Sex Science: Women Like Porn Too

Image courtesty of freedigitalphotos.net

Here’s a game: watch any sitcom, panel show, or stand-up act. When the topic turns to sex, see how long it is before a woman is painted as a gold-digger, a prude, or someone whose sole interest in sex is as a tool to get things from other people.

Then turn the telly off. There are no actual prizes for winning this game.

Over and again men are characterised as slaves to their desires – and women as manipulative schemers who only use sex to get love. More worryingly these stereotypes are played for laughs. But are they even true?

The majority of pornography consumers are men, and so are the customers of strip clubs. Male clients of prostitutes far outnumber female clients. Page Seven Fellas, the Sun’s beefcake counterpart to their topless Page Three Girls, was distinctly short-lived. The idea that male sexuality is predominantly visual while women’s is not is taken as self-evident.

Porn and erotic entertainment are presumed to appeal only to men, and women just want the relationship. Even in homosexual relationships it’s assumed gay men are all into anonymous sex, and gay women just want to build nests together. It’s a broad generalisation, and not even really true. So, what do the research data say?

Controversial researcher J Michael Bailey at Northwestern University in the US is interested in just this question. Until recently, the studies matching physical arousal to sexual preferences were not done on women. Men said they liked straight porn, they were turned on by straight porn, they were straight. Men said they liked gay porn, were turned on by gay porn, they were gay. The response to porn and actual relationship preferences was considered so strong in men, that it was even used as a litmus test to discover men who were still closeted.

So far, so Kinsey. The assumption was that for women, as for men, what they said they enjoyed was exactly the same as what their bodies responded to. But without the corresponding data on physical arousal, there was no actual way of knowing.

‘Women’s sexuality has been far more neglected than men’s in scientific research,’ Bailey says. And when women are examined, the results are startling.

One of the experiments presented subjects with films depicting male-male, female-female, and male-female sex scenes. The subjects submitted both to objective measurement of genital arousal (yup…measuring the blood flow to your vadge or cock) as well as self-reporting their responses.[http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15482445]

Participants ranked the films in order of how aroused they felt watching them. The heterosexual women in the study ranked male-male films the lowest, followed by female-female in the middle, and finally female-male films the highest. But when the genital arousal data were compared to these rankings, something interesting emerged.

It turned out that the physical data told a completely different story. Subjects claimed male-male porn interested them the least, but looking at the physical response, male-male and female-female films ranked similarly – both high. On paper, straight women ranked heterosexual pairings the most arousing, but their response while watching these films was actually lower than the other films.

Straight women were getting more physically turned on watching homosexual pairings, even films with no women in them at all, than they were by straight scenes. By contrast, over 90 per cent of men showed higher genital arousal for the films that corresponded to their preferred partnerships. What’s up with that?

The why and wherefores are a hard one to tease out. It could be that there was a marked difference in quality between the scenes,with gay scenes showing more intimate detail, or having better production values. Without seeing the clips themselves, that part is impossible to know.

There’s also a lot to unpack with regards to why women might answer a questionnaire one way and respond another while men don’t. Is it something to do with how the sexes are socialised growing up, and if so, can that change? Is it changing already? But it does demonstrate one thing conclusively – it is not aberrant for women to like watching erotica. Even when it doesn’t square with their real-life relationship ideals.

Bailey’s group are not the only ones looking at this interesting area. Researchers at Washington University School of Medicine in St Louis measured the brainwave activity of 264 women viewing a series of slides. The pictures contained scenes from water skiers to snarling dogs to undressed couples in sensual poses. What did they find? That when women viewed erotic pictures, their brains produced electrical responses that were different than when looking at the other pictures, suggesting different neural circuits are involved in processing erotic images.  Women, in other words, are susceptible to the visual. It’s not only men.
[http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16712815]

Repeated studies by other research groups support these conclusions. Studies also show that women are consistently physically turned on by gay porn even when they’re not gay, and that they’re turned on by hetero porn too. They also respond to footage of some of our closest animal relatives, bonobos, mating.And interestingly, even when they identify themselves as heterosexual, women’s physiological response to images of sex is wide-ranging. It’s not category specific.[http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18072857]

Why are these results so different from popular assumptions? ‘I think that the earlier impression was probably formulated from intuition. You would expect that somebody would show the greatest amount of physical responding to the things that correspond with what they say they like,’ said scientist Meredith Chivers. And
since previously only men had been tested, there were no data to challenge the assumption.

Dr Chivers, who began her career in Bailey’s research group, is particularly interested in the mysteries of female sexual arousal. She agrees that the research about men’s preferences matching their physical responses was erroneously applied to women in the past: ‘I think that those [male] findings were then extended to women, but the research I’ve done has shown that model of sexual interest and sexual response doesn’t work for women.’

Chivers published a meta-analysis on the topic in 2010, pooling results from 132 different studies from the 1960s onwards. Her conclusion? There was a statistically significant gender difference in the agreement between self-reported and genital measures of arousal, with men showing a greater degree of agreement than women.[http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2811244/]

The physical response data only tell part of the story. Sex is a complex interaction, and no one would deny that emotions can play a very heavy role in enjoyment. The data tell us what is occurring, but not necessarily what might be the cause of these differences. We humans are a notoriously difficult species to study, and a lot
of the discussion on that end of the topic is interesting… but still highly theoretical.

However these kinds of results paint a picture of real responses that are at odds with the stereotypes, and for that they deserve wider recognition. In addition it opens the door to reconsidering not only women’s sexual experiences but also men’s. If we’re not all breeding-focussed automatons pretending to enjoy sex to entrap
a partner, maybe men aren’t the sex-obsessed dogs they get painted as either. Maybe these differences, ironically, make us more alike in the real world of real sex that we’ve been led to believe.

Brooke Magnanti is author of The Sex Myth which explores these, and many more fascinating myths about sex

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