What Do Women Want?: Adventures in the Science of Female Desire - Daniel Bergner (2013)

Chapter 2. Bodies and Minds

Chivers traced her love of collecting data back to her father, a Canadian Air Force colonel. With a master’s in the field of human factors engineering, he created efficient cockpits for fighter jets; he studied reaction times to signals and how best to arrange a plane’s controls. He taught her a reverence for the empirical. He plucked up a rock and told her about geological formations; he uncovered earthworms and talked about the aeration of soil. When the weekly TV section arrived with the newspaper, she underlined all the science shows. For her pet hamsters, she built mazes out of cardboard boxes. She settled on an optimal reward—the smell of peanut butter, she discovered, was too pervasive and confusing, so she used vegetables—and ran experiments to learn whether the nocturnal rodents functioned more effectively and found a route to the food faster at night.

Down in her father’s basement workshop, she learned to build under his watch and made a fridge with tiny wire hinges and a horse stable to go with the dollhouse he fabricated. She was entranced by the way things—inanimate and animate—fit together and operated; by college she was studying neuroscience, devoting herself to biophysics and biochemistry, when a friend suggested she enroll in something easy, a sexuality class. Six hundred students filled the lectures. One day the professor was showing slides. A vulva appeared. The ridges and folds of female genitalia, in tight close-up, took over the screen. Disgust consumed the hall, a massive expulsion of “Eeew!” that Chivers heard mostly from the women. A close-up of a penis caused no horror, no gasp, from anyone.

Back in high school, for a group of male classmates, Chivers had sketched the vulva’s anatomy, a map to help the boys in finding the clitoris. Now, surrounded by the women’s voluble wincing, she thought, This is the way you feel about your own bodies?

After the lecture course, she enrolled in a sexuality seminar. She gave a presentation on women’s problems with orgasm; she played a video of a woman in her sixties talking about a new partner, a late awakening. She led an electric discussion and left the room elated, but she couldn’t conceive of any career dealing directly with sex, besides being a sex therapist, which she didn’t want. Sticking with neuropsychology, she wound up doing a thesis experiment that added to fledgling evidence: that homosexual men perform less well than heterosexuals on a type of test involving three-dimensional shapes, just as females, on average, perform less well than males.

This bit of undergraduate research wasn’t very politic. It fell within an area of science that is fiercely debated, mostly because of its signs that there are certain differences in intelligence between women and men due not to culture but to genes. Yet Chivers didn’t much care about the politics; she was gazing at an intriguing nexus: between gender (the skill discrepancies between women and men at rotating three-dimensional shapes in their minds), desire (the similar discrepancies between gays and straights), and aspects of neurology that might well be innate. After graduation, she begged her way into an assistant’s job at the Toronto lab that would later, after she got her doctorate, contain her cramped chamber with its La-Z-Boy and plethysmograph; it is part of one of Canada’s most prestigious psychiatric teaching hospitals. When she arrived at the age of twenty-two, she was the only woman on the floor. Male sexuality was the sole focus of the science being done, and one day she asked the oldest researcher, Kurt Freund, an eighty-one-year-old icon in sexology, why he never turned his attention to women.

Bald, with a bladelike nose and oversized ears that seemed to be sly instruments of detection, Freund, a Czechoslovakian psychiatrist, had been hired by the Czech military half a century earlier to catch conscripts who were trying to escape service by pretending to be homosexual. He’d developed a male version of the plethysmograph. This was long before a female equivalent existed. A glass tube was placed over the penis with an airtight seal around the base of the shaft. Images were shown. A gauge determined air pressure and marked the swelling. If, with a Czech draftee, the pressure didn’t rise when Freund showed provocative pictures of young men, the conscript was headed into the army.

Freund didn’t make a career out of hunting homosexuals. Early on, he tried to cure gays through psychoanalysis; eventually he called in his patients and gave their money back. Arguing that homosexuality arose from prenatal biology rather than upbringing, and insisting that it could not be treated, he fought Czech laws that criminalized gay sex. After he fled communist rule and settled in Toronto, his vision of male sexual orientation as permanent—and being gay as nothing like a sickness—helped to convince the American Psychiatric Association, in 1973, to strike homosexuality from its list of mental disorders.

