Science Proves What Fandom Knew

Today, while making my daily blog-reading rounds, I found this article on Slate‘s Human Nature blog. The article is about female sexuality, and how new studies are discovering that, whoa, female sexuality is really complex! And not at all what we expected based on reading What Women Want columns in men’s magazines!

I come bearing excerpts:

During shots of lesbian coupling, heterosexual women reported less excitement than their vaginas indicated; watching gay men, they reported a great deal less; and viewing heterosexual intercourse, they reported much more. (emphasis mine)

Is anyone reading on this blog surprised by the fact that women are turned on by gay men (or by lesbians, for that matter), or surprised that women who are turned on by gay men (or lesbians) are not likely to report it?

Human Nature then goes on to discuss another facet of the study, which is that some women (a good number, based on the numbers quoted in the study) have rape/assault fantasies. There is much uncomfortable tiptoeing around the question of why. I get the feeling that all involved–the researchers, the blogger–are uncomfortable with this fact about female sexuality and what it might imply about the nature of women and (perhaps worse) mean in terms of fueling those cretins still intent on arguing against the right of women not to be raped, no matter what they wear, how much they drink, or how much the male perpetrator perceives that they “want it.”

But, again, I find myself utterly unsurprised by the study’s revelations. There is, after all, a niche of fandom that writes “rapefic” and “noncon,” and discussion concerns less the appropriateness of this (and never, to the best of my knowledge, dissects what went “wrong” with the authors and readers of such stories to make them enjoy this particular fantasy) but rather how to best flag such stories to protect victims, how not to be exploitative in one’s writing, and so on.

As I read about the study, I couldn’t help but to feel annoyed at the gape-mouthed surprise that some of the study’s revelations met with. None of the study’s conclusions seemed odd to me. Female sexuality is complex. A half-day in fandom would demonstrate that women really do want something more than rescue fantasies and to feel taken care of. If you can imagine it, I can guarantee that somewhere, in a dusty corner of the Internet, there is a woman writing it, probably with at least a handful of readers enjoying it.

I remember Bobby once got an issue of Men’s Health (or something along those lines) in the mail as a freebie to lure him into subscribing. Hey, I’m interested in men, so I picked it up. “What Women Want in Bed” was the subject of one of the articles. Now I was really curious! I wanted to know what I wanted in bed! (Or, at least, what I was perceived as wanting. This is the same urge as listening in on a conversation about myself when those talking about me don’t know I’m there so that I can giggle or blush or seethe later, depending on what was said.)

The only item on the list that I remember in retrospect was that women like it when men make them feel “secure.” The article suggested that men should support their partner’s buttocks or the back of her head to accomplish this. The back of her head?! This calls to mind the instructions given to not-kid-people like me when we’re required to hold babies: “Support the back of the head.” I always have this image that, if I don’t, the head will drop right off from its own weight and go rolling across the floor.

Needless to say, this particular piece of advice nauseated me. These people propositioning my husband wanted to teach him to use the same gestures with me during sex that he would use with a newborn infant, and for the same purpose? I felt vaguely horrified and offended and tempted to write whatever imbecilic (male) author came up with this ridiculous idea to tell him that, no, women do not want that! At least, this woman didn’t.

And I think that’s when I realized that women’s desires and sexuality can’t be neatly organized in the same way that you’d sort nails and screws when cleaning the garage. (Yes, that pun was bad, and intentional. Sorry.) Someone had given this poor columnist the idea that women like to be treated as infants in bed. So, sure, some do. But the thought of well-meaning guys everywhere treating their partners like infants sickened me.

Given the surprise that the whole homosexuality- and rape-kinks met with (and these are fairly common, at least based on the number of women in fandom who regularly write these sorts of stories), I don’t even want to imagine what these people would think about, for example, twincest or Morgoth-tortures-Maedhros-in-Angband fantasies. Or mpreg. Oh my Eru, mpreg. I can only imagine bloggers trying to twist evolutionary explanations for women who like to fantasize about Sam impregnating Frodo and then Frodo giving birth to his hairy-footed Hobbitling through his butt.

