Sex and Sensibility
Romance literature, according to the authors of A Billion Wicked Thoughts, is the most popular form of fiction in the world. It’s estimated that the total yearly revenues from the romance novel industry may be greater than that of the online porn industry.
Women aren’t the only ones that read romance literature. But it’s mostly women. And the romance novel represents a time-honored basic formula.
In order to better understand women’s sexual cues, A Billion Wicked Thoughts analyzes the texts of some 15,000 Harlequin Romance novels, and discusses the findings of others who have done similar analyses — asking the computer questions such as, “What do the romantic heroes depicted tend to do for a living?”
The findings are obviously limited to women’s heterosexual desire. One of the book’s major shortcomings is an absence of attention to female homosexual desire. Women who are gay, bisexual, or “fluid” in their desire will find little of interest in the book.
But regarding women who are exclusively heterosexual, the author’s findings are of some interest — perhaps about something innate to female heterosexual desire, and certainly about the culture of modern female heterosexuality.
What do the authors conclude turns straight women on? Here’s a sample:
The male leads in romance novels tend to work in “alpha male” occupations. Those associated with high status (kings, noblemen), confidence (surgeons, ranchers, cowboys), or power (captains of industry). No middle managers, janitors, or bookkeepers.
The authors conclude that women have a sexual cue for socially dominant men. It’s an interesting finding, and not at all surprising.
But are women simply wired that way? Or is the presence of such a cue just a reflection of women’s acculturation toward dependency?
That debate won’t be settled in these pages. A Billion Wicked Thoughts argues that since women in some hunter-gatherer societies also seem to prefer dominant men (hunters and warriors — especially men who have killed someone in battle), it’s an innate female trait. But I don’t think that will convince those who doubt that it’s inborn.
Popularity and the Married Man
Other female sexual cues, according to Ogas and Gaddam, include male creativity, competence, and intelligence. Also height. And popularity.
I was especially interested to read about the “popularity cue,” since it so directly applied to situations I see every day in the office.
Remember I said the book was useful? Here’s an example.
According to A Billion Wicked Thoughts, one important aim of the female software is to assess the long-term risk-reward picture associated with a potential mate. This kind of research is difficult and labor-intensive. So it’s useful to have access to the research of others as well.
Hence the popularity cue. A popular man, from this perspective, is simply one that other woman have already checked out and assessed to be of value. The idea of a popularity cue explains the paradoxical fact that a man gets more female attention the moment he puts on a wedding ring. In the eyes of the women around him, the ring testifies that some other woman has done enough intensive research to conclude that he’s a good long-term investment.
Why This is Useful Information
Here’s how it often presents in my office:
A young woman keeps falling in love with married men. Traditionally, we psychotherapists tend to wonder if such a woman has conflicts about intimacy, leading her to choose someone unavailable. Or perhaps she’s unconsciously replaying early experiences of rejection by a distant and unavailable father.
As generations of women who have been in psychotherapy know, though, these kinds of hypotheses tend to convey the idea that one is doing something WRONG or BAD. And that someone more mentally healthy would only fall in love with men who are single and available.
But what if it’s NORMAL for a woman to fall in love with a man whose wedding ring indicates that he’s been thoroughly researched? Sure, intimacy problems and unconscious repetitions of early disappointment can add to the mix. But a therapist reading A Billion Wicked Thoughts might be less inclined to make such a young woman feel there’s something wrong with her.
That’s a step in the right direction. As long as readers of the book don’t end up replacing old destructive ideas with new ones — such as that normal women should go for alpha males. There are a lot of women happily married to middle managers.
And Now for Something Completely Different
The female sexual cues we’ve mentioned so far, though very different from the male sexual cues we discussed last time, share one common feature. They all concern attributes of the sexual partner.
Next time, we’ll discuss an entirely different kind of sexual cue: a kind of cue that involve the sexual self. A Billion Wicked Thoughts thinks such self-directed sexual cues are unique to women. I disagree. But it’s an important and fascinating topic.