Like all the researchers at the Toronto lab, Freund highlighted the inborn scripting of desire. Nurture was in constant interplay with nature, but it wasn’t a fifty-fifty partnership. Answering Chivers, he asked a question of his own: “How am I to know what it is to be a woman? Who am I to study women when I am a man?” His words put her on the far side of a divide—a chasm, in his view. For her, they laid down a challenge. There were experiments to be constructed, data to be compiled, deductions to be distilled, results to be replicated. She imagined one day drawing a map that would capture female eros. “I feel like a pioneer at the edge of a giant forest,” she said, when we first spoke. “There’s a path leading in, but it isn’t much.”

In her sense of quest, there were echoes of Sigmund Freud, of his words to Marie Bonaparte almost a century ago. A great-grandniece of Napoleon, she was one of Freud’s psychoanalytic disciples. “The great question that has never been answered,” he told her, “and which I have not yet been able to answer, despite my thirty years of research into the feminine soul, is, What does a woman want?”

While they watched the clips of erotica, Chivers’s subjects didn’t just wear a plethysmograph; they also held a keypad. On this, they rated their own feelings of arousal. So Chivers had physiological and self-reported—objective and subjective—scores. They hardly matched at all. All was discord. And this dissonance resonated loudly with findings from other researchers.

Women with women, men with men, men with women, lone men or women masturbating—Chivers’s objective numbers, tracking what’s technically called vaginal pulse amplitude, soared no matter who was on the screen and regardless of what they were doing, to each other, to themselves. Lust was catalyzed; blood flow spiked; capillaries throbbed indiscriminately. The strength of the pulsings did hold a few distinctions, variations in degree, one of them curious: the humping bonobos didn’t spur as much blood as the human porn, but with an odd exception. Among all women, straight as well as gay, the chiseled man ambling alone on the beach—an Adonis, nothing less—lost out to the fornicating apes. What to make of such strangeness?

There was some further discrimination on the part of the lesbians. Over the series of studies Chivers did—to be sure her data were no fluke—they were a little selective; amplitude leapt more during videos starring women. Yet the lesbians’ blood rushed hard during scenes of gay male porn. When Chivers analyzed the evidence, transmitted from vaginal membranes to sensor to software, when she set it out in graphs of vertical bars, the female libido looked omnivorous.

The keypad contradicted the plethysmograph, contradicted it entirely. Minds denied bodies. The self-reports announced indifference to the bonobos. But that was only for starters. When the films were of women touching themselves or enmeshed with each other, the straight subjects said they were a lot less excited than their genitals declared. During the segments of gay male sex, the ratings of the heterosexual women were even more muted—even less linked to what was going on between their legs. Chivers was staring at an objective and subjective divide, too, in the data from the lesbians: low keypad scores whenever men were having sex or masturbating in the films.

She put heterosexual and homosexual males through the same procedure. Strapped to their type of plethysmograph, their genitals spoke in ways not at all like the women’s—they responded in predictable patterns she labeled “category specific.” The straight men did swell slightly as they watched men masturbating and slightly more as they stared at men together, but this was dwarfed by their physiological arousal when the films featured women alone, women with men, and, above all, women with women. Category specific applied still more to the gay males. Their readings jumped when men masturbated, rocketed when men had sex with men, and climbed, though less steeply, when the clips showed men with women. For them, the plethysmograph rested close to dead when women owned the screen.

As for the bonobos, any thought that something acutely primitive in male sexuality would be roused by the mounting animals proved wrong. The genitals of both gay and straight men reacted to these primates the same way they did to the landscapes, to the pannings of mountains and plateaus. And with the men, the objective and subjective were in sync. Bodies and minds told the same story.

How to explain the conflict between what the women claimed and what their genitals said? Plausible reasons swirled. Anatomy, Chivers thought, might be one factor. Penises extend, press against clothes. Visibly they shrink and shrivel. Boys grow up with a perpetual awareness; male minds are used to being fed information from their groins. A sexual loop between body and cognition, each affecting the other, develops; it runs fast and smooth. For women, more covert architecture might make the messages less clear, easier to miss.

But were the women either consciously diminishing or unconsciously blocking out the fact that a vast scope of things stoked them—stoked them instantly—toward lust?

The discord within Chivers’s readings converged with the results of a study done by Terri Fisher, a psychologist at Ohio State University, who asked two hundred female and male undergraduates to complete a questionnaire dealing with masturbation and the use of porn. The subjects were split into groups and wrote their answers under three different conditions: either they were instructed to hand the finished questionnaire to a fellow college student, who waited just beyond an open door and was able to watch the subjects work; or they were given explicit assurances that their answers would be kept anonymous; or they were hooked up to a fake polygraph machine, with bogus electrodes taped to their hands, forearms, and necks.