But you know what? For the first time possibly ever, I felt like fandom had let me in on a secret that the rest of the world was just catching on to. I felt somewhat savvy, flicking my fingers at the people gaping over all of this and saying, “Rape fantasies? Homosexuality fantasies? You ain’t seen nothing yet!” As someone whose “savviness”–at least in this community–is defined by the ease with which she can defend the morality of Fëanor’s actions using obscure textual quotations learned by heart, this sudden plunge into worldliness was surprising but not too uncomfortable. Having been through the knee-jerk “What? NO!” reaction to the fantasies of my fellow fans, and gotten over it, I imagine that there were a lot more “savvy” women (and probably even more men) squirming at the ideas presented in this study. I felt relatively cool and … well, cool, for once.

Then I got annoyed because it felt like, in the attempt to explain the results of the study, there was a need to defend or legitimize the fantasies and desires of not even some but a good number of women. There was the need to squeeze their fantasies into an explanation that was at once scientific and feminist. Pulling and tugging over the right to explain rape fantasies as “evolutionary” or “narcissistic.”

Feministe picked up on the same study and, in the post, I found a sentence that pretty much summed up why I was feeling annoyed:

There are people … who basically argue that women feel enough guilt about sex, and feminist critiques or evaluations or even explorations of rape fantasies are inherently anti-feminist, because, come on, people get off on all kinds of things and we should just leave it alone; if some women like rape fantasies, let ‘em like rape fantasies.

It seems to me that the same people shocked that women like watching gay men would not be shocked at the fact that men like watching lesbians. Or that some men like being dominated. Or that some men are turned on by pregnant women. I mean, all of this stuff is eight-o’clock sitcom fare. When we discover the same diversity among women, we wince and get tongue-tied and pull out the microscope.

Not for the first time, I find myself wishing the world could take a lesson from fandom and worry less about why people are different and–from each individual’s point of view–weird and just accept that it will always be that way and move on.

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11 Responses to “Science Proves What Fandom Knew”

  1. French Pony says:

    I just finished a book you might get a kick out of: by Mary Roach, it’s called “Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science And Sex.” While not a scholarly tome by any stretch of the imagination, it does have one very important point to make, right at the beginning, and it is this:

    We don’t really know all that much about sex. Sex has always been an uncomfortable subject for scientific research, so not much has been done, and what has been done has been done badly, weirdly, and in some cases, both. Of course you and I know things like “sexuality is fluid,” and “lots of people have weird fantasies,” but, as the pshrinks say, “the plural of anecdotes is not data.” The scientific community is only now beginning to have ways of measuring sexuality and studying this most mystifying of subjects. That’s why all the bells and whistles.

    And regarding the use of gestures on a bed partner that one would use on an infant . . . there are some theories of evolution that posit that much of what we would consider a standard repertoire of lovemaking gestures evolved from very different primate relationships, including the relationships between parent and child. Since this is part of the Aquatic Ape Theory, it doesn’t get a whole lot of scientific credence these days, but it does give one food for thought.

  2. pandemonium_213 says:

    W.W. Norton publishers sent Mary Roach’s* book Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Sex and Science (see French Pony’s comment) to review some months ago. Have I done it? No! But I have read it and quite enjoyed it. While Ms. Pony is correct that it is not a peer-reviewed article (something that the general public is rather unlikely to read), as a card-carrying scientist, science blogger and writer, I will note that like all of Ms. Roach’s books, Bonk is well-researched and written in a far better and accessible style than what’s contained in the Slate article. I’m rather snotty about science writing. ;^) It’s also more comprehensive that the original article in the New Yotk Times Magazine.

    While the Slate article might elicit a “No! Duh!” reaction, I don’t think quantitative studies of neurocognition should be dismissed, and that includes studies of sexual behavior such as Chivers and Diamond’s work. Some of this research is serving to debunk old notions, too, i.e., that women are less turned on by the visual than men. That doesn’t seem to be the case.

    Given that women are turned on by watching bonobos have sex (surely that speaks to evolutionary roots :^D) the fluidity of our responses and what rings our chimes is really pretty cool. Also, on the purportedly infantalized gestures, one needn’t invoke the largely discarded theories of Desmond Morris. Neoteny is a major factor in human behavior and that can translate to more subtle signs than what’s written in Men’s Health.

