Here’s what you need to know about women watching bonobo sex, and how it can affect your sex life.
There is a fascinating study from Meredith Chivers, a psychology professor at Queen’s University in Ontario,Canada. She is a highly regarded scientist and a member of the editorial board of the world’s leading journal of sexual research, Archives of Sexual Behavior.
In her study women were attached to a machine that tracked their vaginal arousal (through engorgement of blood and moisture seeping through the vaginal walls), and it showed that these women were indeed aroused by watching bonobo monkeys have sex. But when questioned, the women reported they were not aroused. In the same study, straight, gay and bisexual women all appeared to show arousal at watching videos of gay men having sex, straight intercourse, lesbian sex and naked women doing calisthenics.
The genitals of the volunteers were connected to plethysmographs. For the men it is an apparatus that fits over the penis and gauges its swelling. For the women they use a little plastic probe that sits in the vagina and, by bouncing light off the vaginal walls, measures genital blood flow. An engorgement of blood spurs a lubricating process called vaginal transudation: the seeping of moisture through the walls. The participants were also given a keypad so that they could rate how aroused they felt.
They reported in each account experiencing less desire than their body’s responses showed (except in the case of straight women watching heterosexual sex where they reported more arousal than measured.)
One of the conclusion of the study were that women are not recognizing arousal in their body because of so many cultural filters and judgements that intercept the arousal pathway from the vagina to the head.
The judgment of what is acceptable sexuality and makes a woman a “good girl” versus a ” bad girl” is so profoundly internalized. Body and sexual shaming is so prevalent at every turn that it is entirely possible women have stopped hearing their body’s cues of arousal. Any stirrings of arousal are put through a rigorous internalized cultural lens of judgement. In judging arousal we extinguish it.
Straight men hooked up to a similar test showed arousal while watching women having sex together and straight intercourse but experienced no arousal when watching bonobos or gay men together.
Gay men experienced no arousal watching women or bonobos but plenty of arousal watching men be sexual together. They reported what their body’s responded to accurately.
Some might say that men have an external barometer of their own erection, so it is easy to notice whether they are turned on or not and that makes it easier to recognize their own arousal honestly. Men also live in a culture that supports their sexuality. We must take into account that we live in a culture where men being sexual makes them a stud, which gains them social status and they are seen as having increased value when sexual.
The same behavior in women may gain her the title of “slut” instead, and with that judgement comes the idea that a woman’s value has decreased. Growing up in a culture that asserts, subtly and overtly, that being sexual can decrease your value as a human can lead to a woman distrusting, shutting off and suppressing her own sexual arousal for fear of the social consequences acting on it could incur for her.
What I love about this study is the idea that perhaps women are really turned on by a huge variety of sexual stimulus, and they just don’t identify it.
Perhaps it is not that it is “harder for women to get turned on” as we tend to believe, but that it is just harder for women to accept that we are turned on.
The quest for women of navigating the neural pathways of desire from between her legs, to her mind, then accepting it, owning it and expressing it is certainly a long and winding path that she can allow or block.
It is powerful to think that maybe women’s bodies and minds are not always unified, not through any fault of their own but due to hundreds of years of conditioning about what they are supposed to feel or do in order to be deemed valuable by others.
What is incredibly important about these findings is that we understand that as women, we don’t fully know what we are turned on by.
If we arm ourselves with this information we could choose to start a new era of connecting with our bodies. If we bring a spirit of total curiosity to our body and life and pay exquisite attention to our physical responses and begin to recognize when we get turned on and when arousal occurs between our legs instead of just allowing what we permit ourselves to be turned on by we could make more space for our vast erotism to breathe a little more freely and ultimately thrive.
Of course feeling arousal does not mean we have to act on our arousal, it just means we are aroused. We still have lots of choice about what we do with it.
It is unlikely that any of the women wanted to have sex with bonobos but that watching something so similar to human sex merely made them feel sexual.
We must begin to soften our own internalized judgment or practice holding other people’s values about our sexuality at bay long enough that we can begin to hear our body’s call over our minds opinions long enough to recognize our own arousal.
Only then can the lock of the constraints of cultural shaming begins to loosen.
That is when the distance from our own wetness to our hearts and minds becomes a direct pathway, dripping in compassion for ourselves.
Know that the maps of your desire are still to be written, explored and discovered.
They begin to be uncovered only by us, in the privacy of our own body, as we pay attention to our quickening pulse.
Your challenge this week, man or woman, is to become an explorer, trying on the idea that you don’t know fully what you are turned on by.
Try to really notice your body’s signs of arousal. It could show up for you as a slight flutter of sensation or an increase in heat between your legs, your heart rate could increase, there may be a catch of your breath or there may be a whole other range of micro moments of sensation for you to be on the lookout for.
Pay attention for moments out in the world or with your partner when you feel any of these moments and begin to notice when you get turned on, even when it surprises you. If you experience judgement anytime about your desires, just flood yourself with compassion and understanding. Everytime you let yourself feel desire you are overturning hundreds of years of shaming, and that is a courageous act.
There is more about this study in a New York Times article here.