“You are fortunate enough to be able to spend your entire winter vacation in Los Angeles. [...] As you are sipping your drink, you look over and notice that actor Johnny Depp is just a few tables away. [...] Still more amazing, he catches your eye and then approaches you. He says, ‘I have been noticing you and I find you to be very attractive. Would you go to bed with me tonight?’”
“[W]hen women are presented with proposers who are equivalent in terms of safety and sexual prowess, they will be equally likely as men to engage in casual sex.”
You may be wondering why these tests were conducted and what Johnny Depp has to do with it. In the late 1980s, sexual researchers Clark and Hatfield published a paper “Gender Differences in Receptivity to Sexual Offers.” Part of their research consisted of measuring the responses of men and womyn to random sexual proposals. Every womyn approached by a man, a stranger to them, declined the sexual proposal, whereas 75% of the men sampled accepted the proposal from the stranger-womyn. This has serious implications – applications of this research largely support our cultural predisposition to the idea that all men are heterosexual sex-craving machines (see also: beer commercials and this weird study of men staring at boobs).
Conley conducted her experiments differently, testing for explanations of why people would decline random sexual proposals. She found that “[m]ale proposers were perceived (by women) as more dangerous and less likely to provide them sexual satisfaction than women were perceived (by men).” In attempts to remove these confounding factors, she used the foregoing antiquated Johnny Depp dream, thinking that gender differences would shift when men and womyn were presented with attractive celebrities as the ones proposing casual sex (Angelina Jolie for heterosexual men) in that there is a perceived element of sexual satisfaction and safety in these celebrity-sex encounters. This time, she found little statistical difference between men’s and women’s acceptance rates.
Conley’s research has a lot of significance; we need to rethink our assumptions about human sexuality and what the subtext of gender differences in sexual responses and preferences mean. I think that Catharine Mackinnon’s (an incredible feminist scholar) argument that “sexual difference is a function of sexual dominance” critically meets Conley’s research. Our understanding of female sexuality is derived from the dominant male projections of sexuality; i.e., whatever womyn do (are forced to do, are expected to do) to “produce” a male erection is culturally understood as normal female sexuality. This supplements Conley’s finding that womyn don’t typically expect these casual sexual encounters to be pleasurable (accounting for sexual difference) because they aren’t; men are twice as likely to orgasm in heterosexual hook-ups.
Moreover, the confounding variable of “safety” Conley discovers points to Mackinnon’s theory of how the sexualization of gender inequality (evident in a lot of pornography) is a maintaining factor of male dominance, propagating a rape culture that is normalized into our gendered interactions and read as sexual.
There isn’t an easy solution to these issues. What I suggest: read more of Mackinnon’s work, check out further analysis of Conley’s research, watch more Johnny Depp movies, and celebrate International Womyn’s Day!
(Thanks to Aaron for a lot of these links.)
(Photo by sxc.hu)