Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Romance and The Sexual Mind

I spend quite a bit of time looking at psychology and physiology to build my characters. The other day I read a special issue (July 7, 2009) of the “Scientific American Mind” magazine dealing with sex and sexual differences between men and women, aside from the most obvious dissimilarities. The article about kissing was named “Affairs of the Lips” by Chip Walter. Did you know that a kiss “triggers a cascade of neural messages and chemicals that transmit tactile sensations, sexual excitement, feelings of closeness, motivation and even euphoria”? Also “Kisses can convey important information about the status and future of a relationship. At the extreme, a bad first kiss can abruptly curtail a couple’s future.” Wow, talk about pressure and all dependant on the first touching of lips.

Oxytocin is a chemical that can govern the formation of social bonds. They did an experiment and the results were fascinating. With kissing, researchers had predicted that oxytocin levels would rise in both men and women. What they found was they while oxytocin levels rose in men, they did not rise in women. Researchers concluded that women “needed more than a kiss to feel emotionally connected or sexually excited during contact.” The reason I thought this was interesting is that I believe that men fall in love faster than women. And if oxytocin, which facilitates bonding, rises faster in men than in women, it could mean that men become involved in a relationship faster than women.

Another article, “The Orgasmic Mind”, was written by Martin Portner. Men and women were placed in PET scan machines to see what happened in their brains during an orgasm induced by their partners. Not something I would want to do personally, but hey, it takes all types. I like privacy. When a man orgasms, “the amygdala, the brain’s center of vigilance and fear, showed a decline in activity”… ”a probable sign of decreased vigilance during sexual performance.” When a woman orgasms, something unexpected happens, namely that, “much of her brain went silent”, which might correspond  “to a release of tension and inhibition.”

As a result of other measures, the researchers concluded that, “(f)ear and anxiety need to be avoided at all costs if a women wishes to have an orgasm, we knew that, but now we can see it happening in the depths of the brain.” So maybe this has to do with our caveman brains: a man, being broadly responsible for the safety of his family, must always maintain some vigilance even during sex thus allowing his female partner to relax enough to orgasm and facilitate bonding with her partner. I may be wrong, I may have misinterpreted what I read but still it’s an interesting subject.

So those of us writing romance and erotica now have more scientific ways to closely simulate realistic characters in courtship and sexual situations. The images of women as mindless during orgasm don’t appear to be all that far off. But this is only during climax, the article indicates that women’s brains bounce back to normal activity immediately after orgasm.

Romance and erotica are such interesting genres because they explore relationships between men and women. And despite derision of these genres by “serious” writers and readers, relationships literally keep the human race in existence. I think that every adult should read at least one well-written romance novel, where the characters are realistic even if the situations are not.

I believe the percentage of men writing romance under female pseudonyms is somewhere around 10%, so some of your favorite romance authors may be male. It is really too bad that we don’t necessarily know who is male and who is female in these cases because we might get a more balanced view of men and women. After all, writers are either men or women who have to simulate the opposite sex' responses and feelings. 

I would like to think that romance writers could present a realistic view of both men and women. I personally do my best to avoid stereotypes in characters because no one is entirely a stereotype. Everyone is an individual with feelings and motivations and agendas. And when we stereotype anyone, whether in real life or in fiction, we do a disservice to everyone.

This is why I love mixing science and art. When the two are combined, great things can happen. Science is art and art is science. 

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