The Homo Hypothesis

The next time Jenna Jameson is bending her perfect ass over a table and you've got your hand on the remote, you may want to ask yourself, "How turned on am I? Furthermore, am I straight?" Those are the basic questions at the center of a new study from Northwestern University (the same one I applauded in my year-end wrap-up, "The Best & Worst of Sex in 2002"), where researchers investigated the association between arousal and sexual orientation in women and men. The fact that the National Institutes of Health funded the study is progress itself, since there is so little research on female sexuality, and the results are sure to raise some, um, eyebrows. The findings are to be published in Psychological Science later this year, but I conveniently downloaded the pre-publication paper from professor J. Michael Bailey's website.

Bailey and three colleagues studied heterosexual men and women and gays and lesbians (you had to be near either end of the Kinsey scale, so bi-leaning folks weren't part of the sample), all of whom watched a series of porn clips, including male-male and female-female scenes depicting oral, vaginal, and, in the male-male case, anal sex. So regardless of sexual orientation, everyone watched gay porn, justified by the following scientific explanation: "Erotica depicting male-female couples fails to elicit differences in sexual-arousal patterns because they contain men and women, thus are both male and female sexual stimuli." Translation: When people watch straight porn, you can't tell whether they are getting off on the naked chick, the well-hung dude, or both. You have to isolate the ladies and gentlemen, but instead of showing one person masturbating, these Midwestern sexology geeks doubled their participants' pleasure. The study's authors noted that what they considered "pure sexual stimuli"—two men or two women having sex—is something "some heterosexual people may find upsetting or even offensive." To counteract the potential turnoff due to homophobia, everyone also got to see heterosexual porn (which, interestingly, didn't elicit as positive a response as the single-sex stuff, even among heterosexuals).

How, might you ask, did the people with Ph.D.'s measure when their subjects got hot and bothered? They tracked two kinds of arousal, physical and mental. The body's response to video clips was calculated by a penile plethysmograph, which measures the changes in circumference of a man's erection, and a vaginal photoplethysmograph, which measures vaginal pulse amplitude and vasocongestion; they also asked participants to rate on a scale of 0 to 180 how turned on they were. The study found that straight men were most aroused (physically and mentally) by girl-girl nookie, and gay men got the hottest from man-on-man lust. However, according to the machines, hetero and lesbian women experienced strong arousal to both kinds of porn pretty equally.

Granted, the participant sample wasn't the most representative: These smut viewers were likely to be more sexually savvy than the general population, since they were willing to (a) watch porn and (b) have receptors hooked up to their genitals while they did. No study is perfect, but I couldn't help noticing that, with the exception of the man-on-man clips, all things anal were missing from the scenes the subjects saw, like hetero anal sex (both ways), lesbian strap-on butt sex, and anal fingering for everybody. This is important not because of my obsession with backdoor button-pushing but because as a viewer, there is a palpable difference between viewing vaginal and anal penetration on film; the former is OK but often boring, while the latter can be scorching when everyone's into it. I was like every other dyke who's way into watching guys get it on until I discovered straight all-anal movies. The study also doesn't list a videography, which would have been nice information to have. How did Bailey and his colleagues decide what porn is "representative"? I mean, Inari Vachs jamming four fingers into Jewel De'Nyle's pussy while calling her a dirty little slut is a long way from director Andrew Blake's leggy models gently nuzzling each other vaguely near vagina-land, yet both are considered a part of the girl/girl genre. And with all the hoopla and right-wing banter about liberals wasting taxpayer's dollars, the study really wasn't about porn; porn was simply used as a tool to incite arousal. I am still waiting for the study about women's taste in skin flicks, not necessarily how their pussies rate while watching them.

I've always thought that the libido has a mind of its own and that people's desires are more complex than the neat categories with which we identify. But according to this study, women are more erotically fluid than men (further proof we are more evolved?). Before you guys start plotting that lifelong three-way fantasy, realize that just because women may swing both ways when it comes to blue movies doesn't mean that all women are ready to be bisexual, for an evening or a lifetime. Interestingly, what men believe turns them on and what their bodies respond to match, whereas in almost 40 percent of women, what got their juices flowing was not reflected in their sexual preference.

I am not surprised that women come off as more versatile in this study. Men are more rigid in their sexual identity, and the study goes so far (too far?) as to say that statistics would support a man who gets turned on by gay porn in questioning his heterosexuality. On the other hand, hetero women getting wet from seeing other women don't change their outlook on sexual partnering. We have a different way of looking at people of our own gender. For example, women populate not only the pages of magazines marketed to straight men but those targeted to women, also. Women have been socialized by this particular medium to see other women as objects; we are encouraged to look at, desire, and covet them (not just their fabulous lipstick or shoes). Worshiping Sarah Jessica Parker's ample post-baby cleavage doesn't leave hetero women feeling gay, so why should staring at Jill Kelly's big tits? This study's conclusion is certainly good news for the adult industry: Female consumers don't stick to just one section of the video store. Which reminds me: I've got to log on to and make sure It's a Man's World is in stock.

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