The male replies were about the same under each of the three conditions, but for the females the circumstances were crucial. Many of the women in the first group—the ones who could well have worried that another student would see their answers—said they’d never masturbated, never checked out anything X-rated. The women who were told they would have strict confidentiality answered yes a lot more. And the women who thought they were wired to a lie detector replied almost identically to the men.

Because of the way the questions were phrased—somewhat delicately, without requiring precise numbers, Fisher told me, in deference to the conservative undertone she sensed on her satellite campus—the study couldn’t pinpoint rates of masturbation or porn use; yet, she went on, it left no doubt as to the constraints most women feel about acknowledging the intensity of their libidos. When Fisher employed the same three conditions and asked women how many sexual partners they’d had, subjects in the first group gave answers 70 percent lower than women wearing the phony electrodes. Diligently, she ran this part of the experiment a second time, with three hundred new participants. The women who thought they were being polygraphed not only reported more partners than the rest of the female subjects, they also—unlike their female counterparts—gave numbers a good deal higher than the men.

This kind of conscious suppression could well have distorted the self-reports of Chivers’s straight women, but had it insinuated itself with the lesbians? Many of them might have adopted a stance of defiance about their sexuality—wouldn’t this have lessened any impulse toward lying? Maybe, though with these women another sort of restraint could have been at work: the need for fidelity to their orientation, their minority identity.

Fisher’s research pointed to willful denial. Yet, Chivers believed, something more subtle had to be at play. In journals she found glimmers of evidence—unconfirmed, insubstantial, like so much that she wished she could rely on, build on, as she attempted to assemble sexual truth—that women are less connected to, less cognizant of, the sensations of their bodies than men, not just erotically but in other ways. Was there some type of neural filter between women’s bodies and the realms of consciousness in the brain? Something tenuous about the pathways? Was this especially the case with sexual signals? Was this a product of genetic or societal codes? Were girls and women somehow taught to keep a psychic distance from their physical selves? Deep into our seven-year conversation, Chivers spoke bluntly about the congenital and the cultural, about nature and nurture and women’s libidos. For a long while, though, she made no pronouncements. Her scientific intentions were aggressive, the stripping away of the societal, the isolation of the inherent. But she had a researcher’s caution, an empiricist’s reserve, a reluctance to declaim more than the data could support.

Fisher, meanwhile, was emphatic about the contortions imposed, the compressions enforced. “Being a human who is sexual,” she said, “who is allowed to be sexual, is a freedom accorded by society much more readily to males than to females.” Her lie detector was unequivocal.

Rebecca was a forty-two-year-old elementary school music teacher with three children. One afternoon, on the computer she shared with her husband, she discovered a picture of a woman who was plainly his lover. In all sorts of ways, this was devastating. There was the difference in age between the two women, clear to Rebecca immediately. More particularly and insidiously, there were the woman’s breasts, exposed in the photograph and, in Rebecca’s eyes, significantly superior to her own, which had shrunk, she was sure, more than most do from nursing. And then there was her sense—instantaneous—that her husband wanted the photo to be found and the affair to be found out, because he hadn’t had the courage to end the marriage and move in with the woman—who was blowing a whimsical kiss from the screen—without some mayhem to camouflage the long premeditation of his escape. Obeying a therapist’s advice, Rebecca tried not to beg her husband to stay. She lobbied through friends. She gave her husband a book about seeking spiritual fulfillment instead of chasing new love. But within weeks, she was a single mother who spent a good amount of time in front of the computer, comparing herself to the seminude picture, which she’d forwarded to her own email address.

Rebecca—who was among the women I spent my time talking with, questioning relentlessly—had a talent for self-disparagement. This encompassed everything from her body to her career. How had she wound up teaching flute and clarinet to fourth-graders and never performing herself except during the intermissions at her students’ recitals? And how, she wondered further, had she managed to corner herself into this marmish existence in, of all places, Portland, Oregon, America’s city of hipsters?

Yet her skill at self-denigration was matched by a fiery resilience. Increasingly, on her screen the image of the twenty-nine-year-old girlfriend was replaced by the home site of an Internet dating service.

