The different nature of female from male sexual arousal speaks volumes about equality and sexual relations


Of the hundreds of posts I have written in the past year, none have elicited levels of engagement more than ones that question patriarchy.  Specifically, “Pretty Boys Finish First,” and “Blue Balls are Bollocks”.  These were different takes on the same storyline.  Well, I got onto a thread recently with someone else’s post and found that my comment also generated enormous response, “she asked for it,” and again the topic was about sex and patriarchy…and it boils down to one thing: men think that women owe them sexual gratification.  Even more importantly, most men don’t even realise it, so deeply ingrained is patriarchal thinking.

We have all heard that the female brain is more sexually aroused by concrete, auditory, olfactory, touch, and emotionally relevant stimulation.  Men, on the other hand, are more aroused by visual stimuli.  This is well documented.  This particular sentence comes from an article in the respected scientific journal, Natureand can be found here.  The article itself is just as much a part of the problem faced as the observation that men believe that women owe them sex.  The purpose of the article?  To understand female sexual dysfunction!

The same article goes on to note that an adolescent boy will respond to a “sexy” image or video by becoming aroused and want to masturbate.  In contrast, an adolescent girl is aroused by a response to her partner, a romantic theme in a film or book.  They make the assertion that men respond more to “sexual stimuli” than women do.  Given that the article is about female sexual dysfunction, the clear message is that to be aroused by erotic imagery (read as pornography) is “normal” where is a desire for romance and love is “dysfunctional”.  Okay, I am putting words in their mouths, but this is the subtext of what they are saying.

But this post isn’t meant to be a review of an article in Nature…but you can see just how pervasive the concept of privilege is.  It is not that hard to make the leap from this line of thinking to the rich history of “female frigidity”, or the separation of the female person from her sexual self—the latter being the proper terrain of male arousal…it doesn’t take much to go from there to the idea that some women—the ones we marry and have families with and respect are “virtuous” whereas there are others who arouse us, belong to the terrain of the pornographic, and are without agency.

The Nature article goes on to note that male and female response to sexual stimulation appears differently in brain and genitalia—in other words, they do not always move together.  Specifically, it was noted that there is less correlation between genital and brain-level sexual arousal in women than in men (as measured by MRI scans).  The article further notes that two areas of the brain, the Amygdala and the Thalamus, appear to be more aroused in the male brain than the female brain, regardless of the level of arousal reported.  In a nutshell, what do these two brain areas do?  The amygdala controls the processing of emotion and the thalamus helps relay messages of action to different parts of the brain—in other words, the male brain is more likely to say “I’m turned on, I’m going to do something about it,” than a woman’s brain which would be more likely to say, “I’m turned on, I like you, and it feels nice.” 

A major flaw in the Nature study?  The use of erotica that is oriented towards a male audience (I won’t throw out the baby with the bathwater, but the rampant sexism undermines the authors’ own points).

More info than you want on the Amygdala

The Amygdala is a tiny area in the brain which forms part of the limbic system, the part of the brain which moderates emotion (fear, anxiety, and aggression), decision-making, and memory.  In other words, the Amygdala is what gets the heart pumping and blood flowing in response to emotional stimulus and is proportionally larger in males than females (as is the part of the brain that deals with spatial awareness).  The female brain, on the other hand, is proportionally larger in the frontal cortex (higher reason), the limbic cortex (the emotional brain) and in the connections between left and right brain.  Though size is a crude measure, it has been observed that the relative size of different parts of the brain is significant for its function.

What does this mean?  In theory, it means that the male brain is more wired to respond quickly and emotionally to strong stimulus and to act, whereas the female brain is more logical and balanced in its response and will have a more nuanced reading of emotional cues.  No wonder men are scared of women!

The Amygdala plays a primal role in the formation and storage of emotional memory.  When we talk about the concept of a Pavlovian response, this area of the brain is what is driving and processing that.  Fear stimuli are chief among them, but so too are appetitive and arousing stimuli.  When our brains are “trained” to respond to certain stimuli, it is the Amygdala that is playing a key role.

Questions.  Does this explain why a male response to fight of flight comes faster and more aggressively than a female one?  Does this explain why men are more likely to be sexual fetishists than women?  After all, what is a fetish, if not a trigger reaching back into memory for an emotional, sexual, or other conditioned response?

