Sunday, June 22, 2008

Sex on the Brain

Work's been keeping me from writing anything here, though I have been thinking of things to write. I thought you might be interested in a couple interesting articles on sex I've run across.

The first is about a study that exposed men to sexually suggestive stimuli and then measured their impatience.

“It seems that sexual appetite causes a greater urgency to consume anything rewarding,” the authors suggest. Thus, the activation of sexual desire appears to spill over into other brain systems involved in reward-seeking behaviors, even the cognitive desire for money.

“After they touched a bra, men are more likely to be content with a smaller immediate monetary reward,” writes Bram Van den Bergh, one of the study’s authors. “Prior exposure to sexy stimuli may influence the choice between chocolate cake or fruit for dessert.”

Rather unsurprisingly, all of men's appetites are primed by related mechanisms, which bears out the traditional wisdom that exercising the virtue of continence in one area, say food, builds that virtue in others, say sex. Of course, this relation is why advertisers use sex to sell products not even remotely related to sex. It also helps explain why our sex-soaked society finds it so difficult to make decisions requiring a delay in gratification.

The second revealed some surprising results about the sexual arousal patterns of women. The study found that whereas men are aroused by images solely of the sex to which they are attracted (e.g., heterosexual men by images of women), women are aroused by images of both sexes (e.g., heterosexual women are aroused by images of women as well as images of men).

One important detail to note is the questionable methodology of the study

To rule out the possibility that the differences between men's and women's genital sexual arousal patterns might be due to the different ways that genital arousal is measured in men and women, the Northwestern researchers identified a subset of subjects: postoperative transsexuals who began life as men but had surgery to construct artificial vaginas.

In a sense, those transsexuals have the brains of men but the genitals of women. Their psychological and genital arousal patterns matched those of men -- those who like men were more aroused by male stimuli and those who like women were more aroused by the female stimuli -- even though their genital arousal was measured in the same way women's was.

It may be that I'm just poorly informed about the basis of "sex-change" operations, but this methodology assumes without warrant that these operations truly give their subjects "the genitals of women." The assumption would seem to be an instance of assuming a human construct is equivalent to nature (or that nature is but a construct).

And yet despite the flawed methodology, the study is suggestive (and not merely in a lurid way). For one thing it seems to reflect the greater plasticity of female sexuality elsewhere observed. Take as an example Caitlyn Flanagan's restrospective on young women at college:

The other thing that the girls tended to do was to fall head over heels in love with one another. The 1907 Barnard yearbook observed that crushes were “an epidemic peculiar to college girls,” marked by “a lump in the throat, a feeling of heat in the face and an inability to speak.” While romantic friendships between women were an accepted aspect of life in the 19th century, Peril’s reporting on the nature of those relationships is eye-opening. An 1898 advice book called What a Young Woman Ought to Know describes the irritating behavior of girls who imposed their ardor on the world:

They go about with their arms around each other, they loll against each other, and sit with clasped hands by the hour. They fondle and kiss until beholders are fairly nauseated.

In 1928, one besotted “smasher” at a Texas college formalized her feelings in a yearbook entry: “Roommate, darling, how I love you.”

These women in that innocent age weren't actual lesbians, or even manifestations of the LUG (lesbian until graduation) phenomenon that wasn't unusual during my tenure at Columbia, and for that fact better examples of the relative plasticity of female sexuality than the latter.

Another suggested insight is the objectivity beauty of the the female form. One needn't go so far as to call it an eternal form, but there's something about it that goes beyond mere conditioning or habituation (a friend once claimed—I think wrongly—that if our mothers were green spheres, we'd grow up to be attracted to green spheres). I've heard that even the great apes readily recognize human females as female, whereas we humans have trouble distinguishing ape females from males (though perhaps the latter is only a sign of human insensibility). The question this raises is whether the attraction to the (human) female form is merely "hardwired" into primates' neural circuitry or has deeper roots, perhaps as deep as the very materiality of our existence.

