The great question that has never been answered, and which I have not yet been able to answer, despite my thirty years of research into the feminine soul, is “What does a woman want?
– Sigmund Freud, 1907
Dr Brooke Magnanti (aka Belle De Jour) is writing a book about sex. As a scientist and a very successful ‘sex diarist’ and an advocate for sex workers’ rights, she has an interesting perspective on the subject. Her most recent blogpost though, has caused me some concern about her project; in particular the ‘scientific’ assumptions which seem to be underpinning it.
The article is called ‘What Women Want’ and it introduces the study of women’s sexual desire as follows:
‘For as many times as sex is painted as a natural, enjoyable activity, it’s also portrayed as something women use to get things from men, or put up with in a relationship, or don’t really enjoy. Over and again men are stereotyped as slaves to their desires – and women as scheming pretenders or uninterested partners. Pretty insulting for all concerned…
Of course, women wouldn’t be turned on by something as simplistic as an image of an excited naked man… or would they? We’re used to thinking of men as being the visual ones. Women’s sexual response is a function not of physical lust but of emotional arousal, right?…
But while the popular assumption is that female desire is something unknowable, alchemical, difficult to pin down… research is showing something rather different.’
I can understand why Magnanti is keen to bust the myth that women’s sexuality is this ‘mystery’ that cannot be solved. A phenomenon only ever considered in relation to women’s ‘emotions’ or maybe their reproductive capacities. But in order to produce empirical data on women’s physical sexual responses she turns to a science, and a particular scientist, that is at best dodgy, and at worst, misleading, ‘unscientific’, unethical and politically driven.
The scientist is J Michael Bailey, a professor of psychology at NorthWestern University in America. The paper Dr Magnanti references is a VERY controversial one from 2002 (pub 2004 in Psychological Science journal).
Over the next few posts, I shall take Manganti’s assertions, taken from Bailey et al’s paper, and will show not only why I don’t agree with them, but how they have been comprehensively refuted by academics and ‘sex researchers’ in the nine years since the paper was written.
1. The Male and Female ‘Brain’
Bailey’s research, and Magnanti’s post, is based on the assumption that the categories of ‘men’ and ‘women’ are discrete and differentiated according to the make up of their brains. His paper is not trying to prove a difference between men and women’s neurological make-up, it is assuming that is a given. If it wasn’t then Bailey’s ‘experiment’ would not rely on a sample of only 69 men and 52 women (with ‘transexuals’ included as a subset of women). For that is not enough participants to prove in any way shape or form a definite ‘sex difference’ between two halves of a global population made up of billions and billions of people, is it?
Since the paper was published in 2004 there has been plenty of ‘scientific’ criticism of the concept of innate differences between men and women’s brains.
Two books in particular have put a scalpel into the concept, dissected it and shown it to be wrong. They are both by women scientists. In Pink Brain, Blue Brain (2010)
‘Lise Eliot immersed herself in hundreds of scientific papers (her bibliography runs 46 pages). Marching through the claims like Sherman through Georgia, she explains that assertions of innate sex differences in the brain are either “blatantly false,” “cherry-picked from single studies,” or “extrapolated from rodent research” without being confirmed in people. For instance, the idea that the band of fibers connecting the right and left brain is larger in women, supposedly supporting their more “holistic” thinking, is based on a single 1982 study of only 14 brains.’
Aha. So even the ‘science’ that Bailey is relying on, the science said to ‘prove’ that male and female brains exist, was as scant, unscientific and questionable as his own meagre study of a handful of men and women. And some of it is based on rodents.
Another major book revealing the ‘neurosexism’ of neuroscience is Cordelia Fine’s Delusions of Gender in which the author:
‘takes aim at the idea that male brains and female brains are ‘wired differently’, leading men and women to act in a manner consistent with decades-old gender stereotypes…’
Delusions of Gender has been shortlisted for The Best Book of Ideas Prize 2011. It is clear from reviews that Fine, Eliot and others have put the ball back in neuroscience’s court. It is up to them to come up with new evidence to prove their case that men and women are ‘wired’ to respond differently to e.g. sexual stimuli. Manganti has referenced a paper that is nearly a decade old, and that has since been proven to be wrong.
Another critic of this neurosexism has come at it from a slightly different angle. Mark Simpson, has looked at how scientists such as Bailey et al, not content with declaring ‘male’ and ‘female’ brains exist, have gone on to say there is also such a thing as the (male) ‘gay’ brain. He questions the idea that gay men would have brains more like ‘women’s, by looking at differences between gay men and women’s attitudes to sex:
‘you only have to think for less than a minute about the claim that gay men and straight women have the ‘same brains’, especially when it comes to the area that ‘processes emotion’, to see a major flaw with this apparently ‘common sense’ finding. I mean, how many hetero women – or lesbians – have the same attitude towards emotion-free sex that gay men have?’
But, in the studies by Bailey et al that Brooke Manganti quotes, their ‘experiments’ have aimed to show that heterosexual and homosexual men respond in similar ways to sexual stimuli:
‘Previous studies of men and sexual orientation showed that in general, male responses are straightforward. Heterosexual men respond strongly to heterosexual porn, and weakly to homosexual porn. For gay men, it’s the opposite: gay porn turns them on; the hetero stuff, not so much. So for men the psychological and physiological desires are in sync – what turns them on is also what they report enjoying emotionally.’
This puts a spanner in the works for neuroscience. How can gay men’s brains be both ‘male’ and respond like heterosexual men’s brains, and also more ‘gay’ and like ‘female’ brains, responding more like women?
As Mark Simpson has pointed out, Bailey’s work relies on a conflation between ‘gender identity’- the male and female ‘brain’, and sexual orientation – the ‘gay’ and ‘heterosexual’ brain. And if we take the example of a bisexual man, how can he have both a ‘male heterosexual’ and a ‘male homosexual/female’ brain? He can’t. Bailey’s research ignores and attempts to eradicate bisexuality because the existence of bisexuality turns the whole applecart over. Indeed, in the study Manganti refers to, no bisexual participants were included. I wonder why!
I haven’t got onto the main content of Brooke’s post yet, about women’s sexual response to pornography. I have tried to show why I think it is based on assumptions about ‘sex differences’ in men and women that have been disproven. I have attempted to discuss this with her, but she has refused to engage, and has now blocked both me and Mark Simpson on twitter. She also does not allow comments on her blog, so any discussion about her post there is impossible. This worries me in terms of how ‘public figure’ academics operate in discourse. But that is possibly a subject for another post. I will be disappointed if she publishes this piece in her forthcoming book, without any reference to the convincing critiques of Bailey and Neuroscience in general. If anything, it will mean her work is out of date, misleading, and of no use to those of us interested in the study of sex, gender and sexuality.
Like I said at the top, Magnanti has a very interesting and valid perspective when it comes to looking at sex. I also think she is a talented writer. I just hope she doesn’t emphasise her role as ‘scientist’ over all her other areas of knowledge and interest. Because when it comes to contemporary understandings of sex in society, ‘science’ is possibly the weakest card in the pack.