Why does it have to be either/or . . .?

. . . Can't it be both/and?

Meghan O'Rourke, over at Slate's xx factor blog has a post up, The Sexual Fluidity of Women about this weekend's article on sexuality research and women's desire in the New York Times Magazine. In the post, O'Rourke argues that the implicit question of the article is this: "Are contemporary women doomed to experience a schism between what their bodies lust for and their minds tell them they want?"

Don't you just love it when questions and answers are framed in terms of what "women" (as a single corporate entity) experience or desire? The article itself, which appears to be an interesting round-up of contemporary research of women's sexuality (I'll have to sit down and read it more carefully when I have the time -- alas, assigned reading takes priority this morning), poses the tiresome "what do women want?" question . . . as if we, as a some inexplicable half of the human species, are a problem to be solved. Women (unlike men, the question implicitly suggests): They're so complicated and confusing! They confuse us with their sexuality!! Isn't the answer to the question "what do women want?" self-evidently "each one of us wants something slightly different"? While I'm glad people now recognize that generalizations about human sexuality made from studying primarily male subjects is inadequate, redressing the problem by making generalizations about "women" doesn't seem like a very useful response.

I also do not understand why it's useful to recycle the body/mind dichotomy when talking about sexual desire and experience. Regardless of gender, sexual orientation, or any other factor you can think of. Our bodies and our minds desire different things in different contexts, at different points in our lives. In my experience (in sex as well as elsewhere) it's quite possible to desire two seemingly contradictory things at the same time -- without losing your mind or your integrity. Framing a so-called dissonance between physical arousal and self-reported desire (an example O'Rourke highlights from the article) as a "schism" imagines that, just because our bodies and minds operate on different levels simultaneously, they are in opposition to one another -- why should this be the case? Sexuality is beautifully complicated. Human beings are beautifully complex. In sex, as in everything else, our Selves -- both body and mind -- act and react in an ever-shifting composition of ways that scientific studies will likely never be able to fully document and explain.

For other bloggers' thoughts (updated as I find them):

Bethany L. @ feministing community
StreetScholar @ feministing community
Elizabeth @ sex in the public square
Amanda @ pandagon
Jill @ feministe, cross-posted at yes means yes
Courtney @ feministing
Figleaf @ real adult sex
Vanessa @ alternet

1 comment:

  1. Wonderful blog post, as always.

    First of all, I cannot agree more about the vast array of ways that normal, healthy women experience sexuality. Being either highly visual, or highly mathematical, or both, I always picture a bell curve (or, if discussing several elements at once, a saddle or the like) - much like height.

    Second: the mind-body connection can be important, in terms of working towards getting the mind and body working together. From what little I understand, a fair amount of female sexual dysfunction (a term that I'm using clinically only) comes from problems in the relationship or with past relationships. To some extent, there is value in understand the varied ways in which women get aroused, in order to help the ones who are having trouble.

    I very much, though, dislike the idea of trying to learn about the 3 billion female members of this planet by studying a handful of them, and then making wild generalisations. I also think that people, no matter what the situation is, are much more receptive to fixing issues (and will be more successful at it when trying), when they are told that they are normal. Especially with sexuality, it's important to not get the idea into women's heads that they are freaks for not following some "normal" path. It's even worse when "normal" is defined by the mode, not by being along a continuum.