Alternet has an extremely long piece exploring the mysteries of the female body. “Why do Women Orgasm?” by David Barash (mega-alpha-dog in evolutionary psychology) and Judith Eve Lipton asks a bunch of questions that are actually interesting, such as why evolution favored menstruation, menopause, and female sexual pleasure. Unfortunately, they don’t provide any answers that struck me as particularly new. Some of the sillier ideas come from Desmond Morris’ oeuvre, such as his theory that breasts served as ersatz buttocks, sending a sexual signal to newly bipedal males, and ultimately facilitating missionary-style intercourse and emotional attachment. The more interesting theories, such the grandmother hypothesis, are familiar to anyone who’s read Natalie Angier’s Woman: An Intimate Geography. (Angier also lustily debunks the breasts=buttock theory.)
So I scanned five pages of nothing new under the sun – only to arrive at this non sequitur of a conclusion:
We note that there are also “male mysteries.” But for some reason they aren’t as sexy or as prominent as their womanly counterparts. Some of these perplexities include: Why are men so much hairier than women? And, paradoxically, why are they also more prone to go bald? If penile size doesn’t matter, why is it so widely considered — at least by men — to be important? Why do men have shorter lifespans than women? And why are they so notoriously reluctant to ask directions? In view of the fact that in most species males are the fancy, colorful sex, why are male Homo sapiens so drably ornamented compared to women? And — most profound of all — why do men’s underpants have that little trapdoor when no one uses it?
(Read the whole thing here, if you’re looking to kill some time. My emphasis.)
Okay, so they’re trying to be cute, joking about trapdoors and using that trusty old cliche about men refusing to ask directions. But geez, can we retire the idea that only Woman is mysterious? Can’t we move beyond Freud’s famous – and pathetic – question, “what does woman want?” The “eternal feminine” died circa 1969 at the hands of early women’s liberationists. Women are uniquely “mysterious” only because they’re seen as objects, not subjects, and because they’ve been defined as bearers of The Sexay.
If the “male mysteries” aren’t “as sexy or as prominent” as women’s, then I guess Barash and Lipton are saying that the penis is neither sexy nor prominent. Sorry guys, I dunno what your experience has been, but I beg to differ. When you compare the human penis with other primates’, it’s pretty darn prominent by comparison, and that’s true whether it’s soft or erect. “Penile size” may not be as crucial as many men believe, but it’s still fascinating to many women. (Susan Bordo does a great job of exploring that fascination in The Male Body; she’s a philosopher but her analysis is anything but, um, dry.)
And not sexy? Harrrrumph! That’s only the case if you believe that women aren’t interested in looking. This is bunk. According to Ms. Naughty (not the most academic source, but reliable on this score), it was Alfred Kinsey who found women to be unresponsive to visual stimuli. More recent research has laid this stereotype to rest:
Researchers from the Stanford University School of Medicine in California found that women became fully aroused within two minutes of watching a sexually explicit film – faster than the average man. Twenty female volunteers aged between 20 and 30 were each shown a 22 minute erotic clip featuring two different hetero couples having sex, while their breathing and genitals were monitored. It didn’t matter whether the clips had sound or not, the women still became aroused. The results were published in 2003 in the journal “Fertility and Sterility.”
Mary Roach reports similar findings in her book, Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex. Of course, physiological arousal – throbbing loins and heaving breasts – isn’t the same as being turned on in one’s mind, and most porn fails many women (me too) on that score. But that doesn’t invalidate the larger point.
There’s nothing wrong with mystery. There’s nothing wrong with sex being a little mysterious. There’s nothing wrong with scientists trying to solve some of those mysteries. What’s not so great? Confining the mystery to only one sex.
Mystery is linked to being desired – not to being a subject who lusts and yearns. As long as only women can be mysterious, it reinforces the most hackneyed stereotypes of heterosexuality, where men do the looking and desiring, while women, as mere objects of desire, are expected only to react to men’s advance – and then only on the third Saturday of the month while hoping for expensive jewelry and/or a baby in return.