I was just talking about this with a group of students last night: Your genitals don’t know how you feel.
How is sex a great lie detector? asks Alain de Botton (author of the new How to Think More About Sex) in Psychology Today.
Involuntary physiological reactions such as the wetness of a vagina and the stiffness of a penis are emotionally so satisfying (which means, simultaneously, so erotic) because they signal a kind of approval that lies utterly beyond rational manipulation. Erections and lubrication simply cannot be effected by willpower and are therefore particularly true and honest indices of interest. In a world in which fake enthusiasms are rife, in which it is often hard to tell whether people really like us or whether they are being kind to us merely out of a sense of duty, the wet vagina and the stiff penis function as unambiguous agents of sincerity.
As I’ve discussed several times, what a person’s body (and in particular a woman’s body) is doing is not necessarily an indication of their mental state. This is generally known among researchers (though there is debate still about the extent to which it’s really different between men and women – my dissertation advisor pointed out that erection is NOT a perfect indicator of arousal in men) and not controversial, though it hasn’t found its way into the mainstream conversation about sex.
(I hope that will change when my OWN book is published – I have an entire chapter about arousal and non-concordance.)
So, it’s untrue that genitals are a “lie detector.”
But I would go further and say that it is DANGEROUSLY untrue.
Why would I say that?
Because it says that a person’s genitals know more about whether or not they’re enjoying an experience than the person themselves does. So if a 13 year old boy gets an erection sitting at the back of a moving bus, does that indicate more honestly than his painful embarrassment that he’s turned on by buses? If a woman’s vagina lubricates during an experiment when she’s shown images of chimps copulating, does that indicate more honestly than her reported non-interest that she’s aroused by chimp sex?
And, more than anything, if a woman says “NO” but her vagina is wet, is her vagina saying yes? Is she a “liar”?
The idea that “Her vagina is wet, therefore she likes it,” is dangerously untrue.
I will illustrate with two examples, both true:
During the summer after my first year in college, I went home and hung out with my best friend from high school – I’ll call her Amanda. We spent a bunch of time talking about sex, since both of us had experienced a lot of new things since the last time we saw each other the previous fall.
Amanda told me this story about a guy she had been seeing for several months, with whom she was experimenting for the first time with power and domination:
“I let him tie my wrists above my head while I was standing up, and he positioned me so that I was straddling this bar that pressed against my vulva. And then he went away! He just left for a while and it was totally boring, and when he came back I was like, ‘I don’t like this.’ He looked at the bar and he looked at me and he said, ‘Then why are you wet?’ And I was so confused because I definitely wasn’t into it, but my body was definitely responding.”
And I didn’t know what to say. Because, like everyone who has ever read a sexy romance novel, I knew that wet = aroused. Desirous. Wanting it. Being “ready” for sex. So what could it mean that my friend’s body was saying one thing and her brain was saying something else?
This wasn’t sexy yes-but-no like in romance novels, where the heroine really does want the hero but insists that she “shouldn’t;” Amanda really just didn’t feel turned on or desirous at all. What was going on?
The question haunted me, and I didn’t learn the answer for years.
It came in time for me to help my sister. Her husband (who is a really, really nice guy whom I like a lot and who has generously given permission for me to tell this story) takes the pleasure of his partner seriously (this is a very good thing), and he was concerned that she wasn’t getting wet. She would say, “I’m ready, I’m turned on, I want it!” and he would accuse her of pretending to be aroused to placate his ego.
She called me.
“I have a sex question for you. Would that gross you out?”
“Okay, so when we having sex, I don’t always get wet when I’m turned on, and I don’t know why. Am I broken? Should I see a doctor? Is it hormonal? what’s wrong?”
“Oh I see. Yeah, this is actually a really common problem. The genitals know not what the mind wants.”
“Some women’s bodies just don’t responding with arousal in a way that matches their mental experience. Nothing’s wrong, your body just isn’t communicating accurately. Tell the man to listen to your words, not your fluids, and also buy some lube.”
“Really? I’m not broken?”
“Nope. Not broken. Perfectly normal.”
“Totally. It’s nice that he’s worried about your arousal, but he can quit worrying and just listen to you.”
So. If you read this, could you please tell everyone you know that a vagina is not an “unambiguous agent of sincerity”? It’s a reproductive canal. It can’t be sincere anymore than your elbows can be sincere.