Arousing questions about female sexuality

Assistant psychology professor Meredith Chivers talks about arousal in women and the physiological/psychological disconnect

New York Times Magazine featured the research of Meredith Chivers
New York Times Magazine featured the research of Meredith Chivers

If you met Meredith Chivers outside a professional function, chances are you’d have a skewed idea of what she does.

Chivers, a newly-hired assistant professor in the psychology department and a Queen’s National Scholar, has spent the last few years conducting studies to measure men’s and women’s sexual arousal objectively and subjectively. She said she often has trouble making people understand the boundaries of such a steamy topic.

“If I meet people and they don’t know me in a professional context, like, if I’m sitting on a plane, then I lie,” she said. “People usually take that as a license to disclose personal details to me that I don’t necessarily want to hear,” she said, with a laugh. “I just tell people that I do research on cognitive science and they typically don’t understand what that is, so they leave me alone.”

Chivers is one of the few women studying human sexuality. Traditionally a male-dominated field, a lot of the research tends to focus on male subjects instead of women, she said.

“That isn’t necessarily reflecting anybody’s agenda,” she said. “It’s just the fact that there have been more men doing this research.

“The male researchers I have a great deal of respect for have said they don’t feel comfortable venturing into studying women’s sexuality because they’re men and they don’t intuitively understand a woman’s experience.”

Although Chivers is comfortable studying male sexuality and uses male participants in her studies, she said learning more about female sexuality is important.

“I think that developing a critical mass of women in the field has changed what we know about female sexuality,” she said.

Chivers points to Julia Heiman, director of Indiana University’s Kinsey Institute for Research in Sex, Gender and Reproduction, as one of the pioneers in sex research on women.

Chivers is looking at the apparent disconnect between women’s sexual desire and physical arousal. Since 2000, she has studied about 300 subjects, both male and female. She conducted a series of studies from 2003 to 2007 at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, affiliated with the University of Toronto, to measure sexual arousal by showing participants a variety of videos.

Subjects watched clips of heterosexual sex, homosexual sex, a man masturbating, a woman masturbating, a naked man walking on a beach, a naked woman exercising and bonobos, a species of ape, mating—sound effects were dubbed in.

Male participants were connected to an apparatus gauging penis swelling and female participants’ genitals were equipped with a plastic probe to measure genital blood flow in the vagina.

Participants were also asked to rate their arousal levels on keypads while watching the clips.

Chivers and her colleagues found that self-identified heterosexual men responded genitally to all of the videos involving women, which was reflected in their subjective ratings.

“There doesn’t seem to be a lot of flexibility in a guy’s sexual interest,” she said.

Heterosexual women who did not respond subjectively to videos involving a great degree of sensuality, on the other hand, responded genitally to the videos—regardless of the genders shown on the screen. Many of the women were even slightly genitally aroused by the bonobo sex, although none reported feeling aroused. Chivers said this data suggests women’s physical responses to a sexual act are dependent upon the act itself rather than those involved in the act, although there’s variation with individual participants.

Heterosexual female participants showed as much genital disinterest watching the naked man—who was not visibly sexually aroused—walking on the beach as they did to the control footage, clips of natural scenery such as the Himalayas. “I think within women there seems to be a lot more capacity for flexibility, certainly with respect to the gender of a woman’s sexual partner,” Chivers said. “For women, there’s more breadth and less specificity in sexual responses.”

Women also show a greater discrepancy than men between their genital and subjective responses to arousal.

“With men, their sexual orientation and patterns of sexual responses in a laboratory setting seem to be really tightly linked,” she said. “Women respond to a pretty broad range of sexual stimuli … and they may or may not be connected to their psychological responses.”

But the results don’t necessarily suggest that all women are inherently bisexual—instead, they point to the possibility that women defy categorization. Chivers said she and her colleagues have come up with a few explanations for the results they’ve found.

“When [men] get an erection they can feel not only their penis against their clothing but they feel the difference in their penis itself,” she said. “Women’s sexual anatomy is mostly internal and women experience change too … but these cues aren’t quite as obvious as, you know, a five- or six-inch penis getting hard.”

Chivers said her team is also studying an evolutionary hypothesis that can be used to explain the difference.

“One possible explanation is that it isn’t to a woman’s evolutionary advantage for her to have a strong connection between her mental state of feeling sexually aroused and her body responding,” she said.

From that perspective, women must be choosy about their sexual partners, Chivers said. She added that, in theory, a mental state less encumbered by sexual arousal can lead to better decision making.

But if a woman is forced into sexual activity, it’s to her advantage that her body is reflexively aroused—that is, her vagina is lubricated—in order to limit injury to her sexual organs from undesired penetration.

Chivers said she first became interested in sex-related research when she started her honours thesis in 1994 as an undergraduate student at the University of Guelph.

“Prior to that, I had taken an undergraduate course in human sexuality and I really, really enjoyed it,” she said. “I remember distinctly having thought, ‘If I could do this the rest of my life, I would be a pretty happy person.’”

At the time, though, she was only aware of a limited set of opportunities available in the sex research field.

“I thought, you know, maybe sex therapy, maybe that would be interesting, but it wasn’t wholly satisfying,” she said. “Once I discovered that the interests I had in neuropsychology and sexuality could be married together, I was off to the races.” Most of the participants in Chivers’ studies are between the ages of 18 and 40, although she did a study in 2001 at Northwestern University specifically on undergraduate women.

“They had the same patterns of sexual response that I’ve seen with women who were older,” she said, adding that women’s fluidity in sexual attraction isn’t limited to young women.

“I’m sure you’ve heard about ‘BUGs’ and ‘LUGs’ and that sort of stuff,” she said, referring to the terms “Bisexual-Until-Graduation” or “Lesbian-Until-Graduation” and the idea that young women are more experimental than older women.

Chivers doesn’t necessarily believe the stereotype, though. She said although the university context is more conducive to sexual experimentation, fluidity in sexual attraction isn’t limited to that age group.

“For a lot of women, they don’t discover they have an attraction to women until much later in life, so it’s certainly not a phenomenon that’s restricted to young women,” she said.

Chivers will be setting up a laboratory on campus to conduct more research on women’s sexual responses with volunteers from Queen’s and the Kingston community.

“My research doesn’t say women should do X, Y, Z and their sexual desire will go up, but I think it contributes to a model of knowledge to help understand the way in which women’s sexuality works,” she said.

Chivers said women seem to have a more responsive type of sexual desire.

“It’s desire emerging from this wanting to be wanted by somebody else, and I think, opening yourself up to the possibility of that process.”

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