Season 1, Episode 11: Sexuality

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Labels of Love logo designed by Jen Sung.

Show notes photography by Carrie Jenkins.

Labels of Love is a research creation outcome of the Metaphysics of Love Project, supported by The Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada. Additional financial support for the project comes from the Canada Research Chairs program and the University of British Columbia.

I am grateful for help, guidance, feedback, and support from: Seven, Drusilla, Ray Hsu, Jonathan Ichikawa, and Mezzo.


[Speaking in this episode you can hear: Jonathan Ichikawa, Carrie Jenkins and Meredith Chivers.]

Meredith: It’s the straight women that are the mystery.

Carrie: That is a mystery.

Jonathan: You’re listening to Labels of Love.

Carrie: Hi and welcome to the podcast. I’m Carrie Jenkins, a philosophy professor at the University of British Columbia, and the author of What Love Is and What It Could Be. Today, I’m talking about sexuality, with Meredith Chivers. Meredith is an Associate Professor of Psychology at Queen’s University, as well as being one of the world’s leading researchers on sexuality, especially female sexuality. We talked about how sexual desire can even be defined in the first place, how to disentangle common misconceptions about it from the reality, and what all of this has to do with gender. 

Meredith: Defining desire has been a real struggle for sexuality researchers. We need to somehow define an unobservable intra-psychic phenomenon, based on what we can actually observe or what people report …

Carrie: Welcome to my world!

Meredith: Yeah I know! Sexual desire—or sexual motivation is the term I would use in speaking about this with colleagues—I don’t think of it like a primal drive, like hunger or thirst. It might feel like you’re going to die if you don’t have sex, but it really isn’t the case.

Carrie: Right.

Meredith: Instead, you know, I think of sexual motivation as operating on what we call an incentive motivation system. So the idea that we’re drawn to being sexual because of the rewards that that can bring us. Those incentives can be what we psychologists call primary rewards, like actual physical sexual pleasures, or secondary rewards, like cultivating intimacy with your partner or giving your partner sexual pleasure. It isn’t like if you don’t do that you’re going to explode. It may feel that way, but that’s not what the consequence is going to be.

Carrie: Right, right.

Meredith: And I see that a lot of times: those aspects of a sexual phenomenon will get conflated. There has been this conceptualization of sexual desire as this spontaneous feeling that sort of emerges in your head out of nowhere …

Carrie: Right.

Meredith: … and that drives behaviour. So you feel this jolt of desire, for whatever reasons, it’s there, there’s some deficit in your system and you go out and you seek out the kinds of sexual things that, um, that feel good to you, and this is what brings about starting to feel sexual arousal. That has been a traditional way of conceptualizing how desire works for quite a long time and it really informed a lot of clinical conceptions, until the past decade or so. Things have really shifted. Desire may not necessarily be the initiator of sexual response but it may actually emerge from activation of the sexual response system. It can feel like suddenly desire is there, but you may not consciously be aware, for example, of things that you saw on your way to work that day, like the sexy billboard picture. I think we want to know that we’re fully in charge of everything that’s happening in terms of what’s directing our behaviour …

Carrie: Yeah good luck with that everyone.

Meredith: It’s the one thing that I think Freud did get right, if he got anything right, is the idea of the unconscious. You know, that there are aspects of our psychology that we don’t have full access to that have a significant impact on our behaviour. Bodies of research on male sexuality showed that there was a pretty strong correspondence between men’s sexual attractions, either, you know to other men or to women or to both, and their physical and their subjective sexual responses in the laboratory. If a gay man was in the lab, his penile responses, which is one of the things we measure in the lab, as well as his self-report of how he’s feeling, is going to be much, much higher to guys having sex than to the other categories of stimuli. I was really curious, does this relationship hold for women? And there were some hints that it might not as clear-cut. And indeed the picture is really different. I’ve been studying this phenomenon for two decades now. What’s happening is that among women who report that they are sexually attracted predominantly or exclusively to men, that their sexual responses—so if we measure things like their genital sexual responses or we use an eye-tracker and we measure where they’re looking during sexual stimuli—what we find is that stimuli that depict men and stimuli that depict women can activate the sexual response system in heterosexual women. You look at queer women and the picture is different again, where they’re showing more sexual response to the kinds of stimuli that match their sexual attractions. It’s the straight women that are the mystery.