    …worry less about why people are different and–from each individual’s point of view–weird and just accept that it will always be that way and move on.

    Although when filtered through Slate, that might seem to be the case, but (ahem) what is wrong with seeking knowledge? Granted, the complexity of the human brain poses a challenge, but more understanding at a scientific level is not a bad thing.

    *Roach refers to a vaginal photoplethysmograph probe — which she inserts as a volunteer subject — as “Cinderella’s tampon.” That — along with many other good-humored observations — sent me over the edge.

  3. French Pony says:

    Hiya, pandemonium_213! I’m glad to see someone else who’s read some Mary Roach. The other book of hers I’ve read was Stiff. I think she has a third one out, too. Have you read it? Is it as fun as the others?

  4. pandemonium_213 says:

    Ms. Pony, yes, Mary Roach’s other book is Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife. It is every bit as much fun as the others, witty and full of fascinating and arcane scientific & historical tidbits. As reductionist materialism type, I really enjoyed it.

  5. Dawn says:

    French Pony: I agree with you on the anecdotes. I’ve been thinking more on this and yours and Pandemonium’s replies, and I think it’s not the research so much that irks me but the way that research is used, in formulating those kinds of theories like Meana’s horrible (imho) “narcissism” idea. This isn’t the fault of the research itself, of course–as Pandemonium points out, this research has and can be used to disprove oversimplifications of female sexuality–or the researchers but is probably more indicative of my general frustration lately, where I feel that “facts” about women are inevitably turned sideways and given a brisk shake so that they confirm the most sexist ideas.

    And the fact that everyone is reacting with surprise to some of those “facts”–like that women are turned on by homosexuality–when no one is surprised about the exact same “facts” about male sexuality (they like watching lesbians): that’s annoying too. Fandom isn’t unique because it’s fandom, per se, but because it’s one of the few large communities where women tend to be open about matters of sexuality, so that we figured out all these so-called “secrets” long ago, to me, says something about the absolute backward and prudish tendencies of our culture where women are concerned. Because, again, I don’t think that anyone would be surprised to hear the same “facts” revealed about men.

    Interesting thoughts on the infantilized foreplay too! :)

    Pandemonium: I take your chastisement as well-deserved (and thank you for being gentle. ;)) As I told French Pony, thinking on it more, it’s not the research that bothers me. Hey, we both know I’m a bona fide geek where biopsych stuff is concerned! And I’m still angry that we never discussed sexuality in any of my psych classes in university. You’re right that this is pretty cool stuff … I’m just pissed off at how every “fact” about women seems to get twisted to Say Something about Women, usually not in our interests.

    And, thanks to both of you, I will be checking out Mary Roach’s books. I’ve thumbed through Stiff before at the bookstore; I’ll have to see if our little rural public library has any of them. (Ha! Imagining the #1 Republican County in Maryland reading Bonk is tickling my funnybone.)

  6. Oshun says:

    On the same subject today, I ran across two other links shortly before finding yours:

    http://www.nytimes.com/2009/01/25/magazine/25desire-t.html?em
    http://ellen-kushner.livejournal.com/230405.html?style=mine

    Someone commenting on Ellen Kushner’s Live Journal noted that what may cause sexual arousal in women or be interesting to them may not be the same thing that they chose or desire to experiment with in real life. An example of that would be reading or writing choices. I may write m/m stories, but in real life, I would prefer to get it on with a man to watching two men do it! Just saying. Nor do I find it particular revealing that men in our society do not know what women want.

    I agree fanfiction is an eye-opener when it comes to the range of what women enjoy reading of a sexually explicit nature.

  7. French Pony says:

    And the fact that everyone is reacting with surprise to some of those “facts”–like that women are turned on by homosexuality–when no one is surprised about the exact same “facts” about male sexuality (they like watching lesbians):

    Well, yes. But, remember that we are still emerging from a long sexological tradition that held that, indeed, women’s sexuality was fundamentally different from men’s. Much of the research in the mid-20th century that disproved that assumption was not widely distributed at all. Only the “sexy” parts made it out into the general public realm.

    So, yeah, people are still surprised to have some sort of confirmation about facts that, once discovered, seem like they ought to have been basic knowledge all along. But just imagine what human biology was like in the days before cadaver dissection was generally allowed!

