Female sexuality - and men, tooTuesday, January 03, 2006
Sex is a powerful factor behind why people do what they do (so human sexuality is a subject which interests me, as you'll know if you read my "laws of attraction" post). I finally watched the Channel 4 mini-series "The Truth About Female Desire", recorded a few months back. The findings were fascinating and might well be of, ahem, practical relevance to some (you know I like my posts to be useful!). Some were certainly a surprise to me, which may indicate no more than a relatively sheltered life. Or something.
Please DON'T read on if you're offended by scientific or slang references to certain body parts, or indeed talk of sex, sexual orientation or sexuality generally!
CaveatsFirst, to get something off my chest. Skip this bit if you want to get straight to the juicier bits, I won't blame you...
It's possible to make watchable, entertaining science documentaries which are rigorous and accurate. But this wasn't it. Clearly the idea was to demonstrate or test certain theories or hypotheses about human (particularly female) sexuality and sexual behaviour, by filming various experiments on a bunch of volunteers with discussions of the results. A great idea as far it goes. But 8 women isn't exactly a statistically significant number (though to be fair they'll apparently repeat some of the experiments, unfilmed, on a bigger sample). Maybe they thought the audience couldn't handle more "protagonists" than we can count on our fingers (though they seem to have forgotten we also have toes).
Also, choosing women more representative of the population at large might have made the results more credible - but the women were all in their early or mid 20's (maybe one or two late 20's or early 30's at most). Presumably they thought older or attached women wouldn't be as good for their viewing figures as younger single white middle class women, which those involved mostly were. One token black woman (also the only married woman there, a two in one for them). One token gay woman (who wasn't white, so again chalk up two PC points in one, guess they thought that was enough). She was quite feminine too, maybe they thought having a butch lesbian would be pandering to the stereotype (which would be a good reason), or maybe they thought a femme would go down better with viewers (which to me would be a bad one - and I've not figured out which one it was). Oh, and of course all the women selected were conventionally attractive.
Basically, scientific credibility appears, unnecessarily in my opinion, to have taken a back seat to the attempt to entice viewers by dangling pretty women before them, symptomatic of the general dumbing down of television I think. It seemed very pop science even though they did wheel out experts e.g. hailing from the renowned Kinsey Institute, Dr Cynthia Graham and Erick Janssen; and evolutionary biology professor John Manning.
Still, if you take some of it with a dose of salt, some points did emerge which I personally hadn't come across before, and I think they may be of interest to others too, so I'll summarise them below, not necessarily in the same order as in the programme (but bear in mind I'm just reporting what they found or suggested, it doesn't mean I agree with it all! Plus obviously the conclusions were generalisations aimed at a lay audience and there may well be exceptions, so don't go getting all insecure about your ring/index finger ratio now (you'll see what I mean below)).
ratio of ring finger length to index finger length: the bigger the ratio, the more fertile he's likely to be, and the more traditionally "masculine" and square-jawed his face. And, ahem, supposedly the larger his penis too. So as a gift for straight female or gay male friends, maybe consider callipers..?
Apparently the degree of exposure in the womb to the male hormone testosterone, which the foetus starts to produce around week 8, affects the growth of the ring finger as well as the development of the reproductive system (while prenatal oestregen boosts index finger length). Men exposed to higher prenatal testosterone levels are generally more fertile and "masculine". (By the way, this is prenatal levels they're talking about, the current levels of hormones in the bloodstream now won't necessarily be the same.)
Interestingly, women (or at least those in the programme) seem to know this unconsciously, when deciding on the attractiveness of ten volunteer men based not on their faces or bodies but solely by feeling their hands and looking at photocopies of their hands. Those judged the most attractive in this way happened to have the biggest ring to index finger ratios (and were the most conventionally good looking in a "masculine" way too - a builder and self-confessed ladies' man, a male model, rugby players etc); those with shorter ring/index finger ratios were considered less attractive. Apparently this experiment, looking at the relationship of ring/index finger ratio to perceived attractiveness, had never been done before the programme, but the results confirmed what the scientists involved had expected, and they plan to re-do the tests with a much larger sample of women.