Carrie: That is a mystery.

Meredith: To put this in the language of incentive motivation, why is it that a sexual stimulus that has never been incentivized for a straight woman—she’s never had sex with another woman, reports that she fantasizes most of the time about men, doesn’t use sexual stimuli or sexual media that depict women—how is it and why is it that she can have a … it’s not ambiguous, it’s a pretty strong sexual response to imagery of women? And that’s where that line of research is right now, is, you know, with a number of different hypotheses that I’m pursuing and other colleagues are pursuing to try to explain this relationship. I’m also venturing into the world of neuroimaging, and we’ve been using electroencephalography to get at those really early stages of processing of visual sexual stimuli to understand what is happening when people are looking at sexual stimuli that have an incentive history versus those that don’t, whether we’re seeing patterns of response that would be reflective of, you know, the reward system in the brain being activated versus not. Again, sort of leaning towards that idea that those patterns of sexual response really do reflect this history of positive experience

Carrie: Mmhm. And this is going to be something … a way of trying to get at what the subject cannot necessarily self-report?

Meredith: Exactly. So this is … you know, we’re measuring events that are happening in the cortex of the brain within the first three to five hundred milliseconds of onset of a stimulus. You know, we think about gender and sexual desire … sort of the stereotype is that men, you know, have more than women do and it’s just a men thing. You start really scrutinizing the data, and the idea that sexual desire is that gendered truly begins to fall apart. Because it really comes down to measurement. You know, what are we measuring when we’re trying to encapsulate this, you know, non-observable construct of sexual motivation? And in a lot of cases, what people are observing are behaviours that are really gendered, that have all kinds of baggage that come with them in terms of expression of sexuality …

Carrie: Right.

Meredith: … so, numbers of sexual partners, how frequently you’re engaging in sex … they’re very quantifiable self-report constructs, but are they really meaningful in terms of capturing desire? And then there’s the whole problem of retrospective recall bias. So we did a study a few years back, my graduate student Sam Dawson and I analyzed some data. We asked women and men to report how much sexual desire they felt after watching films of heterosexual sex, so these were straight-identified people, and what was really fascinating was we didn’t see any gender differences in the amount of desire for sex with a partner after watching these films. But if you asked for retrospective recalls, that when some of that gender difference does start to emerge. How we’re asking those questions and when we’re asking those questions and are people actually in a state of sexual desire when they’re answering those questions … that can have an impact. When we gender sexual desire and we say that men have more than women do, it almost becomes like a trait, or something that’s endogenous to you know this gender or these people, they have more of it than these other people do …

Carrie: Right.

Meredith: … but if you come back to that model of sexual motivation that we’ve been using where desire isn’t this stuff that you have inside of you but it’s something that becomes activated, then it’s a psycho-emotional state, it’s not a trait, it’s not this endogenous thing inside. The questions that I’ve been asking have really evolved over my career so far. You know, I think I was in a place when I was very early on that … I think I had a far more bio-psychological perspective, that somehow I was going to be able to access the pure biological substrates that are associated with these gendered effects, and as I’ve matured as a psychologist and a feminist and a researcher I’ve realized that it’s just folly to even think I can disentangle these aspects of sexuality. 

Carrie: Many thanks to today’s guest, Meredith Chivers. You can learn more about Meredith’s work at the SageLab, that’s the Sexuality and Gender Laboratory at Queen’s University, or you can find her on Twitter @DrMLChivers: that’s C-H-I-V-E-R-S. Today’s episode has featured music by Podington Bear, and as always you can find lots more information in the show notes. You can learn more about my work at, or you can find me on Twitter where I’m @carriejenkins. Thank you so much for listening. 


#sex #sexuality #gender #ideas #concepts