    And you should really see some of the discussions we’ve been having in my Applied Ethnomusicology class. They fit rather well into these sorts of topics — this one, the one in your next post, the race storm.

  8. Moreth says:

    I don’t even want to imagine what these people would think about, for example, twincest or Morgoth-tortures-Maedhros-in-Angband fantasies. Or mpreg. Oh my Eru, mpreg.

    Okay – chimpanzee hoots of laughter here 😀

    I admit I finished the article (The NYT one) thinking that the search for ‘What Women Want’ is rather simplistic! Almost as silly as your Men’s Health example. You know [Hot Off The Press] what turns me on one day, may be very different from the next. And could this possibly be the case for men too? O.o (*Watches the author’s head explode…*)

    It’s not that “What women want is a real dilemma…” It’s that what a human wants is variable. Depending…

    I will do the research scientists the courtesy of assuming this is due to the write-up, and they do realise humans have varying desires and responses. Not to mention contextual issues with images yadda, yadda, yadda… (Now why would she superimpose chimp sex noises over bonobo video, I wonder ;P)

    Still, some-one has to throw up the theories and at least they are wondering about it and having a go!

    Given the amount m/m fic out there, I am surprised at the discrepancies between reported and measured arousal… Check the data collection protocol!

    I leave you with William Blake:

    What is it men in women do require?
    The lineaments of Gratified Desire
    What is it women do in men require?
    The lineaments of Gratified Desire

  9. Rhapsody says:

    Oh, well being a mom of our girl…. there is a point in this article. You say:

    The only item on the list that I remember in retrospect was that women like it when men make them feel “secure.” The article suggested that men should support their partner’s buttocks or the back of her head to accomplish this. The back of her head?! This calls to mind the instructions given to not-kid-people like me when we’re required to hold babies: “Support the back of the head.” I always have this image that, if I don’t, the head will drop right off from its own weight and go rolling across the floor.

    Well you do have to support the baby’s head because when they are so young, they cannot and have not developed their neck muscles that well to keep it up themselves. Not supporting them might lead to permanent damage of the neck and I also know a case where it lead to paralization. However getting to know my little girl, she is in much need for security. If not she will be restless, cry a lot and will waste her precious energy on finding that security she had in the womb. Cradling her, letting her snuggle up in your neck and we swaddle her for the night gives her that feeling.

    I think every woman is different, some might love it, some not, but to bring up the infant thing makes me go like huh. We all have our own personal preferences, but to go back to your baby years as an excuse? 😉

    Also: Is anyone reading on this blog surprised by the fact that women are turned on by gay men (or by lesbians, for that matter), or surprised that women who are turned on by gay men (or lesbians) are not likely to report it?

    This makes me wonder how they measured and collected this data, there are studies out there that they gathered this data as clinically as possible I believe with certain scans where the bodily reaction was taken as input data instead of interiews. I haven’t read the article though, but if this is a clinical study…

  10. Dawn says:

    Wow, I’ve just realized a sure way to get lots of traffic on this blog: write about sex! :)

    Oshun: Good point! I would agree with this. For example, I am not attracted to women. But I find femslash an intensely interesting sub-genre and f/f pairings something worth exploring. I like to write femslash. I like to write (and read) male slash too, but that doesn’t mean that I’m renting gay porn or, as you said, choosing to watch two men over having sex with my husband.

    French Pony: Interesting points all around, as always. :) Aside from suppressing information at the institutional level, I think that women are taught also to discount their own observations about themselves, even now. To go back to anecdotal fannish data, I see this in the number of women who start writing Tolkien fanfic determined never to read or write m/m slash (“it’s wrong! icky! gross!”) and, a year later, are posting hardcore stuff on Library of Moria. I don’t think it’s the women who have changed but their perception of what is socially acceptable. Hopefully, that is a positive to research like this, in that it will at least make it more socially acceptable for women to think about their own sexuality.