There may be underlying principles behind what women find attractive in men - they look for cues as to fertility, health, intelligence etc, assessing the genetic "health" of men from their looks, smell, touch, the way they move even. And it was suggested that all this was so important that they couldn't be trusted to the conscious mind. Certainly the women in the show weren't aware of the significance of the ring/index ratio, or even why they thought certain men were more attractive from the feel and look of their hands.
Another experiment, which has been done before, involved the women smelling T-shirts worn by the volunteer men for 2 days and 2 nights without washing (or deodorant etc! All together with the eewwwws, now...). Again the male model was rated top, although interestingly the second highest for this particular test was a man with relatively short ring fingers.
Looking at silhouettes of the men dancing, the women also rated most highly the men with longer ring/index finger ratios including rugby players, the builder and the male model again. The link between how men move and their fertility wasn't really discussed or explained but there was mention of movement as sexual display.
Women: index finger, ring finger again With women however, it is a relatively long index finger (more prenatal exposure to the female hormone oestrogen) which reflects fertility, and indeed women generally have longer index versus ring fingers, especially straight women.
Gay women apparently tend to have relatively longer ring fingers and it seems that, taking the butch/femme split (controversial though that may be), apparently butch lesbians have quite a masculine ratio while the ratio for femmes is generally almost identical to that for straight women. The one lesbian on the programme had a relatively longer index finger, in fact, but she was femme... it would have been interesting if they'd studied more women including butches too.
In women, bigger ring to index finger ratios, i.e. relatively long ring fingers, seem to indicate higher sex drives (and women with higher ratios are reported as having more sexual partners and tending to more promiscuity than those with lower ratios); one woman, heterosexual, who had had the most sexual partners of those there, had a ring finger fully 6 mm longer than her index finger.
(By the way, the BBC's site has a long online test on "what sex is your brain", and the questions include one where you have to measure the lengths of ring and index fingers on both hands. Interesting, eh?)
Women's perception of their own attractiveness; men's faces The women were tested on whether they preferred more masculine or feminine features in faces, and then whether they showed a preference for more symmetrical or less symmetrical faces. More "masculine" faces are thought to reflect good genetic quality, as only higher quality immune systems can afford to produce the testosterone needed to produce such square-jawed faces.
More problematic this, I think: it was suggested that women's self-perceived attractiveness might reflect how well they think they can compete against other women in attracting the best qualified partners, which may be why more attractive women may be choosing the most masculine, symmetrically-featured males (symmetry is considered a sign of good genes), whereas women who consider themselves less competitive against other women go for slightly "lower quality" males. It seems that on average people prefer feminised men, who are nicer! Interestingly the two women considered the most attractive by the group as a whole were the ones who had the strongest preference for symmetry in men's faces.
The point was however made that being attracted to more "masculine-faced" higher testosterone men was risky, as they were apparently linked to higher risk of extra-marital affairs and divorce. So being attracted to the right kind of man for evolutionary reasons might not be the most sensible from a personal happiness point of view, in terms of being treated as you would wish, even if that may help reproduction into future generations!
A man's cock is his compass; a woman's sexuality is more fluidFrom research, generally, men are more specific in their sexual tastes: straight men are physically turned on only by heterosexual porn, gay men only while watching gay porn - a very "either/or" situation, apparently verifying the saying "A man's cock is his compass".
But with women the position is more complex (not uncommon!). Measuring physiological sexual arousal by blood flow to the vagina ("VPA" or vaginal pulse amplitude) while they showed the women various videos, they found (as per some previous studies) that women were physically aroused by almost anything with sexual content, whether straight, lesbian or even animal, whatever their professed mental arousal or avowed sexual orientation. It seems that on a genital level women are likely to respond to a certain degree to almost anything that has sexual content, whether they're mentally aware of it or not, even if mentally it leaves them cold. So women's sexual orientation is apparently less clearcut than men's and their potential for bisexuality greater, though a woman's mind and body aren't always turned on by the same things. (Note I'm just reporting what the programme said!)
The throwaway reason given was that possibly women are physiologically designed to respond to a wider variety of sexual stimuli as an "evolutionary defence mechanism" to prepare the body for the possibility of harmful penetration. In other words, this relatively unfocused unconscious reaction might have the protective purpose of preparing women for possible forcible unwanted sex (presumably protection through lubrication, though that wasn't said). That "reason" seems more like unsupported speculation to me - I'd like to know details of the evidence for it, but they didn't offer any.
