On novelty

Written by Emily Nagoski, Ph.D.

So I was driving home from my sister's last night, turning over David Mitchell's most recent column in my head. Briefly, it's about the impenetrably derivative nature of broadcast media these days, and calls for originality, novelty rather than adaptation. Not about sex.

However. I'm me.

"Spoken like a man," I thought to myself... and then I thought some more, and it turns out I'm wrong, but for totally fascinating reasons. (I think.)

You see, men respond to novelty, whereas, as I've mentioned before, a woman is more likely to be orgasmic with a partner she's already been with.

Women's sexual response is more plastic than men's - that is, a woman's body can learn to respond to a vast range of stimuli - though it takes time for her to adapt from one set of stimuli to another. But a man? Give a man a new mouth to put his tongue into, a new body to unwrap, a new challenge to meet, and he'll charge in like a terrier. (<- This is not strictly true, but it makes the point.)

The trade off is flexibility. A man will respond to novelty, but only within the fairly delimited range of stimuli that he has responded to since puberty. This applies at every level of analysis I can think of, from the stereotyped stimulation of the corona and frenulum that characterizes many (though not all) men's masturbation, to the IQ-shrinking redundancy of mainstream porn, which offers the viewer all the artistry and uniqueness of vision you might expect from an Elvis Presley movie.

It even applies to "types" - like Tim Burton and his big-eyed, doll-faced blondes that follow him through every movie (Winona Ryder in Edward Scissorhands, Christina Ricci in "Sleepy Hollow," Jayne Wisener in "Sweeney Todd"...) or David Lynch's red-lipped pin-up brunette (see Lara Flynn Boyle in "Twin Peaks" and Patricia Arquette in "Lost Highway") - these narrowly circumscribed archetypes of women that constrain a man's erotic spectrum to a narrow band.

Not all men have types, and not all types are rigid or narrow, but men are far more likely than women to have them. Similarly, men represent more than 90% of all fetish cases, for much the same reason.

So men respond to novelty, yes, but not to diversity. If a man loves cunnilingus (and bless his cotton socks if he does), you can't offer him a cloaca and expect him to dive right in.

So, in a way, I was wrong about men and novelty.

Women have similar limitations: though the formula's parameters shift over cultural generations, romance novels are simply iterations of a story humans tell each other from the age of 5 or 6, one of a small number of stories we want to be told over and over our whole lives. Bookstores and libraries overflow, shelf after shelf, with it, because like children at bedtime we never want to stop hearing that when we are lonely, someone will come say, "I'll play with you." Tell me again. Tell me.

(There's a deliciously beautiful This American Life piece about this story; it starts at minute 40. It's 18 minutes that will enrich your life. Go listen to it. Right now. Why are you still here? Go!)

Sadly, I've reinforced a stereotype here, equating men with images and women with stories. This is one of those things that just turns out to be true. Men are more visual, and women are more social/contextual. This doesn't imply that men's sexual response isn't contextual at all or women's isn't visual. Not always, and not for everyone obviously, but broadly speaking men are the ones who dig one night stands, random hookups, and anonymous sex, whereas women go for anniversaries, Valentine's Day, and make-up sex. Because it's different for girls.

Well then, who is more open to novelty? The sex that likes the new but identical, or the sex that likes what it's used to, but that can get used to nearly anything? Clearly, genuine novelty is no one's priority - sexually, at any rate. Maybe Andrew et al will tell us something about attention and habituation and then we'll get some answers.


None of this is any kind of direct response to Mr Mitchell's column, it's just what happens, you see? A perfectly harmless column about the media, which really had nothing at all to do with sex, plus 80 minutes in my head while I drive home = this. I console myself with the thought that everything is about sex for everyone, not just me. I'm just, ya know, more analytical about it than most people.

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