It has gone on since Sigmund Freud flippantly replied to a question by one of his female followers about the motivation of women: “The great question that has never been answered, and which I have not yet been able to answer, despite my 30 years of research into the feminine soul, is, ‘What does a woman want?’”
The mystery of what women want continued to be a mystery—until now.
Recent research by Meredith Chivers, a psychology professor at Queens University in Kingston, Ontario, Canada,at last provides an important clue as to why previously nobody has been able to answer that question, at least when the question is focused on sexuality.
In her study, she had a group of subjects—mostly straight males and females, plus a few gay males and females—watch a short movie of apes mating. She also showed them clips of heterosexual sex, male and female homosexual sex, a man masturbating, a woman masturbating, a physically fit man walking naked on a beach and a toned woman doing exercises in the nude.
She attached a plethysmograph to their sexual organs to measure their arousal to the various clips they watched. She also asked them to report on their arousal. She then compared their reports to their actual, measured, physical arousal. In the case of men, their reports were almost always synchronized to their measured physical arousal. Men reported being aroused by heterosexual sex, two women having sex, and women masturbating, and their measured response indicated the same.
The men’s minds and genitals were in agreement.
For women, their minds and genitals were not in agreement. No matter what their self-proclaimed sexual orientation, they showed, on the whole, strong and swift genital arousal when the screen offered men with men, women with women, and women with men. The also responded markedly as they watched the apes mating. This is what the plethysmograph found about their arousal.
However, to a great extent, their minds were not in synch with their sexual organs. This was particularly true of straight women. The readings from the plethysmograph and their subjective reports were hardly in sync. During shots of lesbian coupling, heterosexual women reported less excitement than their sexual organs indicated; watching gay men, they reported a great deal less; and viewing heterosexual intercourse, they reported much more than their measured arousal indicated.
What the research by Chivers shows is that the reason we don’t know what women want (particularly with regard to sexuality and, by extension, with regard to relationships) is because they themselves don’t know what they want. There was a distinct difference in the experiment on what women reported and what the plethysmograph measured. This is another way of saying that there was a difference between the conscious and unconscious minds of women subjects.
I have observed this in my therapy practice.
For example, I have sometimes encountered a woman proclaiming that she detested a man. This man may have been a husband of a girlfriend who smiled at her in what she described as a “smug” or “leering” manner. She would proclaim to me, to her girlfriend, or to anyone who asked, how much she detested this man. However, these women usually come to realize that they had formed a reaction formation towards these men.
A reaction formation is a defense mechanism by which people convince themselves that they have the opposite feeling or attitude than the one they actually have. Usually this is because the feeling or attitude they actually have is considered taboo. In the cases described above, the women’s reaction formation eventually gave way to the recognition that, in fact, they felt aroused by the man in question.
I have also noted that historically women have been less prone to admit sexual attraction toward a man than a man is toward a woman. Perhaps this is because women have more at stake in a sexual interaction with a man, such as the risk of becoming pregnant. Perhaps it is due to the perceived power imbalance between the sexes. However, this reticence by women to admit sexual attractions may be changing.
The studies by Chivers underscores this dichotomy between a woman’s conscious and unconscious mind, which, according to her study, was greater than the dichotomy between a man’s conscious and unconscious mind, at least in regard to sex.
“I feel like a pioneer at the edge of a giant forest,” Chivers said of her attempt to understand the workings of women’s arousal and desire. “There’s a path leading in, but it isn’t much.”
Fortunately, through this type of research we are much closer to answering the question that has frustrated Freud and many other researchers for years.