    A bit of a tangent but … :)

    Moreth: Good point about “what men want.” My husband is baffled by the number of guys his age who are “into” lesbians. He just doesn’t get it. So the tried-and-true method of selling beer in the U.S., for example–to have it peddled by two busty blond twins fawning over each other–doesn’t work on him. It’s “what men want” but not what he wants. (He’s much more a butt-man than a boob-man too. But he does like blonds, being as he married one! ;))

    I can understand the discrepancies between reported and actual arousal where m/m content is concerned, actually. As I noted to French Pony, I have known many women who come into fandom with the “ick! slash!” mentality and, a year or two later, are posting NC-17 Glorfindel/Erestor. I think there’s a kneejerk “No way!” reaction because it’s thought wrong or weird to be into slash. Even among women who write graphic slash, many of them hide their identities “in real life” at all costs because their families won’t understand or because they have fears about losing their jobs if their employer finds out that they write/read “gay porn.” So I can understand that, outside a social “safe space,” even women who were aware of their own arousal might not have been eager to report it.

    It would be interesting to see if that discrepancy narrows among women in the fan community. I think it would, to a degree, but I don’t think it would disappear entirely simply because of the number of women, as noted, who really live with two identities.

    And you quoted William Blake! (William Bike, as my husband calls him.) *loves*

    Rhapsody: I know that babies need that security (hence my fear when I have to hold one, because I worry that I’m doing it wrong and am going to permanently damage this little human being!) but I share your bafflement in why that is being extrapolated to adult women. I find it offensive, frankly, to assume that women have the same needs (and weaknesses) as infants. Some probably do like that sort of treatment; good for them. I hope they get it. But to make such blanket assumptions is mind-boggling, especially when it doesn’t take a genius to figure out that comparing half of the adult population to infants is going to be seen as offensive, particularly when assumptions about that gender’s inherent weakness have been a major reason for oppression in the first place. It was just a bone-headed article, imho.

    I haven’t read the study itself, but based on what I know about sex research from my past life as a psychology student, I’d imagine that arousal was measured using plethysmography, the participant was asked to report arousal, and the results were compared. An interview alone would be a terrible experimental design; people are never honest about stuff like this! 😉 And, for me anyway, the good stuff is in the differences between measured and reported arousal because now we’re talking about understanding how we’re sometimes socialized against the will of our mind and body.

  11. MithLuin says:

    I don’t write sex (explicit or otherwise) regardless of whether the characters are gay, straight, married, single, etc. The single exception to this was an intentially minimalist scene used to demonstrate how uninterested the character was in sex. 😛 What compels me to write is not a desire to turn people on.

    Shockingly, people still read what I write :P~

    I think there is a difference between fantasies and what we seek out in real life. Plenty of people who read or write noncon would not *really* want to be forced into a sexual experience against their will, nor would they want to do that to someone else. [Of course, this acknowledges that there would be a small minority that might very well be interested in the reality……] I think sometimes that scenario is used to create a sexual situation between characters who would not naturally be in a ‘relationship’ without altering the characters or making them OOC. That is not all that is going on, of course. Hesitance to admit a physical response can be more than just a reaction to socially unacceptable behavior – it can be people distinguishing what turns them on from what they *really* want. In other words, not just ‘what women want’ but ‘what women want to want’ 😉 I can certainly recognize my own appetites, but I don’t label them all as healthy or good for me (or others). Cultivating appetites that are respectful of other human beings as human beings (and not playthings) is important to me.

    As for the sexual component of violence, this is not news to anyone. It would be very difficult to watch the opening of a movie like Red Dragon and not pick up on that: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-MSKYYFGulQ

    In other words, it’s not just fandom that is ‘onto this.’

    That being said, I think people are going to be a little horrified when others are frank about what they find to be a turn on. Even if we feel pretty inured to this after seeing all the permutations of fandom, that doesn’t mean we’re not going to be creeped out by Dahmer when he does it: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9unVL8c3lVo
    I think that crossing the line between fantasy and reality is a big deal, but I imagine no one does something like that without fantasizing about it first, even if most of the people who indulge in such fantasies will never cross that line.

    Everyone is different – even babies. My niece was born very strong, so she could hold up her own head from the day she was born. No one ever had to cradle her neck. Seeing as how she’s only 9 mo. old, I haven’t asked her if that is something she’d value from her husband :P~~~~

    Men and women *are* different, but neither is any less nuanced than the other.

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