Feb 132013

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.

He answers:

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.

Oh dear.

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?”

“Nope. Shoot.”

“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.

Emily Nagoski

  56 Responses to “dangerously untrue in Psychology Today”

Comments (53) Pingbacks (3)
  1. “and in particular a woman’s body”

    Feel free to quit doing that anytime. You’re perpetuating the “women are especially mystical whereas men are simple” myth. And I’m pretty sure you don’t intend to do that.

    physical responses to some stimuli or other, doesn’t reliably indicate anything in anyone, regardless of gender, women are not “particular” in this, it’s something that’s equally true for both genders.

    • Great article, I’m glad to hear a critical view of de Botton’s pet theories about sex. I’d like to raise the same point as agrajag; just because my cock is hard doesn’t mean I WANT to have sex, even if I’m physiologically aroused. The reverse is true, I can be super turned-on but not be hard; I love anal play but it’s nearly impossible to maintain an erection while getting it in the ass.

      I’m a guy, I get erections all the time, in every imaginable place, every time I sleep; even when I’ve got the flu and I wouldn’t even want to touch myself. Cocks whenever they damn well feel like it, and it’s usually just plain annoying if you’re in a meeting or on the bus. Yes, that is a banana in my pocket, thank you very much.

    • Okay hang on: Did you read the whole post? Like where I say that it’s true for men as well, or how I use gender neutral pronouns a lot, or when I use a male example to illustrate (the same bus example from http://www.thedirtynormal.com/2012/12/08/non-concordance-for-dudes-feedback-please/), or when I say that there’s scientific debate about how different men and women really are on this? Is it perpetuating a myth to use inclusive language, use males as an example, and discuss how complex and evolving the science is?

      It is possible to report a population level difference (replicated in multiple studies) between two groups, while also discussing all the above caveats and complications, without perpetuating a myth. I believe I have done that here.

      • You should reread your own post. You haven’t. People keep telling you over and over that they way you make generalizations about gender differences is problematical and yet you persist in doing it. You really need to be a lot more careful when discussing average aggregate gender differences because it is such a highly charged and so often misunderstood and manipulated concept. See:

        • I *really* want to respond productively to your comment, but the “you should reread your own post” beginning just gets all my hackles up. Can I ask that in the future you comment a little more, ya know, like, nicely? “Should” is a pretty unhelpful word. In the meantime, I’m going to reimagine your comment as “If you reread your own post, I think you’ll find that your generalizations about gender differences are problematic.”

          To which I can only repeat that I’m well aware that many folks feel bruised by the way culture represents gender differences, that I have learned a lot from writing the blog about how to talk about it effectively (http://www.thedirtynormal.com/2013/01/18/eureka-solving-the-different-for-girls-problem/), and that I’m always looking for better ways to talk about population-level gender differences in a way that respects the science and the reader equally.

          At the same time, this is an issue that’s directly related to sexual assault and other forms of interpersonal violence, which are profoundly gendered – women are massively, disproportionately (though far from exclusively) targets for sexual violence, and in my view it’s therefore appropriate to pay extra careful attention to female bodies with regard to this issue. We’re all the same stuff, organized in different ways, and those differences in organization give rise to some pretty creepy and dangerous things (see Irene’s comments above).

          • You’re right and I apologize. I typed too fast before actually thinking about how that tone would come across. I will try to do better in the future.

            The thing is, I believe the idea that “women are massively, disproportionately (though far from exclusively) targets for sexual violence” is actually untrue. I was just reading some really interesting statistics about that last week: http://www.feministcritics.org/blog/2009/01/05/can-women-rape-men-rp/

            The reason we think disproportionately more women that men are raped is that a huge category of sexual violence against men isn’t defined as rape. As mentioned in my comment further down this thread, I once bought into the idea that “erection = consent” and as a result I had sex with someone who was telling me no. It took me something like 6 years to figure out I had committed sexual violence and another 2ish years after that to be willing to call it rape. And if you look at the statistics provided in the above linked article it sounds like the kind of experience I had is actually quite common – between 25% and 50% of incidents, depending on which type of statistic you go by. In light of that it seems to me that it’s not helpful to privilege the experiences of women in these kinds of discussions.

        • I’m one of the people who’s criticized Emily in the past for that kind of thing, but I think she did a pretty good job this time. What I have had a problem with in the past is her stating something in such a way that it misrepresents her own opinion as far more gender-essentialist than it is. This post, I think, represents the nuances of her position much better, as far as I understand them.

      • Yes. I read everything you wrote. Twice. Carefully. Yes I understand “population level differences” very well. Let’s have a look at what you actually said, and why I think you’re being gender-essentialist, and indeed dangerous.

