Photo credit:  Pedrosimoes7,  via Creative Commons.

Eleventh in a series of articles loosely based on the new book A Billion Wicked Thoughts by Ogi Ogas and Sai Gaddam

Eros, Self-Love, and the New York Times

In 2009 an article by Daniel Bergner appeared in the New York Times Magazine concerning new research into women’s sexual desire.   The article carried a statement that women’s desire is “dominated by the yearnings of self-love, by the wish to be the object of erotic admiration and sexual need.”

A couple of weeks after the Bergner article came out, I was having lunch with a female colleague, a fellow sex expert.  The subject of the article came up.

“The one thing that upsets me,” she said, “is Bergner writing that female sexuality is narcissistic.  I mean, haven’t women been through enough with labeling?  Now they have to be told that their sex drive is narcissistic?”

As I mentioned in The woman in the mirror, I think narcissistic issues are at the core of most sexual pleasure for both men and women.   But there do seem to be differences.

Although both men and women derive much pleasure from being admired, it’s chiefly in women that such admiration can sometimes directly fuel erotic desire.

Think about it — A woman can lavish much praise and attention on a man, take him out to lovely dinners, buy him thoughtful gifts, and generally treat him royally.   He may appreciate all these things very much.  But they won’t make him one bit more sexually attracted to her.

If a man were to do these things for a woman, though, under the right conditions it might sometimes spark her sexual interest.



Why are the two situations different?    Is it simply culture – women’s acculturation to dependency?   Or is it innate?   Either way, there’s clearly something about being desired or pursued that not uncommonly fuels women’s sexual desire.

In a chapter in the recent professional book, Treating Sexual Desire Disorders, couples therapist and writer Esther Perel lets one of her patients, a Spanish woman, tell the story of what the patient calls “Juego”

“You think I’m attracted to you and that you can just have me, but you’re wrong.   You don’t have me yet . . . The more persistently you pursue me, the more attractive and irresistible I feel, which makes me move away some more to see if you’ll keep coming after me, if I can make you want me even more.”

The idea of something like “Juego” has struck more than one sex researcher as important.  John Bancroft, in his landmark monograph Human Sexuality and its Problems discusses something called “pacing” that female rats do as a prelude to sex –

“Before rat sex commences, “the female is not passive but ‘darting and hopping’ around the male, and in the process, pacing the male’s mounts.  She, in other words, is in control.”

“Does the female rat enjoy the mounting and intromission,” he asks, “or is her reward the pacing and control of the male’s behavior with her ‘darting and hopping’?

Moving to humans, Bancroft writes:

“There is evidence that for women it is important to ‘be desired’ . . . and it would not be surprising if a woman found that her ability to both attract and, in the process control the behavior of a male partner was rewarding and indeed arousing.”

Sex researcher Marta Meana, writing about women’s fantasies of being sexually overpowered, states

“One of the more persuasive explanations for the “being overpowered” fantasy is that it arouses by virtue of its assertion of the woman’s irresistibility.  What if sexual desire is sometimes its own end?  What if being desired and desiring are turn-ons for women, in and of themselves?”

And in an unusual move for a researcher whose work is confined to humans, she turns to Bancroft’s discussion of the ‘pacing’ female rats, stating —

“Perhaps women also enhance their ability to select a partner and pace the course of relationships through the enactment of parallel behaviors.”

Is “pacing” the rat equivalent of “Juego?”   We’ll never be able to ask the rats.

But for both Bancroft and Meana, both eminent sexologists and careful scientists, to mention “pacing,” there must have been something very compelling about it.  Human sex researchers do not ordinarily value data about other species.   Something about “pacing” made both Bancroft and Meana say, “Yes, that’s it!”

“I’m a get your heart racing in my skin-tight jeans
   Be your teenage dream tonight”

   –Katy Perry, Teenage Dream

What is it that enables a woman to get erotic pleasure simply by playing “Juego” with her partner?   And what is it that enables a woman, but not a man, to respond to a potential mate’s erotic attention with a direct intensification of desire?

A Billion Wicked Thoughts speculates that women, unlike men, have sexual cues that involve attributes of the self (one’s own irresistibility), whereas men’s sexual cues are limited to attributes of the partner (her anatomy, mostly).

As I mentioned in “The woman in the mirror,” I think men do have self-related sexual cues.   But I think the authors of A Billion Wicked Thoughts are correct that a woman’s self-related sexual cues have more power to directly influence her desire.

What’s this all mean?   I leave it to the researchers to fight that one out.


Copyright Stephen Snyder, MD  2011
New York City