Gradually she had some dates. And gradually there was a man she saw as attractive and felt was kind, and—even before they slept together—she confided, over dinner in a Thai restaurant, something that had taken her fourteen years to tell her husband. She wanted to have a threesome with a woman. The discord and dissembling that ran through Chivers’s and Fisher’s findings weren’t her issues. Why she’d waited so long to raise her desire with her husband she wasn’t certain. Yes, some shyness was involved, but she guessed it had more to do with a hunch that turned out to be prescient: he didn’t show any interest. Probably, she thought, this was because having another woman in their bed would have made a glaring reality out of his lack of interest in Rebecca herself. In any case, her date agreed that a threesome would be good. They abandoned the topic there, began sleeping together, and returned to the subject a few months later. She said that she would leave the arrangements to him.

He asked whether she had any criteria. She’d never been with a woman in a threesome or in any other way. Her wishes were specific. Hair color different from her own. Not too tall. In decent shape. White or Latina. And—a factor she’d been fixated on for years—large breasts. C-cups, at a minimum, as long as they were real.

She and her boyfriend joked that she was as male as any caricature of a man. Because he’d never done anything like this before, it took him a while, but eventually he presented her with possibilities. He showed her a photograph from a casual connections site, a woman Rebecca found herself fantasizing about right away. But the emailing with this candidate flickered, and the chance faded. They debated whether to hire an escort. Periodically during this process of false starts, Rebecca was seized by fear: what if the woman saw her as old, repellent? But her boyfriend reassured her, and her desire was louder in her mind than her worry, and as they shifted toward the idea of renting someone, she reminded herself that her own attractiveness simply wasn’t supposed to matter.

At last, with a babysitter taking care of her children, they waited at his apartment for the arrival of an escort he’d chosen from row after row of thumbnail images online. Wanting to be welcoming hosts and to soften the prostitution-like aspects of hiring a prostitute, they had lit tea candles and chilled a nice bottle of wine. When the escort rang the doorbell, though, and when Rebecca and her boyfriend glanced out the living room window, the harsher qualities of the situation became more difficult to ignore.

Despite her high price, the woman was homely and built along the lines of a lumpy block. Rebecca whispered to her boyfriend that maybe the homeliness was due to the glare of his porch light, that all would be okay once they opened the door and began. She felt relieved, meanwhile, that she wouldn’t have to be concerned about her own looks. But when they opened the door and the escort stepped quietly, even timidly, into the vestibule, with the manner more of a housemaid than a call girl, the trouble did not improve. The woman appeared to be around ten years older than Rebecca. And now Rebecca was calculating at rapid speed whether she should and could go through with this to spare the prostitute’s feelings, so that the problem was no longer how to soften the exploitation of a body but how to avoid letting this woman know that her body was unexploitable.

Rebecca all but prayed that her boyfriend would somehow solve everything. He told the escort that Rebecca had suddenly come down with something, that she wasn’t up to it, an excuse that sounded about as convincing as her fourth-graders’ explanations for not practicing their instruments, though the woman, who smiled graciously, seemed to accept the reason or, either way, to be grateful not to have to perform. He gave her some minor cash for her time, and Rebecca said good-bye in sweet tones, and she and her boyfriend went upstairs to click on his computer and stare for a few moments in befuddlement at the immense disparity between the picture and the person and to discuss the mystery of how other customers had handled this difference and whether it was a common dilemma in securing an escort and how you were supposed to prevent this from happening. “I think you just have to spend more,” Rebecca said.

So they did. The second woman was pretty and young. She, too, was at odds with her picture, but not drastically, and Rebecca immersed herself in the escort’s breasts, in her thighs, in her lips, in all the parts that had been paid for, lost herself in the textures and sights and smells, and was nearly euphoric afterward, both because, after years and years of yearning, she’d broken through the range of barriers that stood between her and another woman’s body and lost her virginity in this sense and because, leaving the breakthrough aside, there’d been such pleasure in having, among other things, the prostitute’s nipples in her mouth.

When Rebecca and I talked, she said that while she hoped for another threesome with a woman soon and might like to have a woman alone, she didn’t much think of herself as a lesbian nor really as bisexual. She had no doubt that she preferred the romantic company of men. She fantasized mostly about men, was still happily with the same boyfriend, and definitely wouldn’t want to replace him with a woman. I described Chivers’s plethysmographic readings and asked for her thoughts.

The results didn’t mean that women secretly want to have sex with bonobos, she began, laughing. And it might not be right to label most women as bi, even if lots of women, like her, did wish to have sex with women or would if they permitted themselves to know it. “It’s hard to find the right words,” she said. “The phrase that keeps coming into my head is that it’s like a pregnancy of wanting. Pregnancy’s not a good word—because it means pregnancy. It’s that it’s always there. Or always ready. And so much can set it off. Things you actually want and things you don’t. Pregnant. Full. The pregnancy of women’s desire. That’s the best I can do.”