        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)

        My opinion: A wet vagina is in practical terms completely useless as an indicator of willingness or arousal. A erect penis is also in practical terms completely useless as an indicator of willingness or arousal. Thus in practical terms, there is zero difference between the genders.

        You, instead say that this is “in particular” true about a woman’s body. In other words, it’s an (unspecified amount) less true about a mans body. An erection is *better* as an indicator for willingness or arousal than a wet vagina is. Is this really your opinion ? That there’s a practical difference, and that penises are more dependable indicators than vaginas ? Your advisor points out that a penis is “not a perfect” indicator. But there’s a FUCKING HUGE difference between “completely useless” and “not perfect”. The vibe I get from this is that a vagina is completely useless as an indicator while a penis is, according to your advisor, “not perfect” i.e. there’s a *big* and *significant* population-level difference.

        So I’m going to ask straight. Is it your opinion that there’s a significant difference and that an erect penis is a better indicator than a wet vagina ? If so: Citation, please.


        Even if there -is- a significant difference (which I sincerely doubt), is the difference *useful* ? Is the message you’re sending *safe* ? We have a woman on this thread admitting that she raped a guy, because she believed his erection was a indication that really, he wanted it, despite saying no. Is claims that womens vaginas are especially unreliable (i.e. more unreliable than penises) *helpful* or *harmful* in such a context ?

        women are massively, disproportionately (though far from exclusively) targets for sexual violence, and in my view it’s therefore appropriate to pay extra careful attention to female bodies with regard to this issue.

        Paying “extra careful” attention to females, or in other words paying less attention to males. You’re saying it’s appropriate to pay less careful attention to the consent of men, because they suffer sexual violence more seldom anyway, so who cares if you should thereby add to that statistic.

        Think about what you’re saying here. “Men are raped more seldom, so if you’re having sex with a man, you don’t need to pay careful attention.”

        We’re *individuals* If both I and my partner suffered sexual violence zero times, why do I need to pay more careful attention to her consent than she needs to pay to mine ? It’s okay to pay less attention to my consent because my *gender* is guilty of more sexual assaults ? My rights to have consent respected are lessened because I’m a member of the group “men” ?

        Would the safe and sensible message not instead be to play close attention REGARDLESS of the gender of your partner ?

        Might it not be that, instead of what you wrote, you actually agree with me that in practical terms both the penis and the vagina are completely useless as consent-indicators or arousal-indicators, and thus that in the real practical world, there’s zero difference between the genders in this area ?

        • The meta-analysis to which I linked in the post found a substantial gender-based difference in concordance of arousal. At the POPULATION LEVEL, penile erection is more strongly correlated (.66 in the meta-analysis) with perceived arousal than is female genital response (.26). There is a meaningful POPULATION LEVEL DIFFERENCE. As I say over and over on the blog, population level differences have no straightforward relationship with INDIVIDUAL LEVEL EXPERIENCE, but that doesn’t make the population level difference meaningless.

          • From your own link:

            Some researchers argue that this gender difference can be attributed to the type of method used to assess genital responding in women. There may be a difference in women’s ability to perceive internal versus external genital engorgement subjectively, as measured by vaginal photoplethysmography (VPG) and thermography respectively. Chivers and colleagues[50] found that men’s and women’s concordance was more similar when thermography was used as a measure of genital sexual arousal than when VPG was used.”

            I’m not as convinced as you seem to be that males are all that much more concordant than females. My suspicion is that the main difference is that erections are much more noticeable both for others and for the men themselves than are modest amounts of increased bloodflow and/or lubrication for women and those around them.

            But much more important than that quibble is the context.

            You’re talking in a practical context. You gave practical examples; a man experimenting with tying up a woman on a bar, and erroneously believing that she must be into it, because she was wet, despite her own experience being that it was boring.

            In such a practical context, there’d be the same danger if the roles where switched, and the female assumed that the male must find something arousing because he has an erection.

            I hope we can agree that in a practical context, when you’re actually having sex with someone, you should definitely NOT assume that she must like it only because she is wet. And you should definitely NOT assume that he must like it only because he is erect. Making either of those two assumptions is infact harmful and potentially dangerous.

          • I haven’t said anything at all in this conversation about CAUSES of concordance or non-concordance, and obviously (I hope it’s obvious!) there’s no implication that these differences are “innate.” There is an interesting little collection of research on body awareness and women’s sexuality which has some suggestive things to say about non-concordance, but those suggestive things do not include “she’s aroused, she’s just not AWARE of being aroused,” like when a woman exhibits physiological response to images of chimps copulating. The suggestive things are more along the lines of developmental processes from birth to adolescence. But that’s like 40 other blog posts right there.

