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37.7 Seconds, Part V
"Reading feminism" on sexuality and love
I began this series by saying that there was a time when reading feminism was a joyful, liberating journey. That was pre-1980. Then it became a depressing experience, a subject for satire or/and outrage as inanities, tradition, and right wing activism filled the media.
I also began by quoting the results of a 1970s study to the effect that fathers spent an average of 37.7 seconds a day relating to their newborn offspringthis alone should point to overcoming a long-standing gender division of labor in the struggle for womens liberation.
But rather than pursue this fact (and many others like it), evolutionary psychologists and other so-called scientists have been doing something quite different. They claim that new evidence shows that women and men have evolved gender traits from deep history (our ancestors on the African grasslands of many millennia ago) and that these gender specific traits are (1) part of our genetic makeup; (2) part of our prefrontal brain structure; (3) enhanced by the presence of estrogen and/or testosterone. This means that men and women are fundamentally different in behavior, desires, preferences, ways of working, etc. Womens particular traits, they claim, were of little use in agrarian society and so women were subjugated. The information age needs womens tendencies and women will become more and more influential in the 21st century. Cant wait.
Last month, I looked at The First Sex by Helen Fisher and I continue here as Fisher brings the above insights to the question of sexuality. Fisher writes that men and women have the same sex drive but, it differs in many specific ways. The ways they differ could have been gleaned from the Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus lecture circuit, but here Fisher asserts the power of science in making her claims. Women, she says, are just as interested in making love as men are, but women are more attracted to signs of commitment, status, and material resources. Men are more attracted by visual stimulisigns of youth, health, and fertility. Men are more turned on by lookinginto bedroom windows and at their own genitals. How fascinating. In a 1920s study, 65 percent of men said they had peered through a bedroom window (20 percent of women said they had). This of course reveals our inner wiring. Men fantasize with different partners more than women do, probably, Fisher says, because it was biologically adaptive for men to inseminate as many females as they could.
Women are turned on by visual erotica, writes Fisher, but not as much as men. (Apparently not as much as is a new scientific term that means I have no firm evidence about anything much less an explanation.) Women are more aroused by romantic words, images, themes in films and stories. Womens sex fantasies involve more affection and commitment. Women envision more caressing, yada yada. So far the only evidence Fisher cites for these claims is deep history, which is of course unknown, and poems by Edna St. Vincent Millay, W. H. Auden, and John Donne, and the 1920s study mentioned above.
Fisher goes on to say that 71 percent of men and 72 percent of women fantasize while having sex with a partner. Men fantasize about conquest and domination, women about submission and surrenderwomen are twice as likely as men to fantasize passive sex, as objects of desire. But, Fisher assures us, these are not rape fantasies as only 0.5 percent of men find it appealing to force women into sex; and less than 0.5 percent of women want to be forced. (Ah, she gets it to the decimal point.) She then refers to a friends fantasy involves about driving down a country road and being stopped by a policeman who demands that she have sex with him in the bushes as confirmation of passivity.
Fisher says that while many psychologists feel that women embrace fantasies of submission to avoid feeling guilty about their sex drives, she thinks that they may arise from the primitive parts of the female brain, plus female surrender is common in the animal kingdom and she gives examples of the submission of female iguanas, lions, and rats. Just how we evolved the behavior of female iguanas, she doesnt explain.
Another difference between men and women regarding sexuality is that men are more riveted (good choice of words, Helen) on sex, while women are more distracted. This could stem from the female brains tendency toward web thinking. On moonlit evenings in ancient Africa, the distractible woman was probably the sentinel for the copulating pair. Amazing.
Fisher gives us the results of many surveys on sex drives.
- In a 1990s survey of 14,070 U.S. men and women, 87 percent thought women were less interested in sex than men. Dozens of other studies support this finding.
- In the 1940s and 1950s, 94 percent of men and 40 percent of women said they masturbated.
- In a recent survey, 90 percent of men and 70 percent of women said they masturbated.