Further Considerations

A Stanford Medical School Study has indicated “Women retain stronger, more vivid memories of emotional events than men do. They recall emotional memories more quickly, and the ones they recall are richer and more intense.”

The study goes on to note that the parts of the brain which differ in males and females tend to be the parts of the brain that have inordinate amounts of receptors for the sex hormones.  I blogged about this pet theory that the erotic is a language that speaks of inner needs, inner traumas.  It is hard not to see why sex and emotion are so fundamental to the female brain.  The flipside of this is higher levels of chronic depression amongst women.

How we remember things, particularly emotion, is modulated by the nature and intensity of the experience.  As our brains consolidate memories after experiencing things, emotional arousal following a “learning event” influences the strength of the memory of that event.  It is the Amygdala that regulates this.

Buddhist monks who practice what is called “Compassion Meditation” have learned to modulate the response of their Amygdala through meditation.  Compassion, or benevolence (loving-kindness, amity, good will), is considered one of the four sublime states—they are able to stimulate their own ability to feel for others through meditation by stimulating their Amygdala.

I see a parallel to BDSM too and the things that an enlightened Dominatrix is trying to teach me (and which I fear I am not always the best pupil—but I am determined to learn and move forward, no matter how hard).  Such an enlightened Dominatrix might hone her craft to the point where she is well aware of creating Pavlovian responses in her charge, but also in finding ways to consolidate those emotions.  And let me tell you, if you ever walk through your own kitchen and regard your kitchen tools as instruments of erotic play instead of what they were originally intended for, you might know the same person—as she calls it, “the eroticisation of everyday life.”  And indeed, this is exactly what is at play.  If I am to put it differently, the arc of a BDSM session might include some form of talk which “clears the decks”, followed by some form of intense physical stimulation (which could be a whipping for example), and this might be followed by an emotional release (crying for example).  This arc at least in theory possesses the characteristics of “soul food for the amygdala”.  In other words, this arc is exactly the way our brains and our emotions work—thereby conditioning the kinky player to have a Pavlovian response to experiences that follow this precept.  Kinda cool.

Semi-Random added info on the Amygdala which might be sexist

The amygdala, like the brain, has a left lobe and a right lobe.  The relative activity by lobe is different for men and for women.  Interestingly, lesbian women are said to have activity patterns similar to heterosexual men and homosexual men are said to have patterns more similar to heterosexual women.  This comes from Sexual Orientation and its Basis in Brain Structure and Function, an article by DF Swaab (2009).  This plays into stereotypes for sure, particularly those in support of sexuality as binary, but doesn’t make sense in light of some gays being “butch” and others “femme” regardless of sex.  Nor does it fit with more recent research.

But if the male amygdala is typically larger than the female one, and the amygdala’s size is correlated with the amount of grey matter it has, and this in turn is correlated with being emotionally reactive, then is the thinking that women are more emotional than men a social outcome rather than a reality?  Are men just emotionally suppressed?  Is there any survival value in that, or is it purely social?  Or is what is being coded for a kind of emotional response that is pure fight or flight, rather than the more nuanced emotional response that might come with someone who is more frontal cortex active, ie. women?

In two articles published on Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience…

…This one and this one

…The authors note that the female amygdala response to negative stimuli is greater than the male one, whereas the male amygdala has a greater response to positive stimuli.  This is particularly true for erotic positive stimulation.   The authors also note that the female brain response to negative stimuli persists—whereas the male brain response tends to habituate, or respond less over time to the same stimulus.  The authors conclude that chronic stress is more likely to have an affect on mood in women than in men, and is correlated to higher levels of depression.

Think about the above in the context of trauma, particularly sexual trauma.  So many women experience sexual abuse (and unfortunately many men too)…25% of girls by the age of 18 and 18% of boys by the same age have been abused sexually, and most commonly by someone known to them, in the family, a relative, a family friend—a person coming from a place of trust.  Disgusting.  An enlightened Dominatrix once told me [blogged about here] that many of her clients, women and men, play out their trauma, and by doing so in a controlled, and safe way, are able to let it go, and to move on, or begin the healing process.  The context for the conversation was that I had been troubled by how many Doms (male) there were in the BDSM community and how many submissive females in the BDSM community (and it appears that this is the dominant—no pun intended—scenario) and it just felt like a repeat of the repression that we already live with in a patriarchal society.