          • To concretize my critique of the meta-analysis: It’s plausible that the men in the studies noticed their penis being (more or less) erect, and as a result of *that* said that they feel aroused, while some of the women in the studies failed to notice increased bloodflow to their vagina and/or increased lubrication, and thus reported that they’re not aroused.

            Because some of the people in studies likely *also* believe the myth that “your body don’t lie”, thus when you ask them “on a 1-10 scale, how arousing do you find this picture” some of them may very well adjust their answer upwards or downwards because they notice (or fail to notice) their bodily response to the stimuli.

            I think women would more easily fail to notice their own response, compared to men.

  2. >>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.

    Bam. That is a hell of an ending.

  3. I hope you write to de Botton to correct him! Dangerously untrue, indeed.

  4. Of course, one must assume that the woman in question is going to be both honest and forthcoming about her arousal (if she’s even aware of it at all) for that to work. Considering the amount of dissembling, innuendo, and multi-track communications involved in the average seduction, and in light of the nature of (most) women’s responsive desire, attempting to accurately ascertain whether or not his wife is “truly” aroused just because she says she is (or doesn’t say, when she is) proves to be a minefield of emotional and relational stress most husbands have to navigate. This can lead to a profound sense of frustration, especially if the woman in question has given reason in the past for him to doubt her sincerity.

    While vaginal moisture, like an erection, is not a foolproof method of determining arousal in your partner, it’s a far better indicator of arousal than, say, the state of her elbow.

    • We’re not talking about “the average seduction” here though – we’re talking about an established long-term pair of married partners. They should hopefully have somewhat of a better rapport than a pair of strangers who met at a bar. If she’s telling him “sometimes I’m turned on when I’m not dripping wet” he should believe her – it’s well within the realm of regularly occurring physiological responses.

      • “They should hopefully have somewhat of a better rapport than a pair of strangers who met at a bar.”

        Unfortunately, all too often, they don’t. Indeed, in my experience the sexual disconnect that often happens after marriage is compounded by communications failures about attraction and arousal. Not all wives are forthcoming and honest about their arousal – essentially not feeding the appropriate message to their husbands – setting the poor husband up for one humiliating rejection after another because he misconstrued her communication about her arousal.

        Men who know Married Game know to recognize other signs of female arousal, and act accordingly; but a man who pays more attention to what his wife says than what she does is going to step on this landmine over and over again. That leads to mutual frustration, dissatisfaction, waning attraction and fading interest, and eventually dissolution.

        And, of course, the idea that seduction skills are unnecessary after marriage is just kind of silly. It’s that kind of thinking that often leads to these miscommunications in the first place.

        • “a man who pays more attention to what his wife says than what she does”

          You’re still managing to completely miss the point; getting wet is NOT something she DOES – she had no control over it. It is something that happens to her. What she says IS in fact more reliable than some non-voluntary physiological response. It’s not perfect but it’s WAY better.

          • Again, IF a man can trust his wife to be completely honest about her arousal and response. And I’m not speaking exclusively about vaginal moisture, here – there are other very clear signs of arousal that are far more visible, and are more likely to give you a better barometer. Men have died of old age waiting for their wives to tell them “Yeah, I’m ready now!”

          • But the example Emily gives is THE EXACT OPPOSITE of this – his wife was telling him she wanted to have sex with him and he was not believing her because she wasn’t wet enough. Should he then “die of old age waiting” for her to meet your definition of physically aroused and ignore her words because physical signs are just so much more reliable than words?

            If someone’s physical appearance and their words seem to you to be add odds the answer is neither to ignore their words and just follow the physical signs OR to “die of old age waiting” – it’s to talk to them about it until you understand why the apparent mismatch is there and understand them better. And if you aren’t willing to do that, geez, don’t get married. Understanding people does actually take a bit of work but it’s not THAT difficult.

    • I’m struggling to be polite here, but sorry Ian Ironwood – both your posts are really freaking *creepy*. Like major ‘rape alarm bells going off in my head’ creepy.

      What does the state of a woman’s elbow (which, yes, I get is just a random example) have to do with *anything*? Yes, vaginal lubrication might be more accurate in gauging a woman’s arousal than her, for eg. elbow, but do you know what’s an even more accurate way to gauge arousal than elbows and lubrication? Asking the woman in question!! But apparently in your head, that wouldn’t work. It’s either elbows or vulvas/vaginas?? A woman can’t use her words to tell you what she wants, you have to somehow divine it from her body? *Why*, when you can just ask, “honey, are you turned on? Would you like to be turned on?” and etc.

