Stimulating research on female arousal
Meredith Chivers is the sixth speaker in MSU’s semester-long series “Whom You Love: the biology of sexual orientation,” which aims to demonstrate that homosexuality is a natural occurrence in humans. Chivers is an assistant professor and Queen’s National Scholar in the Department of Psychology at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario. Her lecture, “The Puzzle of Women´s Sexual Orientation – Why Straight Sexuality Isn´t so Straightforward in Women,” explores the sexual plasticity of women.
What’s the difference between male and female sexual arousal?
I study sexual psychophysiology, the psychological and physical aspects of sexual arousal. Among my research interests is the relationship between these processes and sexual orientation — how does what turns us on, mentally and physically, relate to our sexual interests and attractions? In women, we’ve consistently found that physical sexual responses differ from sexual reported feelings of arousal and directions of sexual attractions. This is very different from what is typically seen in men, where these aspects of sexuality are strongly linked. Traditional models of sexual orientation, however, propose that what turns us on is our orientation. This way of thinking about sexuality means rejecting whom women say they are attracted to in favor of their physiological responses.
Does that mean that females relate to their sexual identity inherently different from how men relate to theirs?
Women’s sexuality is certainly more complex, and the models we had to understand the data just didn’t fit. To suggest that these women weren’t lesbian, bisexual or straight based on their physiological responding was absurd and insulting. To draw this conclusion suggests women are either disconnected from their “true” sexuality or lying. I think these findings suggest that we need better models to understand women’s sexuality.
So what’s wrong with the current model of sexual orientation?
Traditional models of sexual orientation are undifferentiated with respect to gender. This can bias observations and interpretations of sexual phenomena as deficits or excesses depending on what standard is adopted, which, for a long time, has been mostly based on male sexuality.
What inspired this line of research?
When I began my graduate studies in the late 1990s, the body of research on men’s sexual arousal and orientations was fairly well-developed, but very little research had examined similar questions of women’s sexuality. That’s why I decided to pursue this line of work. The question of how people’s sexual attractions develop — what orients our sexual orientation — has captured my attention since I became interested in studying sexuality as an undergraduate student. Why do people desire women or men? Beyond what is conventionally thought of as sexual orientation, I am also fascinated by what underlies less typical sexual interests, such as fetishes and sadomasochistic sex.
What do you think the "Whom You Love" series could do for the social perception of homosexuality?
A lot of the information the general public receives from media regarding research on sexuality and sexual orientation is filtered through the lens of that media outlet, resulting in inaccuracies and distortions in the service of political or cultural agendas. This series gives people the chance to learn about the science from the source minus the spin, and to talk to the scientists doing the work.
For more information on this series, go to whomyoulove.com.