- In a 1994 survey, known as the NORC (National Opinion Research Center) study, of 3,432 men and women from ages 18 to 59: 30 percent of men and 26 percent of women had sex 2 to 3 times a week; 54 percent of men said they thought about sex every day; 19 percent of women said that sex crossed their minds daily; 27 percent of men masturbated once a week, 8 percent of women did. Men also reported more sex partners.
Fisher says that scientists have always assumed from various studies that men had the greater sex drive because they measured sex drive by daily thoughts of coitus, the number of masturbatory events, and the number of sex partners. But Fisher claims that if sex drive was measured by intensity and extent of the orgasm (as well as a few other indicators), scientists would find that womens sex drive was at least as great as mens. In a poll of 14,070 men and women (the exact same number as the NORC study, how odd) by the Prodigy computer network found that 75 percent believed that women were more sensual than men. Why? Because women weave intercourse into a wider context: flowers, oils, satin sheets, fluffy towels, kissing, hugging, and cuddling during sex.No wonder women get more distracted during sex. Theyre worried about sperm on the satin sheets. I guess thats why the fluffy towels.
Fisher thinks there is also evidence that women are designed for lots of sexual variety. One reason, she says, is biology: men have three different kinds of spermegg getters, egg blockers (to block foreign sperm), and seek and destroy sperm. (Is this for real?) This means that ancestral women had a roving eye, how else explain the need for sperm that destroys other sperm.
Okay, Ill bite. How would the sperm thing work, since it would have to be injected right after coitus with foreign sperm or right before? Does the guy whose sperm is already swimming around in there wait to see if some other guy comes along and dumps his load, so to speak, then does the first guy rush over and get his sperm blockers in there? What is the woman doing all this time: is she distracted by the ancient grassland version of TV, i.e., birds soaring, lions approaching? Oh, but the sperm blocking couldnt work then because it hadnt evolved yet, right?
Another indication, says Fisher, is that men have gone to such lengths to suppress female lust (cliteridectomy, veils, seclusion, foot binding). Another indication is simple math: if men have more sex partners than women, then either there are a few women having sex with a lot of men or men are exaggerating their conquests, while women are exaggerating their virtue. Now, thats the first sensible thing shes said.
Fisher looks at research on female prostitutes to confirm that women have a long history of lust. In 19th century New York and Paris, Fisher writes, 5 to 15 percent of women were short or long-term prostitutes. Currently, Fisher says, psychologists estimate that 1 out of every 1,000 or 2,000 women engages in prostitution. (Thats really pinpointing it). Many (how many?) say they chose (freely?) that line of work Money is sexy, call girls say. What that has to do with proving female lust, Fisher doesnt say. All it proves is that, for some women, prostitution pays well.
Fisher says she suspects women are built to seek variety as often as men, provided it meets their primal reproductive needs for resources. Well, that explains the recent So You Want To Marry A Millionaire TV show, where 50 women competed in gowns and bikinis for the chance to marry a complete stranger because he had lots of cash.
Fisher returns to the 1994 NORC study. It divided homosexuality into three dimensions: desire, behavior, and self-identity. As a result, 4.5 percent of men and 5.6 percent of women were physically attracted to the same gender; 4.9 percent of men and 4.1 percent of women had had sex with a same-sex partner; 2.8 percent of men and 1.4 percent of women identified as primarily homosexual. Also, school girls experiment more than boys with bisexuality. Also, according to psychologist Michael Bailey of Northwestern University, Women are more likely than men to have feelings toward both sexes. Men are more channeled one way or the other From this, Fisher concludes that women are more flexible and tend toward bisexuality. How these folks go from (pitiful) data about social choices to claims about inner attributes eludes me. Why not notice that 96.7 percent of all Americans use forks, 94.1 percent of all Japanese use chopsticks, and deduce that one has a fork gene and the other a chopstick geneand trace it to some primordial difference in the fauna in different geographic regions?