      But according to you, that question wouldn’t work, because women so often don’t know whether they’re aroused or not, or confuse their husbands on purpose, and do “married game” (or is that a book or something? I sure as hell hope so and not what it sounds like)? Like this – “Of course, one must assume that the woman in question is going to be both honest and forthcoming about her arousal…” and this “…given reason in the past for him to doubt her sincerity…” Because bitchez be lyin’, amirite, Ian?

      How about this, Ian; if a couple can’t talk openly about their arousal and sexlife, if there are doubts about sincerity, and trust issues and so on, a husband *should not* just assume, “oh, well she’s wet so she must want it” and have sex with her. That way lies rape.
      There should be no, “wet is a good enough indicator – better than an elbow anyway, and definitely more reliable than asking her so lets just do it”, because, that path? Leads to rape.

      This hypothetical couple of yours, with their inability to communicate honestly, the trust issues, the resentment on the husband’s side of things etc, well, they sound like they need to work on their communication and trust issues rather than the husband blindly and resentfully trying to “…recognize other signs of female arousal, and act accordingly…” Because essentially *guessing* when your partner is aroused is not going to help or fix anything. It’s just going to create more problems in the relationship. A lot more.

      “…pays more attention to what his wife says than what she does…”
      Jesus H Christ on a popsicle stick. That is so incredibly rapey I am in shock. Where do you think that whole disgusting rape trope of “She was saying ‘no’, but her body was saying ‘yes’ ::wink wink::” comes from?! Good job with the rape apology there, Ian. ::spits::

      • I hope you are investing all this thought and energy because it helps you practice thinking through and articulating your point of view, because you certainly won’t persuade Ian of anything. From what I’ve seen in his posts here, he is simply not capable of seeing the link between his point of view and rape culture. I don’t think its’ deliberate blindness; I think it’s lack of ability. He has a very specific set of beliefs that simply make it invisible, and we can point to it forever and he’ll never see it.

        • Actually, Emily, I find the feminist insistence on terms like “rape culture” to be outrageously provocative, misandrist, and condemning of male sexuality in general.

          In point of fact, I’m very familiar with the feminist point of view on “rape culture”. I was an adherent for years, until I realized that it was essentially a way for women to unfairly demonize men, masculinity and male sexuality. Such terms have done incredible damage to the already-staggering male-female dynamic in this culture, and managed to alienate a whole subset of men who would otherwise be sympathetic to some feminist perspectives.

          So Emily it’s not that I don’t have the ability or capacity to change my mind . . . the fact is, I’ve already changed it. When good men can be tarred with the brush of rape simply for enjoying their sexuality without shame, then the origin of such misandry loses credibility. I used to be one of feminism’s most sterling adherents. Its telling that I am not now.

          When feminism stops denigrating men and masculinity, we’ll start listening again.

        • Thanks for the heads up, Emily :) I don’t expect Ian to get anything from my replies to him, but maybe a lurker will get something out of them. And you’re right, it does help me sort through and refine my own opinions :)
          BTW, I love your writing and I’ve learnt an enormous amount from you, so thanks for blogging!
          ::Fingers crossed this reply goes in the right place. Nested comments do not like my phone::

      • Melissa, the problem with your perspective is that it a) denigrates male sexuality by calling it “creepy” and b) ignores the pragmatic considerations of people who are actually married, in actual sexual married relationships, very few of whom actually understand how their own (much less their partner’s) sexuality works. You can bash the culture all you want, but while you debate ideals and question motives, consider that marriages fail in the context of the culture they’re in . . . and in our culture, the actual fact of the matter is that women in aggregate are not, indeed, forthcoming about their sexual state of arousal with their husbands.

        You may disagree, but hundreds of hours of observing one troubled marriage after another has convinced me that it is extremely common for a woman NOT to communicate such things in the mistaken idea that if her husband doesn’t somehow understand implicitly and completely exactly how she wants to be approached, seduced, and loved, he doesn’t in fact love her. Meanwhile, the husband is one poor, confused schmuck who is trying desperately to parse out his wife’s highly mixed signals. If he makes the wrong choice one way, he leaves his wife bitter and frustrated, thinking he doesn’t love her enough. If he makes the other wrong choice, he gets accused of marital rape. It would be nice to live in a world where such communication issues weren’t commonplace, but then it would be nice to live in a world where you could, as a man, have a frank conversation about sex without being accused of being “rapey”.

        The academic approach to being a sex nerd is invaluable, don’t get me wrong. But real people have to live in real relationships where they have to really try to have real sex without pissing each other off all the time. The feminist approach to sex and mating Emily is espousing is helpful, but it’s like trying to do Algebra using only x, when half of the equation is y.

