Ask a man what the magic formula is for turning on a woman sexually and you're likely to be met with a heaving shrug. For years, scientists have been just as perplexed. And to a large degree, arousal has mystified even women themselves. The only consensus: the female mind, heart, and genitals all need to be in on the effort in order for arousal to occur. But recently, a handful of sex researchers have gotten on the case — and their fascinating findings may help improve your sex life.
One of the most intriguing research nuggets to emerge: While male sexuality is fairly predictable — they tend to be aroused by naked women and naked women hooking up with other naked women — female sexuality is stimulated by a surprisingly wide array of turn-ons. Meredith Chivers, Ph. D., an assistant professor of psychology at Queens University in Kingston, Ontario, calls this "the nonspecificity of women's sexual arousal." Chivers created a buzz with a study in which she showed both men and women a variety of sexually explicit images — nude male and female bodies, heterosexual and homosexual sex, and sex between bonobos (a particularly frisky species of ape) — while measuring physiological signs of genital arousal as well as their subjective feelings of desire.
For the guys, the findings were straightforward enough: The straight men in the study were physically aroused by women, gay men were aroused by men, and neither group felt any stirrings for the apes. The men's physical reactions (erections) were in agreement with what they reported being turned on by.
The women in the study, on the other hand, didn't react as predictably. While they reported feeling aroused in the ways you might expect (straight women were turned on by men, lesbians by women), measurements of their vaginal blood flow showed that they were physically aroused by all the forms of coupling they saw — even the bonobos. Still, when asked after viewing them to report which images they found titillating, most of them chose only those which matched up with their sexual orientation. Were they lying?
Not exactly. The women in Chivers's study were aroused by all the images — but that doesn't mean they desired to have sex with the people (or animals) they saw. "Women have the capacity to get turned on by a broad range of things," she says. "This is normal and not necessarily a challenge to sexual identity."
Lori Brotto, Ph. D., an assistant professor in the University of British Columbia's gynecology department and the director of its Sexual Health Laboratory, has been studying how the disconnect between women's bodies and brains comes into play during sex with a partner. "Women report thinking about nonsexual things during sex," she says. Many women wonder things like "When am I going to get to the gym?" or "What am I going to wear to work tomorrow?" The problem is, focusing on future-oriented matters interferes with women's ability to feel either desire or arousal.
Brotto offers two possible explanations: "Women are consummate multitaskers, and society rewards this ability." Women have become so good at doing a million things at once — talking on the phone, cooking dinner, watching TV, reading a magazine — that it often becomes hard to slow it down or turn it off during sex and just enjoy the moment. Sound familiar?
There's a physical explanation, too. As counter-intuitive as this may sound, men are more in tune with their bodies than women are. Guys typically notice and touch their genitals at a younger age (by virtue of the fact that a boy's are more visible than a girl's). They also begin masturbating earlier. "Because of this, their brains notice changes in their bodies more quickly," Brotto explains, "whereas women's bodies can be very excited and their minds don't notice it at all."
Or sometimes it's just that the mind takes a while to catch up. Ever since sex researchers William Masters and Virginia Johnson revolutionized thinking about human sexual function and dysfunction in the 1950s and 1960s, conventional wisdom has held that there's a linear progression: People feel desire and then become aroused; the physical sensations intensify and it all ends with one big earth-shattering orgasm.
But current research is showing that for some women, desire doesn't necessarily come first. The sexual contact may be what gets you in the mood. "When a woman's partner initiates sex, she may feel indifferent to it at first," says psychologist Sandra Leiblum, Ph. D., director of sexual and relationship services at the New Jersey Center for Sexual Wellness. She may be stressed or tired or, to Brotto's point, focusing on a million other things. "But often, if she plays along she starts to feel aroused, and then the desire kicks in," Leiblum says.
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‘Does this feel right?’
To help women sync up their brains with their bodies, Brotto has begun teaching the art of mindfulness. The idea is to enable women to stay focused on sex by integrating the physical with the mental so that mental excitement can heighten physical arousal and vice versa. To try it at home, Brotto suggests spending 10 minutes a day paying very close attention to any activity — walking the dog, washing dishes, drinking a cup of coffee. "Focus on any sensations in your body — notice the placement of your feet, the positioning of your hands," she says. "What do you see, smell, taste, hear?" If you become distracted, guide your mind back to the present. (To achieve this, imagine putting your wandering thoughts on a conveyor belt and watching them slowly roll away).
Brotto advises next getting familiar with your body by examining and touching yourself during or after a shower, experimenting with what feels good. When you're ready, work toward incorporating the focusing exercise while you're aroused, either alone or with your partner. Eventually you'll become attuned to what you're feeling during sex rather than letting your thoughts escape the bedroom.
