Naomi Wolf’s Vagina Aside, What Neuroscience Really Says About Female Desire

  • Share
  • Read Later
Getty Images

The controversy surrounding journalist Naomi Wolf’s new book, Vagina: A Cultural History — an exploration of the brain-vagina connection — has brought fresh attention to the nature and neuroscience of female sexuality. Unfortunately, it’s done so largely because Wolf profoundly misrepresents how the brain works and how neurochemicals like dopamine, oxytocin and serotonin really affect our love lives (as well as conditions like addiction and depression).

Correctly understood, neuroscience offers important insight into how our minds function and how our brains shape our lives; many of my articles on Healthland attempt to explore these questions. But the kind of oversimplification seen in Wolf’s book and, sadly, in many other popular accounts of neuroscience, threatens to perpetuate a psychological myth. Rather than illuminating the complex interplay between mind and body, it portrays human beings — especially women — as automatons, enslaved by brain chemicals we cannot control.

That’s not what the science shows. The mind-body connection is far more complicated and wonderful, as a quick tour through some of Wolf’s errors will illustrate. There is a new science of female sexual behavior, but it is far more liberating than the book suggests.

(MORE: First 3-D Movie of Orgasm in the Female Brain)

Let’s start with Wolf’s understanding of dopamine, a neurotransmitter that rightly fascinates many researchers. Dopamine appears to be critical for motivation and desire: if it’s depleted or blocked (with a medication like an antipsychotic, for example), people may lose the will to strive, even the ability to move. But boost it with a drug like cocaine and people feel capable, excited, empowered.

Here’s how Wolf connects women’s sexuality with the function of dopamine in the brain:

If as a woman, you are frustrated sexually and even worse, aroused but denied release, your dopamine system eventually diminishes in anticipation of sex, you eventually lose access to the positive energy you might otherwise have had both in sex and also subsequently to take elsewhere in your life … With low dopamine activation, you will suffer from a lack of ambition or drive, and your libido will be low.

The theory sounds plausible, but “the fallacy is that she’s saying dopamine is primarily involved in sexual pleasure, and that’s not the case,” says Larry Young, a pioneering researcher on sexual and social bonding and co-author of The Chemistry Between Us: Love, Sex and the Science of Attraction. “Dopamine is involved in reward and motivation for everything we do in life — whether we’re eating good food, drinking good wine or interacting with our kids and family.”

Sexual frustration, therefore, isn’t likely to turn off your dopamine system. “Taking one [type of pleasure] away isn’t going to change all aspects of your life like that,” Young says. He also points out that dopamine isn’t only associated with joyful experience. “It’s also released under stressful conditions,” he says.

Further, if the dopamine system typically turned itself off when satisfaction wasn’t attained, few people would develop addiction. Indeed, the experience of addiction itself is marked by ongoing desire in the face of frustration: addiction doesn’t create an overall lack of desire or drive, but rather a very intense, if misdirected, motivational pull toward the drug of choice.

(MORE: The Female Erotic Brain, Mapped)

Wolf further misconstrues how dopamine interacts with serotonin, another neurotransmitter that has multiple functions, including roles in mood and sensation. Arguing that antidepressants that raise serotonin levels (like Prozac and other drugs of its kind) may be used to keep women submissive, she writes:

Dopamine will — if women and their vaginas are not hurt, suppressed, injured or demeaned — make women more euphoric, more creative and more assertive — possibly more than a male-dominated society is comfortable with … Serotonin literally subdues the female voice, and dopamine literally raises it.

Again, there is no basis in neuroscience for this claim. Although some antidepressants have the side effect of suppressing sexual desire, this affects both men and women, not women alone. Antidepressants that increase serotonin levels don’t typically deplete desire or motivation in general, however. Quite the opposite in fact: people whose depression has been lifted by these drugs tend to be more motivated, not less.

Women are more likely to be depressed than men, so they’re more likely to take medication for it. And yet while some antidepressants work by elevating dopamine — for example, bupropion (Wellbutrin) — you don’t see women being denied such drugs for fear they’ll overthrow the patriarchy. As with all antidepressants, women are prescribed these drugs more frequently than men are.

We still don’t know which medication will lift depression better — or worsen it, for that matter — in any given individual of either gender, though. The complexity of the condition and the widely varying response to antidepressants illustrate just how subtle and nuanced the interactions are between serotonin, dopamine and other neurotransmitters and our moods and desires. Countless things can go wrong to produce depression or low libido, and innumerable things can go right to alleviate such problems. If the brain were as simple as Wolf presents it, it just wouldn’t work. It’s not as straightforward as one neurotransmitter, one effect.

“Science, particularly physiology, never works that way,” says Kathryn Clancy, assistant professor of anthropology at the University of Illinois, who studies reproductive behavior and blogs about “ladybusiness” for Scientific American, noting that, for example, two women with the exact same levels of hormones can have vastly different physiology — either a “lush, thick” uterine lining, say, or a very thin one.