Certainly angels are examples of intelligent creatures who aren't sexual beings, but also examples of intelligent creatures without bodies at all. But we might ask: in what manner and to what extent is (attraction to) the female form necessary to a species of embodied intelligent beings?

Bram Van den Bergh, Siegfried DeWitte, and Luk Warlop, "Bikinis Instigate Generalized Impatience in Intertemporal Choice" (2007).

Meredith L. Chivers, Gerulf Rieger, Elizabeth Latty, J. Michael Bailey, "A Sex Difference in the Specificity of Sexual Arousal," Psychological Science 15: 11 (November 2004), 736-744.

Caitlin Flanagan, "The Age of Innocence," Atlantic Monthly (April 2007).


Anonymous said...

Heads probably wouldn't approve of the source of the previous comment.

Lawrence Gage said...

Whew! Thanks, Jennifer!


Anonymous said...

You're welcome!

I've been meaning to comment on this, but the weeds grow fast and the onions are depending on me to keept them afloat as they seem most affected by the encroachment.

This: But we might ask: in what manner and to what extent is (attraction to) the female form necessary to a species of embodied intelligent beings? is something I have wondered about for a long time. I've heard some theologians say the created order makes woman the "crown of Creation". Well...I sure don't feel like the crown of anything, but there is no denying there is something universally appealing about the female form, whether sexual or simple aesthetics.

My grandmother has the signature book which my great-grandmother used in her graduating year from high school and it is full of sentiments similar to what you described here. The natural affection of girls is being squashed, I sense, and replaced for more "appropriate" behavior which I suspect is actually more masculine behavior. I wonder if this is the reason Jane Austin's literature is enjoying such a strong surge right now. She paints a simpler, more naturally affectionate time when girls could hold hand and speak as feminine beings without the inferrence of sexual undertones.

Isaiah 66:12 says:
For thus says the LORD, "Behold, I extend peace to her like a river,And the glory of the nations like an overflowing stream;And you will be nursed, you will be carried on the hip and fondled on the knees.

I wonder if that is a more uniquely feminine understanding?? Looking it up in the New American Standard Exhaustive Concordance which has the Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek dictionaries as well, it has this to say for fondle:

shaa; to sport, take delight in, fondled, play.

The other wording: being nursed and carried on the hip, seems more in unison with the play of a mother with her child. Not only play for the sake of fun, but an adoring, gentle, sweet sort of playfulness. Would this be the feminine element of God? The inviting and nurturing within Him which He embodied in the female form?

Hmmm...or maybe I'm taking this in a direction other than your intended!

Lawrence Gage said...


Your questions are actually closely related to the point I was making/asking. The question that completes the triangle: how does actual matter reflect the perfections of God?

There is no doubt an Eternal Feminine in God. I think it is near the end of That Hideous Strength that C.S. Lewis discusses the metaphysical generalization of the feminine and masculine. They are relative terms, so God the Son is the relative feminine to God the Father. This is why the Wisdom of God is spoken of as feminine in the book of Wisdom. (Of course, God as God is always a masculine relative to us.)

I seem to recall that there are other places in Scripture where God is spoken of as Mother, though I can't recall the citations. A theologian friend also points out that the Shekinah, the glory of God around the Ark of the Covenant, was sometimes thought of as Feminine. This fits in very well with St. Paul's statement that woman is the glory of man.

(For comparison, Aristotle says that we refer to things as masculine that which bring forth life in another, and as feminine that which bring forth life in themselves: hence Mother Earth.)

That all affection is nowadays seen in with sexual overtones comes from the materialist reduction of everything to (genital) sex. It's a real impoverishment of life and makes true friendship difficult.

Good luck with the onions!


Anonymous said...

Hi LG,

If the Son is the relative feminine to the Father, what is the Holy Spirit relative to the Father? I've always understood the Holy Spirit's influence to more that of the feminine.

There even seems to be a protectiveness from the Father toward the Holy Spirit in that grieving the Holy Spirit is the one sin listed in Scripture as being unforgiveable.