motivation: a pretty girl is like a pretty girl

This is a post about stimuli. It’s about all the things that turn you on and all the many more things that don’t.

I’ve mentioned before that men prefer the novel within a limited range of stimuli while women prefer the familiar, but can learn to adapt to a vast range of stimuli.

You’ll notice I’m NOT saying, “Men like X and women like Z.” That’s only partly because I avoid gender dichotemies when I can. Mostly it’s because there is no such thing as “what men like” and “what women like.” In the most technical sense, there are no innate stimuli.

Oh. So what the fuck does that mean, Em?

I’ll tell you.

Studies of non-human animals (like rats) show that animals need to learn what’s sexually relevant. Even a receptive female rat is not innately appetitive to a male rat; he needs to grow up around receptive females in order to learn that receptive females are sexy.

(There is one possible exception in humans: it’s possible (but by no means certain) that the sight of women’s genitals is innately appetitive for heterosexual men. Technically, this could be tested, but I wouldn’t want to be the one trying to convince a human subjects ethics committee that it’s a good and important idea to attach a strain gauge to the penises of newborn infants and then show them pictures of vulvas.)

No innate stimuli, okay. And now we’re at the so-what stage.

Why is it important that sexual appetitiveness is LEARNED rather than inborn? And what, Emily, what about all that stuff you said before about waist-to-hip ratio and other cues of fertility and health? Huh? What about THOSE?

Well, that’s the weird thing. There are reliable things that we (and other animals, within species) consider appetitive once we get to be adults. Rats wouldn’t get far, as a species, if the males didn’t reliably come to find receptive females sexy. So what’s the deal?

Things get very technical at this point – more technical than I can explain or even fully understand – but the short, superficial version of the story is this:

Traits like, say, preference for .7 WHR, aren’t selected for, per se. Instead, what gets selected for is the developmental process that gives rise to that preference within the environment in which an individual develops. (Or, if you’re Richard Dawkins, what gets selected for is the gene or set of genes that represents that developmental process that gives rise etc etc.)

Hardly any rat that survives to adulthood grows up without seeing (and, more importantly, smelling) a receptive female. So why bother evolving a mechanism that knows that receptive females are sexy when you can instead evolve a mechanism that is cheaper, faster, and more adaptable to other functions, like a mechanism that can LEARN that receptive females are sexy? Dig?

It’s only when we humans separate rats from their environment of evolutionary adaptedness (EEA) that we discover the mechanism doesn’t work without that environment.

Christ only knows (and I use that phrase only in the loosest, most speculative and literary way) what’s happening with the sexual preferences of humans living so far removed from our EEA that we have sex toys, pornography, and angst. It seems that some things are functioning fairly reliably, like the WHR stuff, the cues of health, that stuff. What seems to be messier and less reliable are cues to social status and constructed images of nubile women – women who don’t exist but who APPEAR to exist and meet and exceed every standard of attractiveness.

A problem for another day. Also a problem for another day: sexual orientation. It’s a different and TERRIBLY complicated issue.

What I want you to remember here is that the “sexually relevant stimuli” to which SES responds are not “hardwired” in the sense that they’re there spontaneously in an organism regardless of where it grows up. If sexually relevant stimuli are in any way hardwired (and I’m convinced that some of them are, in this other, special way), it’s insofar as they result from the developmental process of a human growing in an environment in which those stimuli are learned – and learned EARLY. In the case of boys, who have a more stereotyped set of sexually relevant stimuli, these stimuli seem to be established by the time the boy gets through the initial phases of puberty.

Needless to say, it’s different for girls. Females have more plastic, adaptable responses; nearly anything can become sexually relevant through experience.

(And it interests me strangely, Jeeves, how this works for trans folks, pre- and post-hormones. I’d guess that FTM folks experience a stereotyping of cues for desire, though not to the extent of biological men, as they get more and more T, but that MTF folks KEEP their stereotyped cues for desire. Of course there’s like NO research on that. One of you go do that research and let me know, okay?)

So neat, eh? No innate sexually relevant stimuli!

I can’t think of any practical implications for this bit of knowledge, other than as yet another one of those tidbits to share at parties. Just be careful, as talking about sex at parties can apparently lead the listener to think you’re open to the idea of sex with them.