        Because the simple fact is if women want better sex from men, then they have to talk to men, not at them, appreciate male sexuality for what it is (and not what you would like it to be) and take male values and perspectives into account. And regardless of whether or not you decide to do that, know that men are starting to do that on our own, with you or without you.

        • Well a good start would be not to talk about “men’s sexuality” and “women’s sexuality” as if they were monolithic non-overlapping things. Each person has their own INDIVIDUAL sexuality. You treat your partner as a person and not a stereotype and you will get a LOT further toward understanding them.

          Saying that ignoring a person’s words in favor of believing their wet pussy and hard nipples is creepy isn’t calling “men’s sexuality” creepy. Because that’s not actually what most men do. If you actually think that a fundamental part of men’s sexuality involves being “poor confused schmucks” then it sounds to me like you’re the misandrist one. I think most men are decent folks who can listen and converse and learn and will still screw up sometimes but will apologize and get over it and move on. Just like most women.

          • Yet science and academics is based on just those sorts of generalizations, used in order to establish general rules and and a baseline context for observation. While it’s true that every individual has an individual sexuality, it’s also true that male and female sexuality can be viewed and generalized upon in aggregate.

            I’m not suggesting you treat your partner as a stereotype. I’m suggesting that relying on their veracity about their feelings alone, on the principal that you are both in an honest, open, and loving relationship (when in fact most relationships do not fit this description) in order to determine their level of arousal is a foolish thing. Due to the different communication styles men and women have, and the complexities of negotiating such feelings in an intimate relationship, it is a far better strategy for a man to understand and observe the non-verbal arousal cues in a woman than to rely on her being forthright and honest about the matter, especially in light of responsive sexuality and the cultural issues involved..

            And your conclusion about male sexuality is flawed, if you think the majority of dudes out there AREN’T poor, confused schmucks. If we weren’t, we wouldn’t be seeing 50% of marriages fail. We’d see men making well-informed decisions about their mating and reproductive strategies, not the bitter frustration being voiced in regards to their female contemporaries.

            Most men are decent folks . . . but this adherence to “decency” is part of what has led to the current dysfunctional state of masculinity in our culture. When their own decency is used against men and their interests as consistently as it is at the moment, it’s time to re-evaluate our social priorities and obligations . . . just as women did theirs in the 1960s. Men’s willingness to listen, converse, and learn was used as leverage against them as they were grossly misinformed about the realities of the mating world, leading to two generations of poor confused schmucks clueless as to appropriate social roles while at the same time being taught to loathe their own masculinity.

          • Until you start treating men with respect I am not going to converse with you any longer.

    • Here is a good rule of thumb –

      If someone says ‘yes’, but you have your doubts as to whether or not they actually mean it, you may question them to make sure they really mean yes.

      If someone says ‘no’, take it for an answer.

  5. What I think is what the fucking-with-earwax-for-lube heck is Psychology Today doing letting a self-described “philosopher and writer” have a column about anything? Last month he had an op-ed in the Wall St. Journal about how the male brain, “brain originally designed to cope with nothing more tempting than an occasional glimpse of a tribesperson across the savannah,” no less, is incapable of processing internet porn, let alone “a group of half-naked teenagers sauntering provocatively down the beachfront.” And concluding with the following recommendation that “[a] portion of our libido has to be forced underground, repression was not just for the Catholics, the Muslims and the Victorians, it has to be with us for eternity.”

    He includes the usual “to be sures” and “it’s more complicated than thats” but by and large he’s either trying to be provocative or else he’s taking his cues from Wendy Shalit’s argument for neo-Victorian feminism.

    But really? He lost me at “savannah.”

    So anyway, let’s just say he can claim that erections and lubrication are irrefutable and immutable “signs” of readiness for sex with the exact same authority with which he can make claims about men on the “savannah.” I.e. nothing, zero, none.


    Not to blur post topics or anything here but Psychology Today’s decision to provide a platform for clowns like “evolutionary psychologist” Satoshi Kawazana or his evident successor Alan de Button is exactly the sort of thing that a) drives people like me insane and b) drives people like Ryan and Jethá to write counter-polemics like Sex at Dawn.

    Do us all a favor and dissect de Botton’s book as thoroughly as you have S@D. I haven’t read the thing yet but I can almost guarantee his rapist-supporting contention that “erections and wet vaginas don’t lie” isn’t even going to be the least true or most dangerously wrong thing he puts in it. With far less support from “science.” And with far more pretense that such support exists.


