“Women Are Never Straight” – Researchers

galali10A new study looking at what women find sexually arousing has found that their response can be classified as either bisexual or homosexual, but never totally heterosexual. At least, that’s what the UK Telegraph and I Fucking Love Science are saying.

Because I’m lazy, I’m just going to quote IFLS, which sums up the research nicely:

This new study, led by Dr. Gerulf Rieger from the Department of Psychology at the University of Essex, asked 345 women of varying sexual orientations to watch a series of videos featuring sexual content. At the same time, their biological responses were measured, including their pupil dilation and their genital response (pulse and blood flow).

The subjects were women ranging in age, educational background, and ethnicity. They were asked to place themselves on a sexual spectrum scale, identifying themselves as either “straight,” “mostly straight,” “bisexual leaning straight,” “bisexual,” “bisexual leaning lesbian,” “mostly lesbian,” or “lesbian.”

The results indeed found that women who identified as heterosexuals were, on average, strongly aroused by videos of both attractive men and women. In contrast to this, self-identified lesbians exhibited a far stronger response to women than men, which the researchers likened to the responses of heterosexual men: both groups show proportional levels of attraction to their self-identified sexual orientation.

The study itself is available here. To join the site you’re supposed to be an academic. I half-filled out the form and was given access to the full thing (hooray!) so if you’re keen to read the text, say you’re an “other” researcher and see if the glitch works for you too.


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The abstract of the study says:

Studies with volunteers in sexual arousal experiments suggest that women are, on average, physiologically
sexually aroused to both male and female sexual stimuli. Lesbians are the exception because they
tend to be more aroused to their preferred sex than the other sex, a pattern typically seen in men. A
separate research line suggests that lesbians are, on average, more masculine than straight women in their
nonsexual behaviors and characteristics. Hence, a common influence could affect the expression of
male-typical sexual and nonsexual traits in some women. By integrating these research programs, we
tested the hypothesis that male-typical sexual arousal of lesbians relates to their nonsexual masculinity.
Moreover, the most masculine-behaving lesbians, in particular, could show the most male-typical sexual
responses. Across combined data, Study 1 examined these patterns in women’s genital arousal and
self-reports of masculine and feminine behaviors. Study 2 examined these patterns with another measure
of sexual arousal, pupil dilation to sexual stimuli, and with observer-rated masculinity-femininity in
addition to self-reported masculinity-femininity. Although both studies confirmed that lesbians were
more male-typical in their sexual arousal and nonsexual characteristics, on average, there were no
indications that these 2 patterns were in any way connected. Thus, women’s sexual responses and
nonsexual traits might be masculinized by independent factors.

One of the study’s authors is J. Michael Bailey who, if you check out his Wikipedia page, is not a stranger to sexual controversy (the “fucksaw” shenanigans being his most famous). So perhaps it’s not surprising that the research is being presenting in a shitstirring way. This is not the first time he’s studied women’s reactions to porn. Way back in 2002 at Northwestern University he conducted a similar bit of research, showing 29 women erotic video and measuring their reactions via a vagina probe. His results were similar – women tended to become aroused no matter what type of porn they were viewing. I wrote about this research in this 2006 post.

Another author is Dr Meredith Chivers, who has also done a lot of work on women’s arousal. I wrote about her work in 2008 when she suggested that women weren’t turned on by naked men. A quote by Dr Chivers in the New York Times closely resembles this latest research:

What really matters to women, Dr. Chivers said, at least in the somewhat artificial setting of watching movies while intimately hooked up to a device called a photoplethysmograph, is not the gender of the actor, but the degree of sensuality. Even more than the naked exercisers, they were aroused by videos of masturbation, and more still by graphic videos of couples making love. Women with women, men with men, men with women: it did not seem to matter much to her female subjects, Dr. Chivers said.

“Women physically don’t seem to differentiate between genders in their sex responses, at least heterosexual women don’t,” she said. “For heterosexual women, gender didn’t matter. They responded to the level of activity.”

Dr. Chivers’s work adds to a growing body of scientific evidence that places female sexuality along a continuum between heterosexuality and homosexuality, rather than as an either-or phenomenon.

With that original 2002 study I was very interested in exactly what porn the subjects were shown. I’m wondering if the same question applies in 2015, when today’s younger women are used to seeing a wide variety of pornography and their tastes may have adapted. The “stimuli” used in the 3 studies were typically 30 second videos showing male or female masturbation, or couples, some of it gay, some of it straight.

In any case, it would seem that the multiple studies do point to women’s easy and varied arousability. Whether that can then be turned into labels about who is queer or straight is another issue. Who you are turned on by mentally is one thing, but who you choose to physically fuck is another.

Here I want to quote Anna Pully in NYMag, who approached the whole thing with a good dose of humour.

Another kink in the study’s “never straight” conclusion is that we are all culturally conditioned to sexually objectify women. It’s practically our part-time job, and its disastrous ramifications have been linked to substance abuse, body shame, eating disorders, and even poor math performance in women. It wouldn’t be all that surprising then if women saw yet another image of an attractive woman dry-humping a hamburger (or equivalent stimuli) and her genitals responded accordingly, even if — EVEN IF — she did not actually want to have sex with a woman, or a sandwich.

* Image is of Gala and Liandra from their scene at BrightDesire.com