A slightly different aspect of desire has been the focus of studies by University of Utah psychologist Lisa Diamond, Ph.D. She's been interviewing a group of roughly 100 women for nearly 15 years, asking them questions about changes in their sexual cravings and reactions over time. "Many women feel that desire is fluid and based on who they're coming into contact with," Diamond says. "Desire is often the result of an emotional connection." In some cases, that connection can be a close friendship — even one with another woman.
One of Diamond's subjects is a straight woman who became intimate with her female roommate. "When I first interviewed her," Diamond recalls, "she said, 'I've always been heterosexual, but just last week I got involved with a woman who's been my best friend since I was 12.'" When the two shared an apartment, emotional intimacy spilled over into physical intimacy.
Diamond has been grappling with the question of why some friendships take a turn toward the physical while most don't, and she's drawn some preliminary conclusions. In cases where both women identify themselves as heterosexual, a series of what she calls "situational factors" come into play. One is relationship status: If neither woman has a boyfriend, they're more likely to become strongly emotionally invested in the friendship. The other is proximity: There's something very powerful about spending a lot of time together — as roommates, travel partners, or close colleagues, Diamond says. The woman in the study ended up in a two-year relationship with the roommate, after which she went back to sleeping with men. "It's been 10 years since that happened, and she's pretty certain she's still heterosexual," Diamond says. "The attraction was real, but it wasn't representative of her sexual orientation."
Diamond's research reiterates the fact that female desire defies easy categorization. University of Nevada psychologist Marta Meana, Ph. D., also studies why women seem to be attracted to other women in certain circumstances, but she has a different take on why. Meana originally set out to see how men's and women's visual attention patterns differ from one another when they look at erotic images — in this case, very sexy shots of nearly naked people in a panoply of sexual positions. Meana outfitted her research subjects with eye-tracking goggles, which measured eye movement per millisecond. ("Our eyes are constantly darting around," Meana says. "It's essentially impossible to control, so you get this really nice data that's not influenced by social acceptability.") Then she showed them each picture for 10 seconds.
The result: "Men barely looked at the guy in the picture. They spent most of their time looking at the women. In women, there was an almost 50-50 split." Meana doesn't know for sure why women's eyes were drawn equally to the men and women in the photos. She acknowledges that they may have been turned on by images of other women, but she thinks it's more likely that they were trying to measure themselves up — a finding supported by some of her previous research, which found that sexual desire boils down to how a woman feels about herself; specifically, how she feels about her body.
"There is a relational component to female sexuality and there's a very self-focused component," she says. "I don't mean that negatively. Women have to be convinced that they are desirable in order to believe that anyone else finds them desirable." Think about it this way: If you haven't been in the mood lately, it might be because you're feeling unattractive (gained a few pounds, noticed your breasts sagging, spotted a new dimple of cellulite), and figure your man couldn't possibly think you look hot.
In her private counseling practice, Meana sees many couples in which the woman "will completely avoid certain sex positions because she's embarrassed by how she thinks her body looks. But the husband hasn't even thought of that. He's shocked 'That's why you won't get on top? Because you think your breasts sag?!'"
Sometimes, the key to better sex might be repairing your relationship with yourself. There's no one-size-fits-all solution, but Meana works with her patients to help them figure out what would make them feel desirable. For some women, it might be as easy as buying sexy lingerie. For others, it might be overcoming physical insecurities by adopting a new workout routine. "The strategies can range from manicures to college degrees," Meana says. One thing she doesn't recommend, though, is dimming the lights during sex (even using candlelight!) as a way to avoid worrying about your looks. "This kind of behavior simply reinforces negative self-image," she says.
Meana's research may be easier to digest than Chivers's or Diamond's, both of which point out women's potential to desire some rather shocking things. But according to Leiblum, all of these theories are loosely connected. "Desire and arousal are predicated on so many factors," she says — things like the nature of our relationships, our attitudes toward ourselves and toward sex, our general health, our hormone levels. The bottom line: "There's no one right path to desire or arousal. You can feel these because you have an intense emotional relationship with another person. Or maybe you're looking at sexy pictures and something gets triggered. There are many roads to Rome."
Regardless of their particular take on the subject, all the researchers offer the same advice: Don't worry about how you're supposed to feel. "Is this normal?" is the wrong question. The right ones might be "Does this feel right?" or "Does this feel good?" If it does, don't over-think it — open your mind and just go with the moment. Indulging in what your body and mind naturally crave doesn't necessarily define sexual interest, but it may pave the way to even more self-discovery about what turns you on ... and makes your toes curl.
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