Female libido: all in the mind? What is the nature of the female libido and what can affect it? Mood can radically affect a woman's sexual interest or responsiveness. Many women are more turned on when happy, but a significant minority report the opposite. The women on the programme were shown various film clips, then shown photos of men and asked how likely they would be to agree to sex with them. They generally showed less interest after being shown depressing clips (although some women when feeling negative or depressed use sex to help them feel better). Most showed more interest in sex when in a good mood. One woman was however not affected at all by any of the clips. Overall the point was that mood or emotions affect sexual interest but there are lots of differences between women.
To see if the sex drive could be increased by physical stimulation of the body rather than the mind, the women were given the Slightest Touch device (which has been reported on by the BBC and even the Telegraph!): two electrode pads with a variable control, to be placed on the legs about 20 minutes after drinking a sports electrolyte drink. Apparently it sends electrical impulses up the leg to the perineal nerve responsible for vaginal lubrication. The correct position for the individual person was found to be important, e.g. raising the legs up in the air! The more highly sexed of the women volunteers started to feel turned on first, but unfulfilled... (although one - the married woman - didn't respond to anything at all).
The Kinsey theory is that sexual arousal depends on the balance between "excitation" (how turned on she is - e.g. because she's falling in love, feeling good about herself, or her partner is very attractive) and "inhibition" (how switched off, e.g. feelings of shame, worries about pregnancy or STDs or reputation/society's judgement; apparently genetic makeup too can make some women feel more inhibited). It's called SESI (sexual excitation sexual inhibition), where excitation and inhibition are rated separately with 1 being the least excitable (or least inhibited) and 4 being the most excitable (or inhibited respectively). The women on the programme were asked lots of questions about SESI including risk taking, body image, reputation etc; for example the fear of being caught is a turn off for some, a turn on for others. Two of them had the highest excitation and lowest inhibition, and therefore strong libidos; they would find many situations arousing (a very long ring finger again also indicating high sexual excitation, as mentioned above). A strict upbrining, religious background, childhood experiences etc would also affect where someone is on the excitation/inhibition scale. It's not set in stone and could well change from day to day, e.g. letting go of the inhibitions when suddenly falling in love.
Alcohol can make women feel more sexy by leading to disinhibition, but does not generally affect genital response. Interestingly, in two of the more highly-sexed women on the programme, their physical arousal did increase with alcohol, contrary to previous studies where the opposite was the case with the majority of women - it was suggested that perhaps that was to do with their own experience of alcohol, i.e. the amount of drink and how responsive sexually one is to begin with (low inhibition) both count.
There was also an interesting demo of the placebo effect in the context of debunking the sorts of drugs hyped as "the female Viagra" and emphasising the importance of studying them in carefully controlled ways, as expectations and suggestions can greatly affect sexual response. The women were given necklaces said to contain pheromone-like drugs with side effects e.g. drowsiness; some were said to increase sexual excitement, others to dampen the libido. Sure enough, those who thought they were given libido-enhancers said they felt turned on and vice versa with the others, while they all experienced the supposed side effects associated with their particular necklace. Surprise surprise, none of the necklaces contained anything of the sort - the power of suggestion alone was enough to bring about the expected effects.
So the mind is very powerful in determining what women feel sexually. While some drugs can increase blood flow to the vagina, like Viagra, they don't necessarily increase sexual arousal as felt by women. Sadly there seems to be no wonder drug, as there are lots of reasons why women can feel low sexual desire, e.g. an unromantic partner. The controlling influence in female sexuality does seem to be the brain.
Sexual fantasiesRelationship counsellor Jenny Trent Hughes also explained that fantasy can play a crucial role in preparing the brain for pleasure, and many women need the freedom of fantasy to explore boundaries and do what they are not comfortable with doing otherwise. A recent survey of British sexual habits was mentioned and apparently 35% of women fantasise about two men having sex with each other (so not so different then from men who seem to mainly fantasise about two women together!). The top fantasy for women was submission and domination (55% of women surveyed), and it was said that the submission fantasy is very important for women as they get more power/responsibility and want to give some of the responsibility to someone else. It was also said that some women who are quite timid about their sexuality and afraid to say what they want can enjoy it with "he made me do it" and not feel responsible for having made the choice.
All in all, despite my issues about the way they did it, a very interesting mini-series. Now - start measuring, y'all!
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