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A scientific reckoning of the sex drive

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« on: April 12, 2007, 12:26:35 am »

A scientific reckoning of the sex drive

By Natalie Angier
Published: April 10, 2007

Sexual desire. The phrase alone holds such loaded, voluptuous power that the mere expression of it sounds like a come-on - a little pungent, a little smutty, a little comical and possibly indictable.

Everybody with a pair of currently or formerly active gonads knows about sexual desire. It is a near-universal experience, the invisible clause on one's birth certificate stipulating that one will, upon reaching maturity, feel the urge to engage in activities often associated with the issuance of more birth certificates.

Yet universal does not mean uniform, and the definitions of sexual desire can be as quirky and personalized as the very chromosomal combinations that sexual reproduction will yield. Ask an assortment of men and women, "What is sexual desire, and how do you know you're feeling it?" and after some initial embarrassed mutterings and demands for anonymity, they answer as follows:

"There's a little bit of adrenaline, a puffing of the chest, a bit of anticipatory tongue motion," said a divorced lawyer in his late 40s.

"I feel relaxed, warm and comfortable," said a designer in her 30s.

('"Listening to Noam Chomsky," said a psychologist in her 50s, "always turns me on."

For researchers in the field of human sexuality, the wide variance in how people characterize sexual desire and describe its most salient features is a source of challenge and opportunity, pleasure and pain.

"We throw around the term 'sexual desire' as though we're all sure we're talking about the same thing," said Lisa Diamond, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Utah. "But it's clear from the research that people have very different operational definitions about what desire is."

At the same time, the researchers said, it is precisely the complexity of sexual desire that calls out to be understood.

"Sexuality is such a huge part of who we are. How could we not want to understand it," said Meredith Chivers, a researcher at the Center for Addiction and Mental Health in Toronto.

Unabashed about acting on their academic appetites, sexologists have gained a wealth of new and often surprising insights into the nature and architecture of sexual desire. They are tracing how men and women diverge in their experience, and where they converge. They are learning how and why people pursue the erotic partners they do, and the circumstances under which those tastes are either fixed or fluid.

One recent standout discovery upends the canonical model of how the typical sex act unfolds, particularly for women but very likely for men as well.

According to the sequence put forward in the mid-20th century by the pioneering sex researchers William Masters, Virginia Johnson and Helen Singer Kaplan, a sexual encounter begins with desire, a craving for sex that arises of its own accord and prods a person to seek a partner. That encounter then leads to sexual arousal, followed by sexual excitement, sex, climax and resolution.

In a series of studies at the University of Amsterdam, Ellen Laan, Stephanie Both and Mark Spiering demonstrated that the body's entire motor system is activated almost instantly by exposure to sexual images, and that the more intensely sexual the visuals, the stronger the electric signals emitted by the participants' so-called spinal tendious reflexes. By the looks of it, Laan said, the body is primed for sex before the mind has had a moment to leer.

Moreover, she said, arousal is not necessarily a conscious process.

By reordering the sexual timeline and placing desire after arousal, rather than vice versa, the new research fits into the pattern that neurobiologists have lately observed for other areas of life. Before we are conscious of wanting to do anything - wave at a friend, open a book - the brain regions needed to perform the activity are already ablaze. The notion that any of us is the Decider, the proactive plotter of our most lubricious desires, scientists say, may simply be a happy and perhaps necessary illusion.

The new findings also suggest that in some cases, the best approach for treating those who suffer from low sex drive may be to focus on enhancing arousability rather than desire - to forget about sexy thoughts and to emphasize sexy feelings, the physical cues or activities that arouse one's sexual circuitry. The rest will unwind from there.

Researchers have also gathered considerable evidence that the sensations of sexual arousal, desire and excitement are governed by two basic and distinctively operating pathways in the brain - one that promotes sexual enthusiasm, another that inhibits it. An originator of this novel concept, Erick Janssen of the Kinsey Institute, compares these mechanisms to the pedals of a car.
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« Reply #1 on: April 12, 2007, 12:27:38 am »

"If you let go of the gas pedal, you'll slow down," he said, "but that's not the same as stepping on the brakes."

In any given individual, each pedal may be easier or harder to press. One person may be quick to become aroused, but equally quick to stifle that response at the slightest distraction. Another may be tough to get started, but once galvanized "will not lose sexual arousal even if the ceiling comes down," Janssen said. Still another may be saddled with both a feeble sexual accelerator and an overzealous sexual inhibitor.

Most of the studies on the autonomy of sexual brakes and accelerators have been done on men, but scientists lately have begun applying the dual-control model to their studies of female sexuality as well. At first they used a slightly modified version of the excitement/inhibition questionnaire that had proved valuable for assessing men, but they soon realized that their menu of sex situations and checklist of physical arousal cues might be missing large swaths of a woman's sexual persona.

What was the feminine equivalent of an ****? What might the feeling of being physically threatened do to enhance or hamper a woman's sexual appetite? The researchers have identified a number of dimensions on which their beta testers agreed. For example, 93 to 96 percent of the 655 respondents strongly endorsed statements that linked sexual arousal to "feeling connected to" or "loved by" a partner; they also concurred that they have trouble getting excited when they are "feeling unattractive."

But women's tastes varied widely in many of the finer details of seduction and setting.

Conventional wisdom has it that a woman's libido is stifled by unhappiness, anxiety or anger, but the survey showed that about 25 percent of women used sex to lift them out of a bad mood or to resolve a marital spat.

Regardless of gender or relative genital congestion, people attend almost reflexively to sexual imagery. In an effort to trace that response back to the body's premier sex organ, Kim Wallen and his colleagues at Emory University in Atlanta have performed brain scans on volunteers as the subjects viewed a series of sexually explicit photographs. The researchers discovered that men's and women's brains reacted differently to the images. Most notably, men showed far more activity than women did in the amygdala, the almond-contoured brain sector long associated with powerful emotions like fear and anger rather than with anything erotic.

Some researchers say that on average, male sexual desire is not only stronger than women's, but also more constant from hour to hour, day to day. They point to a significant body of research suggesting a cyclic nature to female desire, and some say women only begin to attain masculine heights of lustiness during the few days of the month that they are fertile.

Yet some experts argue that such absolutist formulas neglect the importance of age, experience, culture and circumstance in determining the strength of any individual's sexual desire.
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