The lead study covered by the Times was conducted by Dr. Meredith Chivers, a Canadian psychologist and professor at Queen’s University in Ontario. She studied the sexual responses of men and women to a diversity of visual and auditory stimuli: men and women having sex, men together, women together, men and women masturbating (separately), bonobos having sex, a man walking on a beach, and a woman exercising.
The data were collected by one objective method (a probe in or on the genitals to sense minute changes in physical arousal from second to second), and reporting by keypad to describe whether the subject thought he or she was aroused by a particular scene. Then the two sets of data—the body’s responses, and the mind’s responses—were compared. Cool idea, right?
Chivers demonstrated that men tend to have a narrow focus of what they think turns them on, and those are the things that their bodies respond to in the form of their penis growing more erect. If you’re a straight man, you get aroused by heterosexual sex or women together or a woman masturbating, and you know it. If you’re a gay man, you get aroused by images of men having sex or masturbating, and you know it. The copulating bonobos (despite being our closest primate cousins, who are known to have sex for pleasure and not just reproduction) did nothing for the men, consistent with what men reported. For men, Chivers determined that conscious arousal corresponded with physical response.
Women also have a narrow focus of what they think turns them on. Straight women said they were turned on by images of a heterosexual couple making love; lesbian women, by images of a lesbian couple. But when the responses of their bodies were measured by blood flow and vaginal lubrication, they responded sexually to nearly everything, including the bonobos and the woman exercising. The scene that got the least response was a buff man walking on the beach. Everything else, including the exercising woman, increased their blood flow and vaginal secretions significantly.
What does this data tell us? Well, Chivers and the Times expressed the findings as indicating that women are out of contact with what turns them on. They think very little does; in reality, nearly everything does. Men were described as having equally narrow interests, but as being more connected and aligned with their desires. I think that most men, including myself, would take this as vindicating.
Men who want to coexist with women sexually have encountered the maze of yes meaning no, no meaning yes, maybe meaning yes, yes meaning maybe, no meaning maybe, and maybe meaning anything or nothing at all. (My female friends who are into women often tell me the same thing.) The subtext: don’t believe anything women say. It’s impossible to negotiate or get consent when yes and no have no meaning. The implicit message to men is to keep assuming; you’re more aware than women are. Women aren’t going to say what they want or what they feel because they don’t know, or they’re confused by the diversity of things they feel, they are scared to, or they don’t want to commit in words to something they might regret having said later. Now we have a scientific study, apparently one of many, that seems to establish this feminine property.
Chivers says she teaches her students that “arousal does not equal consent,” which is noble enough. Yet in a world where we are trained to not speak honestly about sex, in particular about desire, we might well ask what does. Usually, a woman signals with her body and not her words, and often this signaling is “unconscious,” such as open body language meaning she is open to approach. In applied practical reality, arousal does equal consent—until you start talking. Then the cognitive mind gets in the way, unless the goal is awareness (which it usually is not). Most of us learn the unfortunate lesson: If you want sex, don’t talk about sex. Avoid the subject. That works better. This is frustrating if you’re an honest person who shuns playing games; or if you like sex and talking about sex.