Her point was not just the one noted above, but also that there is a low-level of daily trauma that is inflicted on women and that erotic play is one of the ways that you can become empowered and take control and thereby overcome. 

Observed difference in what turns women on?

The common approach in all of these research studies is to show “erotic” imagery and films to the participants and to measure reactions.  The study just sited above noted how a woman responds differently than a man to the “erotic” imagery.  They state that “a woman’s ability to imagine herself as the woman in the film was the only factor strongly correlated with her reported arousal.”  They note that men may also project themselves into the scenario, but are more likely to objectify the actors.  You won’t be surprised to note that male-to-female transsexuals have the same physiological response range as women to these experiments [something which explains a lot to me…blogged about here, for example].  I can’t prove in my own life that the way I feel sexual and the way I like to be with a woman is the way women typically feel—how will I ever know?  But I certainly don’t feel commonality with the way that men respond to stimuli having never been a consumer of porn as it doesn’t work for me…

A Sidebar on the Thalamus

The Thalamus is a large chunk of grey matter in the brain that is critical in forming connections between different parts of the brain, acting as a kind of hub.  In particular, the thalamus regulates sensory signals, and regulates consciousness, sleep and alertness.  Arousal is an area that activates the thalamus.

Questions.  When we stop and think about these possible structural differences between “female” and “male” brains, we might conclude that a female is more likely to be aroused through intellectual and emotional connections whereas a male would be more aroused by visual and Pavlovian responses.  Another conclusion might be that women are more aroused by presence and the person and situation they are with, whereas men are more aroused by fantasy.

Objectification

Technically, in the sexual sense, objectification is to conflate the person with an object and to treat them as such.  We throw this word “objectification” around an awful lot these days.  I understand why we do, and it is important for us to be vigilant to eventually root out this behaviour.  Objectification has some very clear criteria (first published by Nussbaum in 2010):

  • Instrumentality: the objectifier treats a person as a tool to fuflill their objectives;
  • Denial of autonomy: denying the person self-determination;
  • Inertness: denying the person agency;
  • Fungibility: treating the person as interchangeable with other objects;
  • Violability: treating the person as lacking in boundary-integrity;
  • Ownership: projecting a sense of ownership—they can be bought or sold;
  • Denial of subjectivity: the person’s feelings need not be taken into account;

Subsequently, theorist Rae Langton added these criteria:

  • Reduction to body: the person is reduced to their body or body parts;
  • Reduction to appearance: the treatment of a person primarily by how they look;
  • Silencing: the treatment of a person as if they have no voice.

Pornography is seen in this context as something which is designed almost entirely for the male gaze and which denies women agency, reducing them to objects designed to fulfil male sexual fantasy.

Conclusions

There are a lot of threads here.  First, a man who has blue balls feels entitled to ask for relief because of social bias—we are conditioned into accepting that male desire is “normal”, that men “have needs”…but what we should not accept is that the de facto consequence of a man getting hard is not that a woman needs to take responsibility for the denouement.  That almost all men think she does and that if she does not, she is being a tease, is only possible in a patriarchal model.

Second, a woman who dresses in a sexy way because she feels empowered by embodying her sexuality is denied agency by a man who thinks she is being provocative—the most extreme example of which is that “she was asking for it.”

Third, that to break this cycle we need to recognise that presence and emotional response are not only equally valid sexual responses, but they are also more socially desirable (we know the negative consequences of objectification)…How many men who have committed violence against women did so from the safe and healthy harbour of an emotionally fulfilling relationship?  None.

Does that mean that a female approach is “better”?  No, it does not.  But the “male” approach has too high a social cost.  And that we can measure by disenfranchisement, sexual assault, low-level daily discrimination and dehumanisation of women…what kind of society takes advantage of its “weaker” members?  A sick one…More fundamentally, what kind of society has gaslighted women into thinking they are “weaker”?  The truth is, the stronger sex in many of the ways that success can be had in a socially modern and networked world is the female…I look forward to the day that this isn’t the fight, but is just the way things are.

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