Stranger. Close friend. Lover of long-standing.

This was the focus of a new experiment Chivers was finishing during one of my visits. The results made her pulse quicken.

It didn’t race all that often. The daily labors of her research were painstaking; her office in Kingston was about as spare as a monk’s cell. The cinder-block walls were nearly bare. Taped above her desk were a few splotches of purple and green painted by her toddler son. On the opposite wall was a small photographic triptych she’d taken of stone carvings at an Indian temple. A man, in the first image, had sex with a mare while another masturbated; a couple tongued each other’s genitals in the middle picture; in the last photo seven human figures were lost in orgiastic heat. Yet for all its drama, the triptych was miniature enough to overlook. The cinder block dominated; there was minimal distraction; she wanted it like this. She could imagine herself surrounded by what she was venturing into, the forest of female desire.

One morning at her metal desk, with a flat November light making its way through her window, she bent over her laptop, poring through plethysmographic readings she’d collected in her latest study. Her eyes tracked a jagged red line that ran across the screen, a line that traced one subject’s blood flow, second by second by second. Before Chivers could use a computer program to take the data and arrange them in a meaningful form, she needed to eliminate errant points, moments when a subject had probably shifted in her chair, generating a slight pelvic contraction and jarring the plethysmograph, which could, in turn, cause a jolt in the readings and skew the overall results. Slowly, she scanned the line with all its cramped zigs and zags, searching for spots where the unusual height of a peak relative to the ridges beside it told her that arousal wasn’t at play, that an interval was irrelevant to her study. She highlighted and deleted one tiny aberrant section, then continued squinting. She would search in this way for about two hours in preparing the data of a single subject. “I’m going blind,” she said, as she stared at another suspicious crest.

She was thrilled, though, with what her experiments were uncovering—and thrilled to belong within the “gathering critical mass,” an unprecedented female effort. The discipline of sexology, which was founded in the late nineteenth century, had always been a male domain. Even now, women made up less than a third of the membership in the field’s most eminent organization, the International Academy of Sex Research, and less than a third of the editorial board—on which Chivers served—of the Academy’s journal. So female eros hadn’t been examined with nearly as much energy as it might have been. And one of Chivers’s heroes, one of the older women in the field, Julia Heiman, the director of the Kinsey Institute at Indiana University, told me that, in addition, sexology had for many decades devoted itself more to documenting behavior than to looking into the feelings, like lust, that lie underneath. Alfred Kinsey’s work at midcentury, she said, didn’t reveal all that much about desire. He had started his career as an entomologist, cataloguing species of wasps; he was wary of delving into emotion. William Masters and Virginia Johnson, filming hundreds of subjects having sex in their lab, drew conclusions that concentrated on function rather than craving. It wasn’t until the seventies that sexologists began zeroing in on what women want rather than what women do. And then AIDS engulfed the attention of the discipline. Prevention became everything. Only in the late nineties did full-scale exploration of desire start again.

In her new experiment, Chivers played pornographic audiotapes, instead of videos, for straight female subjects. Ever meticulous, always intent on duplicating her results from alternate angles, she wanted to know, partly, whether spoken stories would somehow have a different effect on the blood, on the mind, on the gap between plethysmograph and keypad. “You meet the real estate agent outside the building. He shows you the empty apartment. . . .” “You notice a woman wearing a clinging black dress, watching you. . . . She follows you. She closes the door and locks it. . . .” The scenes her subjects heard varied not only by whether they featured a man or a woman in the seductive role but by whether the scenario involved someone unknown, or known well as a friend, or known long as a lover. There was the female friend dripping in her bathing suit at the side of the pool. There was the male roommate; there was the female stranger in the locker room. All were depicted as physically alluring, and all the salient details were kept equivalent: the pacing of the ninety-second narratives, the abrupt hardness of the cocks, the swelling of the nipples.

Once again, when all was analyzed, the gap was dramatic: the subjects reported being much more turned on by the scenes starring males than by those with females; the plethysmograph contradicted them. Chivers was pleased by the confirmation. But this time, it was something else that excited her.

Genital blood throbbed when the tapes described X-rated episodes with female friends—but the throbbing for female strangers was twice as powerful. The broad-chested male friends were deadening; with them, vaginal pulse almost flatlined. The male strangers stirred eight times more blood.

