When Scientists Don’t Understand Sex: Feminism, Dominance, and Arousal

Psychology Today posted a piece by someone with a PhD in computational neuroscience and someone with a PhD in biologically inspired models of machine learning, which apparently qualifies them to make some remarkable statements about gender, sexuality, and relationships. They seem to prefer making some remarkably reductionist and essentialist claims about how sex works, along with the usual sweeping statements. That might work well in the computer lab, but that’s hardly how people work in the real world.

So I suppose it shouldn’t be a surprise that their recent piece Why Feminism is the Anti-Viagra is more of the same. Their thesis centers on the idea that “gender equality inhibits arousal”. To support this, they offer a few bits of evidence:

  1. many women have fantasies of submission
  2. female rats, among other mammals, adopt a position of lordosis (raising the hips and arching the back to facilitate penetration), which they call submissive
  3. heroes in romance novels “are almost always high status alpha males–billionaires, barons, surgeons, sheriffs.”
  4. an author of erotic romance says that women like “bad boys”
  5. most men are aroused by being dominant

Let’s take a look at some of these. (Note- since their article leaves out diversity of sexual orientation and gender expression, so will I. But take it as a given that I know that this is a serious problem with their article and I consider it to be a sign that they don’t really know what they’re talking about.)

First, it’s true that many women have fantasies of submission. Can’t argue with that. But it’s intriguing to me that they fall into the tired old line about a physical position being inherently submissive. Being on the receiving end of penetration, no matter what position you’re in, doesn’t have to be an experience of submission. Getting fucked can also mean that you’re being served or serviced, which puts the person on the receiving side in a dominant role.

It’s also worth noting that researchers have a long history of projecting their own feelings onto the animals they study, which has led them to often ignore (among other things), same sex interactions across the entire animal kingdom. What this says to me is that these guys think that getting fucked is an act of submission, not that it’s that way for everyone. After all, we don’t actually know if female rats feel submissive, do we?

They also don’t seem to be familiar with all of the erotic stories about the handsome young pool boy, or the pizza delivery guy, or the stable lad, or the other “low status” men who appear in the genre. It happens often enough that even if “high status” men are in the majority of the stories, it’s misleading to say that it’s “almost always” that way. Whether it’s their selection bias, a confirmation bias, or they simply don’t know enough about the topic, it’s another example of how they misrepresent the topic.

The erotic writer they quote is of the opinion that “our heroes have gotten a little too PC. We’re portraying men the way feminist ideals say they should be- respectful and consensus-building. Yet women like bad boys. I suspect that’s because our inner cavewoman knows Doormat Man would become Sabertooth Tiger Lunch in short order.” I’ve often suspected that there’s some truth to that, although not nearly as much as she seems to think. After all, I know a lot of men who are strong, capable, and assertive who are also able to be respectful and mindful of how other people feel. So first off, it isn’t an either-or.

Second, even though some women do want a “bad boy” in the bedroom, that doesn’t mean they want a jerk in the rest of their lives. We’ve often heard about the attempt to bridge the virgin-whore dichotomy by folks who are looking for (or who want to be) “a lady in the streets, a slut in the sheets.” I suspect what some women is someone who can be a “bad boy” when it comes to sex and a respectful, open communicator the rest of the time. Is that so hard to imagine? What about offering the possibility that gender equality is what allows us to explore our fantasies with a partner who respects us and acknowledges our humanity. It doesn’t have to be an either/or and in fact, having a relationship that is founded on equality and respect often gives us the safety to explore our fantasies.

Their final claim, that most men are turned on by being dominant is “evidenced by the massive cross-cultural popularity of dominance-themed adult Web sites for men.” Now, it’s certainly true that there’s a lot of male-dominant websites. But that doesn’t mean that most men are turned on by it as much as the men who are turned on by it are willing to spend money on porn. It’s faulty logic, although by this point in the article, it’s not a surprise. A scientist, which these two fellows seem to claim being, would say that the amount of male-dominant porn is an indicator but not evidence of a trend, and that further research is needed to determine if there actually is a pattern. It’s not as sexy a statement, but it’s a lot more accurate.

