About a dozen people have sent me this gushing Salon review of Daniel Bergner’s book.
In the interview, Bergner makes two of the (dozen or so) mistakes I’ve devoted this blog to correcting.
(1) Sex is not a drive. I’ll write about that another time (you can read about that here if you aren’t familiar with this tidbit and want to know more.)
And (2) Genital response is not desire. Meredith Chivers would NOT say anything like, “the physical responses, registered in the plethysmography, really might well be a measure of being turned on, being in a state of desire.”
This is a big one. Chivers’s work has been misrepresented more or less universally in trade books – Sex at Dawn, for sure, and also in Brooke Magnenti’s “Sex Myth.” Indeed, the whole a-woman’s-genitals-are-more-honest-than-she-is thing is a zeitgeisty thing lately, with Alain de Botton saying that genitals are “unambiguous agents of sincerity.”
But it’s incorrect. Simply incorrect. And also wrong, in every sense.
Here’s how it actually works, according to my best understanding of the research:
Your sexual excitation system (SES) is constantly engaged in the scanning the environment for sexually relevant stimuli, which causes it to send “Turn on!” signals down to the peripheral nervous system (e.g., your genitals). That’s simple enough, and it tells us why a woman’s body may display physical arousal even when shown something as marginally sexual as videos of monkeys mating. “Sexually relevant,” says SES. “Go.” Genital response.
And at the same time, you sexual inhibition system (SIS) is also busily engaged in noticing all the very good reasons NOT to be aroused.
“Desire” comes along when (a) SES activation crosses some threshold of awareness, which is different depending on the sensitivity of that system, and (b) all the OTHER brain systems involved agree that sex would be an interesting and non-problematic thing right now. Your sexual inhibition system (SIS) needs to DE-activate, your stress response system needs to be calm, your attachment system very often needs to be engaged in its forward pull toward attachment an object, your overall wellness needs to meet some baseline criteria – how sleep deprived are you? are you starving for nutrients? dehydrated? can you really afford to shift your attention toward something as luxurious as sex right now? should you not be saving your energy for something more immediate to your own (and your existing offsprings’) survival?
When all of these things align, desire happens.
Arousal first. Then desire.
Some people – and more men fall into the “some” than women, though plenty of people don’t follow that basic population-level trend – shift to desire under a very wide range of combined motivational states. Some people require quite a specific range of motivational states – low stress, high attachment, low SIS activation, high SES activation – before they begin to feel that delicious pull toward something sexually appealing. These are the responsive desire folks.
Arousal comes first. Before desire. Genital response is not desire.
Thank you for listening.