Sex Drive in the 21st Century
As women gain economic and social power, Fisher suggests, we are going to have sexual lifestyles like those of traditional Polynesians. After centuries of sinful sex, Fisher writes, most Americans appear to believe that any heterosexual behavior is acceptable for unmarried adults as long as partners consent to it. In the 1940s, American couples spent 10 minutes at foreplay (how does she know this?); today its increased by 5 to 7 minutes (and how does she know this). In the 1950s, only 12 percent of married couples engaged in cunnilingus, today 75 percent practice it.
As women become more economically independent, Fisher says, they are rewriting codes of sexual content regarding harassment (but movements have nothing to do with it, of course). Fisher says that 40 to 50 percent of women say they have encountered some form of sexual harassment in the office or on campus. In 1995, 50 percent of women in top-level executive positions said they had been sexually harassed. Fisher writes that harassment is still prevalentvery astutenearly 50 percent of working women in Estonia, Finland, Sweden, and Russia report it; in Japan its 70 percent.
But Fisher feels that even though women are challenging sexual harassment and winning cases, there will always be sexual harassment because it has deep roots in the human psyche. For millions of years, the sexes did different jobs. Never have our ancestors of reproductive age worked side by side. Nothing has prepared us for being thrown together in offices and for coming into intimate contact with so many strangers, says Fisher. Fascinating lets rape and plunder.
Infatuation and Romantic Love
Fisher tells of a study shes been conducting for 25 years on romantic love. So far, 437 Americans, 402 Japanese, and 13 Navajos have responded to her questionnaire. (Now theres a significant sampling and quite a good rate of return, too, about 40 a year or one reply every 10 days.) She has put infatuated women in an fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) brain-scanning machine to measure brain activity. She hopes to locate some of the regions of the brain that become active when the love-possessed thinks about a beloved. Research Grant overseers, please take note.
Fishers results are too early to conclude anything, she says, but shes going to conclude something anyway and that is that men and women seem to feel romantic love (she uses the word obsession) in roughly equal proportions. Also, the brain stimulants dopamine and norepinephrine appear to be involved in romantic passion.
Fisher concludes that both sexes feel passionate romantic love with roughly the same intensity, but their tastes are different. Men are beguiled by beauty and Fisher says this has a basis in deep history: In fact, a pleasing ratio of waist to hips, clear skin, babylike symmetrical facial features, and small feet are associated with high levels of estrogen and low levels of testosteroneindicators of reproductive health. Really? Small feet and babylike features?
Women, on the other hand, look for men with resources and position, smart men, men with strong jaws (indicating high levels of testosterone), tall and coordinated men. Wait; tall and coordinated doesnt necessarily go together with smart and rich. What a dilemma.
Both sexes are attracted to those who are slightly mysterious or dissimilar. This seems to work on a chemical level, says Fisher. When women are asked to smell mens sweaty T-shirts and report on the most sexy smelling, they tend to choose T-shirts of men who have dissimilar immune systems. Yikes.
Having said the above, Fisher then says that childhood experiences greatly influence whom we are romantically attracted to: your fathers sense of humor, etc. So doesnt that mean we are attracted to the similar and familiar?
Fisher believes that one of the social trends of the 21st century will be the revival of romantic love and women will shepherd us along this road. This, in spite of her own study that says that men and women are equal in this regard.
Marrying For Love
Fisher says that in the 1960s 65 percent of 503 American college men would not marry a woman they did not love. Well, thats impressive. That means that 35 out of every 100 men would. As for college women, 24 percent of 576 said they would refuse to wed a man they didnt love72 percent were undecided. Good grief.
In 1991, according to Fishers statistics, 86 percent of men and 91 percent of women said they would not wed someone they were not in love with and 50 percent of men and women believe that if romantic passion fades that is sufficient reason for divorce.