Now, it is worth acknowledging that they do recognize that almost all people are:

wired with the neural circuitry for both sexual dominance and sexual submission. When Nature builds our brains, it installs both the “male” and “female” subcortical circuits, but apparently only links one of these circuits to the arousal system. Scientists can trigger lordosis in male rats by activating their dormant submission circuitry, and can trigger masculine mounting in female rats by activating their dormant dominance circuitry.

I suppose these guys have never heard of switches, or folks who like to both top and bottom. It might vary depending on who someone is with, or what activity they’re doing, or what mood they’re in. A lot of people enjoy that fluidity, at least some of the time. And I guess they’ve never heard about how many professional dominatrixes have clients who are high-powered CEOs, airline pilots, or lawyers who need to take a little vacation from being in charge every so often. It sure would be tidy if everyone only had “one of these circuits [linked] to the arousal system” but it simply isn’t how it works.

Further, they also seem to be unaware of the vast range of meanings people make of their fantasies. In his book Arousal: The Secret Logic of Sexual Fantasies, clinical psychologist Michael Bader points out that we each have different motivations for our fantasies, even when the narratives of the fantasies might be similar. As one relevant example, he describes two women, both of whom have rape fantasies. One woman had internalized the “good girls don’t” message, so for her, the fantasy allowed her to experience sex without being a slut since she “had no choice.” The other women was been very multi-orgasmic and many male partners had been intimidated by her sexual response. For her, a rape fantasy meant that she could let go of worrying about her partner’s reaction because he was simply doing whatever he wanted to do. Both women had fantasies that sounded similar and would play right into the ideas behind the Psychology Today article. And when you look a bit deeper, you see that it’s much more complex than that. In fact, in both cases, it wasn’t about submission as much as it was about each woman being able to be sexual without being slut-shamed for it.

At the very end of their article, after all of the misinformation and sweeping statements, they finally offer some room for sexual diversity:

In humans, the hormonal vagaries of prenatal development appear to cause a substantial portion of men to be born with active submissive circuitry. These men find sexual submission as arousing–or, quite often, far more arousing–than sexual dominance.

But at this point, they’ve made so many inaccurate generalizations that it reads more like an afterthought rather than something that might inform their premise.

It surprised me when I found that I was agreeing with their last paragraph, but not for the reasons that I think they intended:

Negotiating sexual politics has always been difficult, but paradoxically the laudable and necessary victories of gender equality activism might make it even more challenging. We’re all figuring out how to live in the first society in human history where women have such power, independence, and clout. But just as democracy has no effect on our basic taste preferences for sugar and fat, democracy doesn’t affect our basic sexual preferences for domination and submission.

Gender equality activism makes negotiating sexual politics challenging because we don’t have easy roles to fall back on. When each person and each relationship requires communication about individual preferences, when there isn’t a script of how men and women are supposed to act (both among themselves and with each other), there are more variables to take into account when navigating sex. And yes, some of the difficulty has come from the insistence of some people (both within feminism and other communities) that hierarchies, sexual dominance & submission, BDSM, fantasies, and other dynamics of seemingly inequitable relationships are inherently oppressive. But what we need is gender equality activism that allows us to be fully who we are, to treat people with respect and care, and to engage in whatever sexual practices turn us on. We don’t need another article blaming feminism.

And let’s not forget the charming title “Why Feminism is the Anti-Viagra.” Not only does that equate arousal and erection (something that simply isn’t true all of the time), it also implies that men can’t get it up if women are strong. It’s a remarkably passive-aggressive dig at feminism and, in light of everything else they wrote, not a surprise. Although I will be fair and acknowledge the possibility that they didn’t come up with the title- it’s common for editors to do that.

It’s always interesting to me how many people with no experience in sexology feel qualified to write about sex. Granted, it’s the one topic that everyone has an opinion on, but when you’re going to write for a site like Psychology Today, I think it’s important to actually know what you’re talking about. Maybe these guys need to come to a workshop or two at Good Vibrations, take the training at San Francisco Sexuality Information, experience a Sexuality Attitude Reassessment, or talk with a sexologist. Or they could stick with topics that they actually know something about.

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