An eight-page article in the NY Times today addresses the latest research in what is said to be ‘postfeminist sexology.’ I’m not going to try to summarize the material, but I’d recommend reading and saving the article. It may be the research is at a very early stage and a lot may change soon, but it’s already addressing questions in a way that readers may find increases their understanding of themselves. At the same time, the research is to some extent involved in an idea of sex as a biological phenomenon, and some readers will think the most important questions hardly get a look in.
So let me take one example: it appears that women respond with increased blood flow to the vagina in response to a wider range of stimuli than men do, but that there also seems to be a far greater discrepancy between such arousal and experienced desire. There is a much closer correlation between arousal and felt desire in men.
Now I can remember somewhat similar results being taken to show that women are just not as self-aware, etc. That isn’t the kind of explanation this more sophisticated research is looking at. Here’s one alternative explanation: vaginal arousal has a protective function, since it makes penetration less likely to damage one. So vaginal arousal may be cued to the presence of sex, not the presence of desire. Importantly, this would mean that a woman’s body’s being prepared for sex is no indication of willingness.
Another hypothesis is that what for women sexual desire may be particularly reacting to is being desired, a feature whose erotic power may not have much longevity to it.
If you read the article, do remember that it’s written by someone who is himself an outsider to the research. And of course, thinking about different factors that may enter into the construction of women’s sexuality is enormously difficult. Still and all, there are new perspectives on the topics.