From this Fisher predicts that the traditional patriarchal family is changing to new family forms, that the time is right for fulfilling peer marriages, even for matriliny (tracing ones descent through the female line). While only 3 percent of mammals pair up to raise their young, she thinks humans will continue to pair bond. In 1994, 91 percent of U.S. women, according to Fisher, had married once by the age of 45. Why? Fisher believes there is a biological craving embedded in our brains for pair bonding, and she cites the example of the prairie vole. Yes, the prairie vole. Sue Carter, a behavioral endocrinologist at the University of Maryland, has pinpointed the cause of prairie vole pair bonding: as the male ejaculates, levels of vasopressin increase in his brain, triggering his spousal and parenting zeal. In the female its oxytocin. Testosterone plays a negative role in attachment, by the way.
Hold it. Does this mean we could overcome millennia of genetic evolution that resulted in men only spending 37.7 seconds with their newborn babies by injecting them with vasopressin and a testosterone depressant? Now this is important pharmaceutical news.
Fisher says that when humans started walking, women had a crisis. They had to carry infants in their arms instead of on their backs and as a result they couldnt collect food and protect themselves so they needed mates. Excuse me; maybe what she needed was a papoose. Also, where did Fisher get the idea that women couldnt carry an infant and do other things? What mate collects food for his woman? Id like to see that. Also, history has shown that often the person women need protecting from most are their mates. Why doesnt Fisher examine the biological basis for that?
Continuing, Fisher says that as women gain economic power, marriage is changing. Sociologist Pepper Schwartz of the University of Washington divides contemporary marriage into three kinds: traditional (woman in the home with the young; the man as the sole breadwinner); near peer (both sexes work, but she does most of the housework and childrearing as in traditional marriage); peer (each gender has equal rank regardless of whether the woman has a salary or stays at home; they feel equal in financial decisions). Fisher sees the rise of peer marriages since 51 percent of U.S. families are two-income families where the women are financially independent and men and women form partnerships. What about sexual and socialization roles in bonded pairs and their implications for peoples behaviors, attitudes, etc. say mothering, versus fathering, versus parenting? Uninteresting, apparently.
Women and men crave intimacy but differently. Men are more likely (more likely is a precise scientific term from which we can conclude much about humans) to define emotional closeness as doing things side by side, while women often view intimacy as talking face to face. He likes to fish, go to a ball game, view a movie, and discuss difficult issues while driving in a car. Women handle infants face to face and talk on the phone with girlfriends, which isnt exactly face to face but no matter. Fisher believes that mens type of intimacy stems from playing sports side by side in childhood and also from ancestral men having to face their enemies while they played and worked alongside friends. What? Also men consider sex the greatest intimacy (isnt that often face to face or am I missing something?) and this has a genetic logic, according to Fisher, as sex is womens gift to men so he can spread his DNA for posterity. What?!
Fisher says that since the 19th century migration to the cities, peer and peer marriages have emerged where intimacy has become important. However, the male version of intimacysharing of physical activities, helping around the house, making love, and horsing aroundare rarely regarded as close today. The female versionemotionality and verbal disclosureis the intimacy of the day.
Next she says that adultery is on the rise. In a 1998 article, Fisher proposed that the brain circuitry for attachment is not clearly linked to the brain circuitry for attraction. Hence, we are capable of loving more than one person at a time. No diagrams of this circuitry at work in her book, however. Fisher reports a recent poll of the National Opinion Research Center where 25 percent of men and 15 percent of women say they have strayed at some point during their marriage. Other studies say that 30 to 50 percent of married women and men stray.
Men are more inclined to commit adultery for sex and women for emotional intimacy that is lacking in an unhappy marriage. Fisher explains this with another evolutionary gem: ancestral men who philandered tended to father more young; these young survived because ancestral women got extra food from all these men she was copulating with and nature perpetuated those who cheated; also because women tended to rendezvous with philanderers during ovulation. Yikes.
As women gain economic independence, they dont put up with mens dalliances and divorce rises. Wouldnt that suggest that everything to do with gender relates to womens dependence and subjugation in a patriarchal kinship system rather than some evolutionary gene/brain/estrogen cocktail?