    • It’s friggin’ Psychology Today, a.k.a. the place that used to be Kanazawa Central. I have no idea why anyone takes them seriously (not criticizing you, Emily — they still need to be called on their shit).

      And de Botton — oh, lord, it’s not fair to make jokes on people’s names (I’m sure there are other de Bottons who are perfectly nice), but I swear in his case that’s French for “out of butt” (as in “guess where I found this slightly used savannah”).

      Incidentally, I remember a novel by Norma Klein (not one of her young adult books, though some of those were fairly frank about sex as well) that mentioned the phenomenon of lubrication not always matching arousal — Give Me One Good Reason. (If anyone else is like me and gets Klein’s titles all mixed up, this is the one with the single pregnant scientist who goes into labor while dressed like Santa Claus for the Christmas party at her lab. And yeah, it’s a lot of fun, at least as I remember it.)

  6. Also “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.”

    I was dead serious when I said this is giving direct aid and support to rapists? Because that whole “if you didn’t really want this you wouldn’t be hard/wet” is one of the big guns in abusers and rapist’s bags of psychological tricks. (Tip for de Button: try Googling “arousal and sexual assault.” Asshole!)

    One result that pops up early on is from something called the Pandora Project (my italics.)

    A sexual response or orgasm in the course of sexual assault is often the best-kept and most deeply shameful secret of many survivors. If you are such a survivor, it’s essential that you know that sexual response in sexual assault is extremely common, well-documented and nothing for you to be ashamed of.

    And it isn’t just about you and the way your body responded either. It may also have been one of the repertoire of dirty tricks rapists use to get their victims to feel responsible. Diana Russell writes that “Some rapists think they’re lovers” and tells us:
    (These rapists) think that if a woman is stimulated in ‘just the right way’ she will enjoy it. The conquest may seem more important if the rapist believes he has turned the woman on physically, particularly if it is against her will. Getting the victim to respond physically may also alleviate the rapist’s guilt feelings.

    Or regarding erections, from a site for recovering male victims called Living Well (my italics)

    People who sexually abuse boys and men often use their knowledge about male bodies to deliberately cause an erection and/or ejaculate to occur. They do this because they know it is extremely confusing and embarrassing. They might also do it to try and convince both the person being abused and themselves that what is happening is not really abuse. Whatever the reasons, ultimately they know that if the boy or man was aroused, they might be less likely to tell anyone about the abuse due to feelings of shame and embarrassment.

    In that context de Button’s choice of the words “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)” (my italics) are just beyond horrifying and right up there with encouraging, endorsing, and maybe even celebrating sexual violence.

    Maybe he’s too stupid to understand. Maybe he thinks he thinks he’s being “edgy” and contrarian. Maybe he’s trying to rationalize his own prior victimization. Or perpetration! But one way or another it’s not funny either that he said it, that his editors passed on it, or especially that Psychology Today (of all people!) published it!!!

    Sweet Mother of Pearl!


    • Yes, when I first saw it I got as mad as you. I waited to write about it until I could be calmer. I tend to get myself in trouble when I posts while angry.

    • And he’s got marital rape in there, too. “Moreover, against a background of permanent possibility, an unwillingness to have sex may be seen as a far graver violation of the ground rules than a similar impasse in other contexts. Being turned down by someone we have just met in a bar is not so surprising or wounding. Suffering sexual rejection by the person with whom we have pledged to share our life is much odder and more humiliating.”

      I live in a state that still has (not for long, I hope) a spousal exemption clause for third-degree rape. This is not an academic issue.

  7. Does this also mean we may see the end of using the method of showing an accused male child molester pictures of young girls while being hooked up to a device to indicate whether he gets hard or not to convict him? I would hope so but somehow I doubt it..

    • er.. please tell me this kind of ‘evidence’ is not used as the basis for conviction. I would like to hope that society isn’t that far gone.

  8. I can very much relate to that second example. With a new partner I make enough lubrication to fill a shot glass. With an establishes one I sometimes don’t make any of my own lubrication until I HAVE AN ORGASM. I learned a while back though that my brain associates being wet with being turned on pretty well though so if I reach for the artificial lube I won’t only appear to be more turned on – I actually WILL BE more turned on.

    I think one important difference to be drawn between female-lubrication and erections is that erections go away much faster. Like, if you stop being turned on the erection can (it doesn’t always but it can) deflate pretty fast. But the lubrication that was produced doesn’t dry up immediately. So that girl tied up on the bar might even have been legitimately turned on for the first 5 minutes after he left but then gotten bored and sore and was no longer in the mood by the time he got back, but the lubricant produces in the first few minutes was still there. I’m not saying she was, I’m just saying it can happen.