Chivers’s subjects maintained that the strangers aroused them least of all the men they heard about. The plethysmograph said the opposite. Longtime lovers, male or female, were edged out by the unknown men or women—even though the lovers were dreams, perfect. Sex with strangers delivered a blood storm.

This didn’t fit well with the societal assumption that female sexuality thrives on emotional connection, on established intimacy, on feelings of safety. Instead, the erotic might run best on something raw. This idea wasn’t completely new, but it tended to be offered as the exception rather than the rule: the raw was important to few women; it was the material of only intermittent fantasy for most. Here was systematic evidence to the contrary, the suggestion of a new, unvarnished norm.

Chivers’s work emphasized discord not only between bodies and minds but between realities and expectations, and around her, other researchers, too, were calling conventions into doubt. One was the old notion that women’s sexuality is innately less visual than men’s. Kim Wallen, an Emory University psychology professor whose hordes of rhesus monkeys I visited between my tutorials with Chivers, collaborated with Heather Rupp, his former student and a sexologist at the Kinsey Institute, in showing erotic photographs to male and female subjects. They used viewing time, down to the thousandth of a second, to measure level of interest. The women gazed at the porn no less long than the men. It seemed they were just as riveted.

Terri Conley, a psychologist at the University of Michigan, had been dwelling for years on a series of studies, done over the past four decades, affirming repeatedly that men welcome casual sex while women, for the most part, don’t. In two of these experiments, males and females—“of average attractiveness,” as the researchers described them, and around twenty-two years old—were sent out onto a college campus to proposition two hundred members of the opposite sex. Either they asked for a date, or they asked, “Would you go to bed with me tonight?” About the same percentage of men and women—50 percent or so—answered yes to the date. But close to three-quarters of the male responders and none of the females said yes to bed. The data had been used often to argue not only a vast but an intrinsic difference in the desires of men and women. Conley created a questionnaire to look at the topic in another way.

Her two hundred college-aged subjects, all of them heterosexual, were asked to imagine scenarios like this: “You are fortunate enough to be able to spend your winter vacation in Los Angeles. One day, about a week into your stay, you decide to visit a trendy café in Malibu that overlooks the ocean. As you are sipping your drink, you look over and notice that the actor Johnny Depp is just a few tables away. You can hardly believe your eyes! Still more amazing, he catches your eye and then approaches you. . . .”

“Would you go to bed with me tonight?” Depp asked the female subjects. So did Brad Pitt and Donald Trump. The males were approached by Angelina Jolie, Christie Brinkley (chosen by Conley because she wondered whether at fifty-something a woman’s age would undercut her appeal despite her extreme beauty—it didn’t seem to), and Roseanne Barr. The experiment stripped away the social expectations, as well as the physical risks, that auger against a woman consenting to have sex with a stranger. Conley’s setup left only fantasy, frequently a clearer window into desire. The subjects scored how they felt about the propositions. The women were just as avid about saying yes to Depp and Pitt as the men were with Jolie and Brinkley; the women were just as hungry, impulsive, impelled. Trump was dismissed with as much distaste as Barr.

Chivers, when she moved on to her next study, found something that complicated what she’d been seeing. But it also crystalized the raw portrait of female lust that was emerging in her work and the research of her colleagues.

A set of straight women looked at pictures of male and female genitalia. There were four kinds of photos: one with a dangling penis; another with a taut erection; a third with a demure vulva half-concealed by coy thighs. The fourth was a “full-on crotch shot,” Chivers said, with typical wry humor, of a woman with spread legs. In all four, the genitalia were tightly framed, mostly disembodied; there was little else to be seen. This time, the subjects’ blood wasn’t indiscriminate. It rushed much, much more when an erection occupied the screen than when any of the other images were on the monitor. Paradoxically, here was objective evidence that women were categorical after all. And this jibed with what Rebecca had said, that she didn’t quite think of herself as bisexual, that she felt an inescapable preference for men even as she harbored plenty of lust for women. It resonated, too, with the faint reactions of Chivers’s earlier subjects when the Adonis with the slack penis walked along the shore. It seemed that the visible slackness had nullified the rest of his impressive body. More than anything, though, as an isolated, rigid phallus filled vaginal blood vessels and sent the red line of the plethysmograph high, niceties vanished, conventions cracked; female desire was, at base, nothing if not animal.