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Researching Human Female Sexuality

Greg Downey, writing on the blog Neuroanthropology, has a lengthy commentary on a New York Times Magazine article exploring the research on (and the researchers who study) human female sexuality. Naturally, such a complex human behavior is going to take pages to explore, and the NY Times Magazine article does just that.

But the blog commentary by Downey is nearly as long and, in many ways, far more interesting because it calls into question why we’re asking such silly, simplistic questions in the first place: “What do women want in a mate?”

The answers, of course, are intrinsically complicated and layered, just as all human relationships are. And the answers, too, will be completely bound by the type of questions researchers ask:

The irony is that, with such a tangle, the conclusion is foreordained: women will seem enigmatic, inconsistent, and irremediably opaque. As I’ll suggest in this, I think that the conclusion is built into the way the question is being asked. If a similar question were asked about nearly any group, in nearly any domain of complex human behaviour, and then a simple single answer were demanded, the questioner would face nearly identical frustration.

And if we keep recycling the same old, tired and worn-out theories about human sexuality, it’s likely more research into the question isn’t really going to provide any new data, but rather just continue giving us disjointed bits of virtually useless conclusions:

This is the reason that, although it’s great to hear that sexologists studying female arousal are carving out some important research results, I kept seeing some very tired old interpretive frameworks being prematurely introduced. For example, a couple of times Bergner threw in the gratuitous ‘evolutionary’ explanation that men are ‘programmed’ by evolution one way, women another (although this tendency was not NEARLY so bad as some of the other research on human sexuality we’ve discussed, and for that we’re grateful; see Chicks dig jerks?: Evolutionary psych on sex #1). At another point, we got the ‘female narcissism’ explanation for the fact that some women seem to be stimulated by the sense that they are desired more than a desirable object itself.

Fair enough, we can bring it whatever interpretation fits the data, but it seems to me that if women’s desire is really a ‘giant forest’ that is poorly understood, and if the data is multiple and contradictory, it’s likely that any blanket statement (‘Women just want to be desired.’ ‘Women only feel desire after they feel intimacy.’ ‘Women just want money.’ ‘Women use sex to get love.’) will always be inadequate. Some of the older models of an essential female sexual identity contain a partial truth, or they wouldn’t even seem plausible, but they aren’t the simple answer to the simplistic question, ‘What do women want?’

I completely agree with Downey. While I understand the attractiveness of pursuing an article topic of this nature (“What do women want?”), there’s no way you can provide an answer based upon our current research or theoretical framework.

It’s Sunday, so if you have some time on your hands, a read of the original New York Times Magazine article and then of the Neuroanthropology blog commentary is worth your time if you’re interested in this sort of topic. I found both enjoyable and interesting reads, but for entirely different reasons.

Read the Neuroanthropology blog commentary: What do these enigmatic women want?

Read the New York Times article: What Do Women Want?

Researching Human Female Sexuality

John M. Grohol, Psy.D.

Dr. John Grohol is the founder of Psych Central. He is a psychologist, author, researcher, and expert in mental health online, and has been writing about online behavior, mental health and psychology issues since 1995. Dr. Grohol has a Master's degree and doctorate in clinical psychology from Nova Southeastern University. Dr. Grohol sits on the editorial board of the journal Computers in Human Behavior and is a founding board member of the Society for Participatory Medicine. You can learn more about Dr. John Grohol here.

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APA Reference
Grohol, J. (2018). Researching Human Female Sexuality. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 27, 2020, from
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Last updated: 8 Jul 2018 (Originally: 25 Jan 2009)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Jul 2018
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