    Also, “erection = consent” is a pretty dangerous myth and it’s one I bought into when I was younger. I wrote about this recently on a friend’s post about consent and how we talk about it. http://cos.livejournal.com/108721.html?thread=1303985&style=mine#t1303985

    • And based on 1st, 2nd, and 3rd hand experience it’s also can be the case that no erection doesn’t mean not aroused. For some men some of the time, and almost all men sooner or later, the darn things aren’t up when you really, reallly, really want them to be.

      All of which just goes to show it would be an insult to sheep to call this guy de Button a mutton head.



    • And of course the same’s true of women’s lubrication as they age as it is of men when we do. As Christa says it’s not uncommon for natural lubrication to arrive after orgasm and sometimes not even then. So sheesh!


  9. Maybe this is TMI, but here’s my anecdotal evidence if vaginal lunrication not always matching the brain. When I go from a warm building out into the cold, I quite often “get wet”. That is, my vagina secretes discharge. Guess what I am emphatically *not* turned on by? Going out in the cold!
    I’ve never asked if this happens to anyone else (does it??) but the best I can figure is that all the sensitive mucus membranes go to work to prevent chapping or something. I mean, my nose also inevitably starts running when I go out in cold weather.
    (Contrast this to going out in lovely warm weather in a nice floaty skirt and feeling the breeze between my thighs which are just covered with that pretty, thin layer of cotton – that’s arousal! Same effect, way different causes.)

    • Huh. I’ve never noticed that, but it could be. And hey, you probably got erect nipples from the cold, too. ;-) (to speak of another thing that has an only-sometimes-and-even-then-it’s-complicated relationship with arousal)

      • A old line from a lady comic: “I’m supposed to buy that sweater when it can’t even keep a mannequin warm?”

  10. Ian – I second everything Christa says here, and add that I’m not calling ‘men’s sexuality’ creepy, I’m saying that what *you* said is creepy. Because it was. For example, you said that what a person says and thinks isn’t as important as a physiological reaction they have no control over. *That a person’s involuntary physiological reaction should be more valid evidence than what they think.* That’s creepy, and enormously triggery and offensive to sexual assault survivors.
    If our culture isn’t encouraging couples to talk about their desires etc openly, Ian, then the answer is obviously to change the culture so that people *do* feel comfortable talking to their partners openly about sex and desire. To work towards facilitating honest communication, not to complain that these scary complicated women don’t know what they want (conveniently forgetting/ignoring that throughout history and up until relatively recently, women’s desire has been treated as non-existent/an illness/unimportant, and thus many/most women have been implicitly taught by our culture that their sexuality is not to be trusted, irrelevant compared to a man’s, or inherently broken) and the poor dumb men are so confused (*that’s* more misandrist than anything I said).
    People need to know how to Use Their Words – and superficially, at least, you seem to agree with that, Ian.
    Where we disagree is that my focus is on how to change the current culture, which minimizes women’s desires and discourages open, honest communication, and you… Well, you just seem to want to complain about how women don’t ever know what they want, and it’s ever so confusing for their poor frustrated husbands.
    Ian, You’re Not Helping.
    (Although in light of what Emily said, I very much doubt you really want to facilitate open communication within couples. I think you just enjoy complaining about how poor ol’ men are so hard done by, having to deal with those craaazy womenz.)

    • Ugh and whoops- my comment @10 was meant to be beneath Christa’s comment timestamped 02/15/2013 at 12:48 pm.

    • *That a person’s involuntary physiological reaction should be more valid evidence than what they think.*

      More accurately, “A person’s involuntarily physiological reaction is often a more accurate indicator of their state of arousal than the content of the words that come out of their mouth.

      The problem here is that you are conflating what people “should do” or “should be able to do” and “what people actually do”. I agree, people should be free to talk about their sexuality freely, openly, and without fear of judgement from their partner. That’s an ideal. One that is rarely met. Far more frequent is the issue that some elements of sexuality are discussed within a relationship, but when it comes to just this very subject, communication breaks down utterly, feelings get hurt, and the differing reactions of men (in aggregate) and women (in aggregate) to this breakdown too often lead to serious issues that affect the couple beyond the bedroom.

      Wishing and working toward a culture where sexuality can be freely discussed like this may be an admirable goal and a noble ideal, but that’s not how the vast majority of relationships work. “Using Your Words” is a lovely and only-slightly-condescending principal, but as too many husbands have discovered in their relationships, when words say one thing and actions say another, conventional wisdom states that a woman’s actions are a far more accurate reflection of her real feelings about a subject (including her own arousal) than the multi-tiered, context-dependent, subtlety-laden world of feminine communication.

