‘Cat Person,’ New Research Challenge How We Think of Women’s Sexual Desire
For once, women’s sexual desire is having a Moment — and not in the usual way. Over the weekend, “Cat Person,” a short story by Kristen Roupenian published in The New Yorker, set off a viral debate on what is and is not good literature. Perhaps more surprisingly than a short story getting this much attention in 2017 is the fact that, as Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett noted in The Guardian, a story about a young woman’s interior world and sexual desire is getting this much attention at all.
Women’s sexual desire, in literature, in science and in culture, has traditionally been explored from the (male) perspective of lack. Explanations — that border on excuses, as if a women’s sex drive is something to excuse (when it’s not something to punish) — are typically biological, linking fluctuations in sexual desire to physiological experiences like menopause and childbirth; psychological, linking sex drive to conditions like anxiety and depression; or interpersonal, linking sex drive to individualized intangibles like relationship satisfaction. These no doubt influence sexual desire, but it all seems a little simplistic (kind of like the male-gazey representations of women’s sexual desire in most canonical literature…).
Researchers in the field of health promotion, within the University of Kentucky’s Sexual Health Promotion Lab, sensed that and decided to look into it. Specifically, they looked into how and to what degree societal messaging and norms influence women’s sexual desire. It’s a new, welcome and timely angle; after all, one of the more powerful aspects of “Cat Person,” one that seems to hit the strongest nerve, is the way in which the main character, a young, not-always-likeable woman named Margot, has seemingly unconsciously internalized social messages around femininity and sexual desire and how that influences her actions.
The researchers decided to focus on LGBQ women (a particularly disserviced group when it comes to the intersection of sexual desire, science, media and society), looking into whether and how their sexual desire is influenced by issues such as sexism, religion, attitudes toward aging, gender expectations, body image, sexual orientation discrimination, and changing cultural times.
“Research tells us that social and cultural pressures and minority stress can impact women’s health,” said doctoral student Dani Rosenkrantz, a co-author of the study. “We were curious about how these stressors impact sexual desire experiences, which we believe is an important aspect of women’s sexual heath that had yet to be understood.”
Rosenkrantz, along with lead author Kristen Mark, PhD, and a team sought a diverse group and conducted in-depth interviews with women who identify as bisexual, lesbian and heterosexual. The interviews confirmed that multiple sociocultural factors influence desire in all women, but particularly in LGBQ*, or sexual minority, women.
“Sexual minority women are not only struggling with the challenges of sexual desire related to being a woman, but also those that come with being a sexual minority,” wrote Mark and Rosenkrantz in the published study. “These challenges are heightened for women identifying as women of color or bisexual. Recognizing the impact of these sociocultural factors is essential for empowering sexually diverse women and providing culturally competent treatment for sexual desire challenges.”
It’s also essential for reshaping the world into a place where women’s sexual desire — for whomever, and to whatever degree — isn’t something to be excused, fixed, punished or dismissed as chick-lit.