Feminism as the Anti-Viagra: Do Equal Rights in Bed Kill the Mood?

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Is feminism a sexual buzz kill -- a veritable "anti-Viagra"? This is the contentious claim made by neuroscientist Ogi Ogas, whose research into the brain chemistry of desire is raising eyebrows among some sex experts and certainly some feminists.

Some would argue that the feminist movement has enabled women to be more proactive about expressing and fulfilling their sexual needs, but according to Ogas, problems arise -- at least on a neurochemical level, when strict gender equality is taken from the boardroom to the bedroom.

"Most women prefer to play a submissive role in the bedroom. We've got these primal sources of sexual arousal hard-wired in the brain. Though both males and females are born with the brain circuitry for dominance and submission, nature apparently only links one of these circuits to the arousal system. It appears that in females the circuits are hooked up to be aroused by submission -- usually," he says.

By this logic, attempting to divorce a submission/dominance power dynamic from sexual intercourse would inhibit desire. "If you're a woman, or a man, and you're preferred role is submissive, if you feel compelled to approach sex with the same gender equality as the working world, it's going to be hard to be aroused," Ogas says. In his upcoming book on the subject "A Billion Wicked Thoughts," Ogas uses the different ways men and women consume porn, erotica, and other sexually-related materials online to study desire.

The assertion that most women want to be sexually dominated alone is enough to raise hackles with many women, but billing feminism as a desire-dampener has spurred serious backlash from feminist scholars.

Deducing desire from porn habits is problematic, says feminist author Jessica Valenti. In reference to the proliferation of violent male-dominated porn in recent years, she says: "I think this porn exists because we live in a misogynist society, not because men are hardwired to want to dominate and take advantage of women. That's a dangerous argument because it gives an excuse for men for watching violent porn -- 'if that's in their brain, how can we fault them?'"

"Explaining it away with brain chemistry seems like a really incomplete model. It doesn't take into account socialization, or what we're taught to desire by the culture around us," she adds.

Feminist Standpoint

As is the norm for sexual research, talking about what gets people off is a thorny topic, especially when it crosses into the realm of domination and fantasies of sexual violence.

For those familiar with the sexual battles of the women's rights movement, the idea of pinning women's current sexual dissatisfaction on feminism, as Ogas does in a recent blog post concerning his research, seems ludicrous, says Stephanie Coontz, author of "A Strange Stirring: The Feminine Mystique and American Women at the Dawn of the 1960s."

As recently as the end of the 19th century the normal woman (as in not a prostitute) was thought to not have any sexual desires, she says. "Men believed that only prostitutes enjoy foreplay and that they shouldn't use it on a woman you respected, such as your wife. Fast forward to the early 1960s when most state laws held that a husband could not rape his wife because marriage constituted a 'permanent level of consensus,''' Coontz says.

"I recognize that sexual desire is complex and some people may feel ashamed for wanting to be submissive, but when you look at what sex was like before feminism, you'd have to be crazy to think that feminism has interfered in our sex lives," she says.

Recent studies, such as one a 2007 Rutgers University paper, found that couples who identify as feminist, both the men and the women, report having more fulfilling sex lives and more stable relationships, Valenti adds.

Reconciling our Desire and Ideology?

At first glance, Ogas' findings are poised to push a lot of buttons, but does the (mostly) gendered preference for submission and dominance have to be inconsistent with feminism?

Dr. Louann Brizendine, neuropsychiatrist and author of "The Female Brain," would say no.

Brizendine would be the first to recognize the difference, neurologically and hormonally between a male brain and a female brain: for instance, the fact that male arousal is 90 percent visual whereas female arousal "is all over the map" in terms of what triggers pleasure centers in the brain. "But male or female brains are more alike than they are different. Men and women overlap in the most areas...the brain is very flexible," she says.

And the way these brain differences play out sexually does not necessarily conflict with feminism, she says. "I think it's easy to confuse women out there in leadership roles, and their right to these leadership roles, and a woman's preference in the bedroom. It's like looking at apples and oranges," she says.

"I have an orgasm, you have an orgasm -- that is gender equity in the bedroom that we didn't have in the 1950s. The feminist movement has given women a voice to say what they like sexually," she says.

And this "brand of feminism," Ogas says he agrees with: "A feminism that approaches the bedroom on equal footing and then proceeds mutually through asymmetrical power roles would be a sexually healthy form of feminism. One that needs to maintain equal power roles in the bedroom would limit sexual satisfaction."