they do.”

He contends that what they have instead is sexual preference—they might prefer sex with women, but something in their brains can still sizzle at the thought of men. Many feminist scholars agree with this assessment, and consider sexuality more of a fluid than an either-or proposition, but some don’t. “I think women do have orientations, but they don’t circumscribe the range of desires that women can experience to the same degree as men,” says Lisa Diamond, a psychology professor at the University of Utah, who is writing a book on the subject. “For women, there’s more wiggle room. You can think of orientation as defining a range of possible responses, and for women, it’s much broader.”

Bailey stops short of saying that lesbianism is a myth (although he has notoriously declared that true male bisexuality doesn’t exist and dismissed many transgender people as peculiar sexual fetishists, drawing lasting enmity from gay and trans groups). But it may be less hard-wired. And it appears to have separate triggers and correlates that haven’t been identified yet. In studies of twins, there is a lower correlation of sexual orientation between female siblings than male siblings, for instance. “We’re at a place,” agrees Diamond, “where everyone agrees that whatever is going on is quite distinct between the sexes.”

Fascinating, right? Most would agree that women's and men's sexuality is different (I'm including gay/lesbian sexuality, and recognize this discussion is confined to a binary for ease of analysis). Whether this difference is biological or social is difficult to determine--the fact that Bailey is basing his conclusions on a study which tested arousal (which can be both socially and biologically determined) doesn't do much to settle the matter.

The social influences are a given. I would argue that biology definitely influences sexuality as well. Since that which makes biological men different from biological women, by definition is sex (both organs and role in sexual behavior and reproduction), it makes sense that the two sexes would have some deeply-rooted difference built into their sexuality. The determination of the form or extent of that difference, however, is nearly impossible.

The Lisa Diamond comment in the second paragraph above comes closest to capturing the distinction between male and female sexuality--women do have orientations, but their orientation does not necessarily confine their desires (at least not to the same degree it does men).

This discussion falls in line with the reason pornography has historically not appealed to women. It has traditionally been created around a very rigid and direct concept of sexuality. The way it's shot, the action captured, the appearance of actors, and so on, all were built upon a very male definition of sexuality. "Women's Porn" has not tended to be very good either, because all it is (generally) is a slight variation on male-oriented porn. Different looking actors, different angles, etc. The foundation is still fundamentally generally incongruent with female sexuality. (Yes, I know I'm essentializing here--there are obviously exceptions on both the people and porn front--but I'm ok with making general statements to make my point clear.)

So what's the answer? Innovation! Creativity! Injecting FUN into portrayals of sex! A few directors are getting it, but there is a dire need for creative people to experiment outside the bounds of what's been getting created for the past 40 years.

Visual aid: Tinto Brass with model


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I agree that science must influence sexuality somehow. Procreation and continuation of the species is too important for Nature to simply leave it personal preferences. My own guess is that homosexuality only becomes an option once survival of the species is assured - which in the case of many species, happened long, long ago.

the question i've always had for that study, which i've read about before, is what were they showing people? because i am much more turned on by straight sex and mm sex than ff sex. when given to my own thoughts. but what i'm actually aroused by visually depends a lot on the context of the sexual interaction, as well as how i percieve the behind the scenes situation to be. i'm also strongly affected by politics. so if i'm watching yet another sexy movie (not porn) where the woman ends up punished (not explicitly, but like in the gift, where katies holmes and keanu both cheat but katie dies but the wife beating keanu reeves is exonerated because at least he's not a murderer), well, i'm not going to be turned on by the sexy scenes, no matter how sexy they would be out of that context.

i don't know, also, straight women are influenced by media directed towards men to see other women as sex. not just objects, but as personifications of sex, as aphrodisiacs. the naked woman = sexy thoughts of sex equation is present for anyone who doesn't reject it outright. and for a lot of women, sexy women is the only sexuality they see performed.

the whole deal with this study is that arousal determines sexual orientation. but does it? when i'm attracted to someone, i don't necessarily feel it in my loins.

Those are all really good points, al. I do wonder what material the study used...if it was mainstream porn, then no wonder women's reaction was difficult to gauge.

Also, yes...alongside men, women are conditioned to objectify other women as well. I find myself doing that all the time. So that may add a complication to our "orientation" and arousal patterns, if in fact these are one and the same (point taken that they may not be).

Very complicated subject...but fascinating and important. Any other women care to weigh in?

The idea that male orientation is hard-wired and female orientation isn't was being talked about when I was in college, so this theory isn't new, but it makes sense to me.

As for how "hard-wired" male orientation is, I'm becoming more inclined towards Camille Paglia's idea that there's an "Artist" gene that makes someone "malleable" or "environment-responsive" in various ways, and that one of the things it can cause is gayness, if the individual grows up in a gayifying environment. There does need to be some reason why so many male artists are gay, but there's no similar phenomenon among talented women--yes, lots of arty/intellectual types experiment, but experimenting is not the same as being gay.

And good call that the fact that porn was used and "arousal" was measured is a huge flaw. Even gay dudes are "aroused" by the female diva trope, since all fetishization implies some type of arousal, so clearly being "aroused" by something and wanting to fuck it aren't the same thing--e.g., someone with a shoe fetish is aroused by the sight of shoes, but doesn't want to fuck the shoes themselves, but rather a woman wearing them.

Hey, that gives me an idea: maybe straight women are more prone to bi-curious action because they fetishize other women as sexual objects associated with men, the same way men see women's clothing; after all, there aren't really any male accoutrements that work the same way, so something has to stand in for them.

Interesting last point...I'd argue that women are more prone to bi-curious action because they fetishize other women. period.

I'm not sure it has anything to do with being associated to men, except to the extent that our whole culture is steeped in the male gaze which sexualizes and objectifies women. Women can fall for that just as men can and do.

I like the fetish paradigm being applied to this behavior though...this is something I want to think more about.

"Many feminist scholars agree with this assessment, and consider sexuality more of a fluid than an either-or proposition..."

Though I am in a long-term heterosexual relationship and never dared think I might be anything but heterosexual until about 8 or 9 years ago, I now feel about my own sexuality, and about human sexuality in general, more in keeping with the above statement -- more fluid than either-or. And there is much support in serious sexology to support the idea that human sexuality exists on a continuum, not a dichotomy (see the Kinsey Scale and the Klein Sexual Orientation Grid, for example).

I think we are simply sexual beings, and socialization and context play a bigger role than any kind of hard-wiring. Furthermore, any person's sexuality can change over time and from time to time.

I have certainly noticed this in myself. I have times when I am mainly turned on by the female image, I have times when I seek out both at the same time, and then there are times when I really get turned on by focusing on the male image. How I participate -- using porn as an example -- or project myself into the situation for arousal differs somewhat depending upon the focus. With female only porn, I tend to imagine myself all over her -- the focus is broad. With male only porn, I tend more to engage specific body parts -- narrower focus. With mixed porn, my focus alternates between interaction with the female and the male. Often, however, my focus on both is quite narrow (I love ass).

I think our desire to pigeon-hole people, that is our fear of complexity, is so strong that we too easily look for ways to neatly categorize people. I can be very much attracted to both sexes, though my preference is stronger for the female (much of the time). Though I prefer the term bi to straight or gay in reference to myself, I'd rather see myself simply as sexual, or perhaps omnisexual.

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