      But the bigger question, Melissa, is this: you say I’m Not Helping.

      I’m not helping . . . whom?

      I’m not helping men work against their own interests. True. I’m not helping women tear down male sexuality and denigrate masculinity. True. I’m not helping feminism overcome the patriarchy and rape culture. True. (That’s because I believe the terms “patriarchy” and “rape culture” are inherently misandrous and incorrect). And I’m not helping facilitate the idea that a healthy female sexual culture can thrive when it openly ignores male sexuality, yet expects male sexual culture to conform unquestionably to it. True.

      I can take that hit.

      Finally, in spite of the repeated attempts to bait me into some sort of masculine rage that “proves” your point, I have quite calmly and cogently discussed every issue without resort to invective. If I just want to complain about women, that’s unlikely to be enough motivation to fuel such dedication . . . and it’s unproductive, besides. I haven’t called anyone names, or questioned their sanity or judgment, I haven’t bashed a soul or been tempted to get personal despite the repeated mischaracterizations of my position. My very presence here should be evidence of my desire to facilitate open communications between couples, and between genders. The problem is, “couple” implies two, and (most of the time) one half of that couple is male. Those males, while not monolithic, do have common interests and issues when it comes to sexuality. The current feminist sexual model of serial monogamy/hyerpgamy is, for example, at odds with some very basic male values. Feminism doesn’t want to acknowledge that — or even the legitimacy of “male issues and interests” – lest it succor the patriarchy or something.

      But issues surrounding sexuality, attraction, arousal, and — yes — consent are all extremely foremost in the minds of most men in our culture, just not in the same ways as they are for women. And if you do — as Emily says — want to talk to men, even liberal men, about their sexuality (or sex in general), then you have to be willing to take the realities of male sexuality as they are, not the idealized version of what you’d like them to be. We don’t have sex in a perfect world, nor between two perfectly honest and emotionally aware people most of the time.

      Feminism’s approach to the subject has left a huge swath of deeply scarred men in its wake, regardless of its intentions, and left men in general deeply skeptical about “using their words” when it comes to relationships now, particularly if they are with a feminist. Dismissing us, and our concerns, as crazy, uneducated, illogical, the result of emotional instability or based on some sinister purpose because you do not understand them is clearly as insulting and derogatory as dismissing feminine concerns as “hysteria”. And failing to address our concerns is already having a dramatic effect on our society, if you’ve been paying attention.

      I suppose it all depends on whether you want to change the culture with men, or change it against them.

      • Settin’ up the straw men and knockin’ ‘em down! None of the things you say you’re “not helping with” are things anyone here actually says should be done.

        The problem is, “couple” implies two, and (most of the time) one half of that couple is male. Those males, while not monolithic, do have common interests and issues when it comes to sexuality.

        You should ask some same-sex couples sometime if they always have perfect communication because they share the same genitals. Pretty sure you’ll find the answer is they don’t. As I said in another comment, communication takes actual effort (but it’s not THAT hard) and it is certainly not helped by falling back on stereotypes and generalizations – you need to communicate with the actual specific person you’re partnered with, not a straw-man or straw-woman.

  11. I’m so sorry that so many people were offended by the lines published in Psychology Today. I’d like to assert that the lines were meant only in one very specific context: a loving consensual relationship. As soon as they are applied to a situation of rape, they become grotesque – which they were never intended to be. So I do apologise and share your concerns. It’s another example of the need to get the full story before delivering a verdict. If any of you would like to discuss the matter further, please feel free to contact me on twitter @alaindebotton

    • Hi Alain! You’ll notice that my sister and my high school friend were in loving, consensual relationships but their genitals did not agree with their states of mind. So while I agree that without that context, the idea of genitals as a lie detector is grotesque, even WITH that context it’s still untrue and can result in hurt feelings, confusion, and wondering if someone involved is broken or lying or both.

    • ” It’s another example of the need to get the full story before delivering a verdict.”

      Er, precisely. Although I’m afraid that’s not what you meant.

    • In addition to what Emily said about loving consentual relationships not erasing the problem I think it’s important to add that the perception of what counts as a “loving consentual relationship” is often not clear to all parties. Something that starts out as a loving consentual relationship or even just a friendly consentual encounter quickly turns into a non-loving non-consentual encounter if one of the participants clearly expressed wishes are ignored in favor of physical signs of apparent arousal. And even if those physical signs actually DO mean arousal, the person still might have reasons for not wanting to act on that arousal with that particular person at that particular moment.

    • It’s not that your views are offensive (though they are), it’s that they are demonstrably wrong. So wrong, in fact, it’s like you did absolutely no research whatsoever before making your claims.

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.