Fisher says that men and women around the world have a remarkable tendency to divorce during the fourth year of their marriagesusually when they are in their mid-20s with one or no kids. She believes that this propensity stems from ancestors where attachments lasted through one child. (Evidence for this?) Once weaned and able to play with older children, then other relations took on some of the burden of parenting and couples were free to disband. Fisher says that this all relates to receptor sites on the brain that leave one psychologically susceptible to detachment. Nuts.
Fisher paints the future of marriage: the traditional patriarchal family is declining to be replaced by a shift to matriliny. Between 1960 and 1993, the percentage of births to unmarried women rose from 5 percent to 31 percent. In 1994, nearly one-third of U.S. births were to unmarried women. As women pursue careers, they will preserve their birth names and strengthen ties to natal kin; as women construct and maintain families, they are provided a social web in which their DNA can thrive. These kin keepers are reinventing the hunting and gathering band.
Fisher says there will be a backlash against this but women will prevail. The Population Council lists 6 global trends for the 21st century:
- Increased participation of women in the workforce
- Decline of men in the formal workforce
- More female heads of households
- Later marriages
- Later child births
- More elderly dependents
These bring women more power and more responsibility, says Fisher. Well, more responsibility surely, it look like a lot of working and caring, caringand working. But I dont see where women are automatically getting more power.
Fisher writes: although the traditional family had some merits [and what would those be?], it was not an institution that was necessarily good for women [now theres an under-statement]. It denied many women the opportunity to express their natural talents and stifled their creativity. It left millions with little else but kitchen, church, and children.
But the only way this can change, according to Fisher, is if the economy needs her innately female contribution. But how would a society controlled by men and dominated by their genetically male traits ever know that? Or decide to accommodate women? Especially since men were doing fine the way things were: Several studies show that being married adds more years to a mans life and that far fewer men than women initiate divorce.
Fisher says, It is time to honor our gender differences...Yet we live in what may be the only time in historic evolution when a vast number of people, especially academics and intellectuals, have convinced themselves that the sexes are just about the same. They choose to ignore the growing body of evidence about inherited gender differences, maintaining that women are born as blank sheets of paper on which childhood experiences inscribe male and female personalities.
Of course, she never provides any evidence of people claiming that women are blank sheets of paper. She, herself, has described women and men as essentially the same until the agrarian society forced a division of labor that somehow implanted gender differences in our genes and brains. Even then, after millennia of evolving, these differences are pretty scanty and evidence for the connection between evolution and behavior scantier still. But this does not concern Fisher. She goes on to tell us that Corporations, government offices, civil associations, military, law, medicine, police, education are all changing and need both sexes working as a team.
More evidence for this can be found in Fishers assertion that girls are now as favored as boys. In many cultures throughout recorded history, men, particularly upper-class men often had several wives and clandestine lovers, as well as opportunities to copulate with servants, slaves, or concubines. Men could produce many young. Women, on the other hand, could bear only a limited number of babies. For this fundamental biological reason, parents in agrarian societies tended to invest more time, money, and attention on sons. The boy child could potentially spread more of their DNA into the future.
Yikes. What on earth? Is she saying that parents favored sons because sons were impregating slaves and servants as well as wives? This is what made parents proud to have sons? How many offspring did parents want, anyway? More than 12?
In the 21st century, Fisher says, daughters are becoming just as valuable as sons for spreading their parents genes. Yippee.
Fisher concludes with the prediction that men and women will live as equals in the 21st centurythe way women did for so many millennia of our distinguished human past. But how can behavior that has been the basis of misogyny and patriarchy for millennia suddenly become respected and make women important economic contributors and equal partners with their former oppressors? We can certainly have harmony and liberation, yes, but the path is struggle not genetic resurgence.
Recently, I saw a program about the NASA mission to Mars (also the subject of a new Hollywood movie). Scientists speculated that in the future, say 200-500 years from now, we will travel to and live on Mars, just the way people traveled to the New World some centuries ago. Since, according to Fisher and other psychologists, men are from Mars (and women arent), Im surprised they dont suggest that we solve our gender differences by sending men back to their home planet and leaving women to get on with running this one. Z