What do women want? Sex researcher explores mysteries of female desire
Canadian sex researcher Meredith Chivers is overturning assumptions about women's sexuality.
Female sexual desire has often been misunderstood in the past, says Chivers.
"We're expecting women's sexuality to behave like men's," she tells The Current's Anna Maria Tremonti.
"And the more research I do with my team here in Kingston and my collaborators around the world, we realize that it's not."
"The models of male sexuality that have predominated for decades don't fit and ... we need to do the science to understand how women's sexuality is unique."
We need to do the science to understand how women's sexuality is unique.- Meredith Chivers
The director of Queen's University's sexuality and gender lab has gained international recognition for her studies revealing some of the mysteries of desire.
Chivers' research touches on everything from women's arousal and sexual orientation, to consent and sexual difficulties.
One of the main findings from her research is that heterosexual women — who report only being turned on by men — have sexual responses when exposed to sexual images of both men and women.
"Perhaps that has the capacity to shift their ability to become turned on by women," she says, adding that they don't yet have the science to support that theory.
Pleasure for heterosexual women
The other reason heterosexual women may be aroused by images of women is that straight sex may not be that rewarding for straight women.
Chivers says it's well known that straight women are less likely to experience sexual pleasure and orgasm during penetrative sex with men.
"For exclusively heterosexual women, unfortunately the status quo is very low rates of experiencing sexual pleasure with their male partners," she explains.
On the other hand, queer women are much more likely to experience pleasure, says Chivers.
"And so perhaps ... they've had more and more experiences of being attracted to and sexual with women that are then paired with pleasure. And this might then shape their sexual responses to be greater to female than male stimuli."
Simply just seeing sexual activity was enough to activate women's sexual response systems.- Meredith Chivers
Chivers' studies have also shown that women's bodies may show signs of sexual response when exposed to counterintuitive images — including non-consensual sex and even videos of bonobo apes having sex.
"Simply just seeing sexual activity was enough to activate women's sexual response systems," she says.
The female body's physical responses
And those research findings have been comforting for some sexual assault survivors who have reached out to Chivers about her work. She says some report experiencing symptoms of sexual arousal — like lubrication and increased blood flow to the genitals — and they may be troubled by that.
But Chivers says those physical responses are in no way a sign of consent. Instead, it may be akin to someone salivating at the sight of food, even if they're not hungry.
"Perhaps what's happening physically is a very automatic kind of response that is preparing women's physical body for sex, whether it's wanted or not," she suggests.
"I have had several women reach out to me and express gratitude at the reframing of this idea that it wasn't their body betraying them, but it was their body protecting them."
Listen to this segment at the top of the web post.
This segment was produced by The Current's Kristin Nelson.