(MORE: What a Workout! Women Report that Exercise Triggers Orgasm)

Wolf includes a similar oversimplification in her discussion of the neurotransmitter and hormone oxytocin, which is best known for its involvement in facilitating bonding between lovers and between parents and children. Wolf calls oxytocin “women’s emotional superpower” and, citing research in prairie voles, concludes that it makes women more likely to become emotionally connected with their sexual partners than men are.

But Young says there’s no data on gender differences in oxytocin in humans. “Based on what we know from animals, it is likely that when women have sex that they are going to experience more of an oxytocin release than men,” he says, adding, “We don’t know.”

Wolf then jumps from this conjecture to the notion that women’s intense oxytocin release makes them more likely to become literally addicted to sex: “Good sex is, in other words, actually addictive for women biochemically in certain ways that are different from the experience of men — meaning that one experiences discomfort when this stimulus is removed and a craving to secure it again.”

From this unscientific claim, the author leaps even further afield, concluding that because of their biochemistry, women are less capable of controlling themselves when it comes to love and therefore, less human. “The tricky part, if you look at the new science, is that women are indeed, in sex, in some ways more like animals than men,” she writes.

Note here that we’ve gone from assuming that an animal finding applies to humans to an assumption (one without any data at all) that the previous conclusion creates an uncontrollable desire for sex in women that is similar to addiction, which characterizes women in love as having little more self-control than animals.

There is a truth buried among this nonsense, but it’s not the truth that Wolf is claiming. Love — for both men and women — relies on the same circuitry that engenders addiction. It’s the same circuitry that fuels the desire to persist in frustrating tasks like parenting as well. Like addiction, both love and parenting involve continuing with behavior despite negative consequences. But that’s a good thing: we need to be a little bit irrational to stay with partners who are far from perfect and to deal with children who can easily drive adults mad.

(MORE: How a Squirt of Oxytocin Can Ease Marital Spats and Boost Social Sensitivity)

This doesn’t mean, however, that we become powerless in the face of our brain chemistry. Even heroin addicts remain human and capable of self-control: you don’t see junkies shooting up in front of the police, for example. Similarly, people maintain control despite the pulls of parenting and love — and women aren’t any more romantically compulsive than men.

That’s because the brain circuitry that drives us to love and parent — the same region that can be derailed during addiction — isn’t the only part of our brain. Even in the throes of addiction, romantic obsession or the early chaotic days of parenting, we’re still capable of choice, and none of the neuroscience data proves otherwise. “Just because genes or a molecule modulate a behavior, it doesn’t mean that genes or molecules determine that behavior,” says Young. “People who are in love will generally engage in behavior that they wouldn’t normally do, but I don’t think that means they’re less responsible.”

Oddly, one of the few places in her book where Wolf gets the science right — in a discussion about the physiology of a clitoral vs. vaginal orgasm — quashes the universalizing claims she makes elsewhere in the book. It was a pinched pelvic nerve in Wolf’s spine that apparently prevented her from experiencing vaginal orgasms and a surgical cure of the problem that inspired the book. She notes that her doctor told her, “Every woman is wired differently; some women’s nerves branch more in the clitoris. Some branch a great deal in the perineum, or at the mouth of the cervix. That accounts for some of the differences in female sexual response.”

Indeed, there is important new research suggesting that, for example, the wiring of these nerves affects the types of orgasms women have. Clitoral-focused orgasms seem to rely on one arm of the pudendal nerve, while cervical and some vaginal sensation and related orgasms are linked to the pelvic nerve. As Wolf rightly notes, this knowledge should bring comfort to women who think themselves different or psychologically immature for having the “wrong” kind of orgasm.

Again, however, there is more complexity to the female orgasm than the author conveys. For one, as she mentions, new anatomical data suggests that the clitoris, far from being located only outside the body, actually wraps around the vagina internally. Which means that it too can be stimulated from within. “It’s shaped like a wishbone, and the tip of the wishbone is the part that is external,” says Barry Komisaruk, professor of psychology at Rutgers and a leading researcher on sexuality. “The rest of it has these two legs that straddle the vagina and during intercourse the penis can actually stretch the vagina to the point where the legs of clitoris are stimulated.” While there are distinct vaginal and clitoral orgasms experienced by many women, the two types of stimulation can also intermingle. Neither is inherently superior, nor required for conception.

(MORE: Sharing a Bed Makes Couples Healthier)

Moreover, Komisaruk and his colleagues have found that women with spinal injury, even those who have paralyzing damage, can often still have vaginal orgasms because the spine and pelvic nerve are not the only conductors of sensation from the vagina and cervix. The vagus nerve transmits these impulses too, outside of the spinal cord. “It’s probably that nerve that carries sensation in [women with] spinal-cord injuries [during orgasm],” says Komisaruk. Wolf’s vagus may not have functioned this way, but that doesn’t mean other women have the same problem.

The brain and female sexuality are extremely complicated — and reducing them to simplistic formulations that deny women their humanity fails to do justice to either feminism or science. Properly contextualized, neuroscience can add to our knowledge of sexuality, but not if it’s twisted to support sexist ideas about women as “animals” who are so addicted to love that they become zombies.

Maia Szalavitz is a health writer for Find her on Twitter at @maiasz. You can also continue the discussion on TIME Healthland’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIMEHealthland.