What Katie Roiphe (And Her Critics) Ignore: The Neuroscience Of Sexual Submission

The wild success of the badly-written BDSM sexcapade Fifty Shades of Grey proves that what women really want is to be smacked around a bit more in bed—at least, so say certain members of the chattering class. This has (of course) prompted professional contrarian Katie Roiphe to shriek in glee over how mad all the feminists must be about this. Which has (of course) prompted all the feminists to roar in anger over how wrong Roiphe gets it, and how much they just adore rape play. It’s all fairly typical—of Roiphe, of bloggers, of how women’s sexuality gets covered, of our insipid online media cycle—and also fairly interesting, if you’re into this sort of thing. Which I am. Which is why I’d like to introduce something into the conversation that’s been largely ignored this time around: Science. Neuroscience, to be more specific—and how the brains of both men and women are wired for both sexual dominance and sexual submission.

But first—a caveat: I mean neither Roiphe nor her critics disrespect. There are many things I think Roiphe gets right in her Newsweek/Daily Beast piece. The part about feminists finding sexually submissive fantasies baffling or offensive is silly, but many others have already taken issue about that. Many others have also pointed out that it’s not just women who like to be submissive in bed.

As Lindsey Beyerstein notes, “Erotic power games have always been a part of sexuality for some people.” Yes, this some people includes both women and men. No, the men are not always the ones doing the dominating.

So what makes some men like to be sexually dominated, and some men like to do the dominating? What makes some women like to be taken rough, and others prefer to wield the riding crop?

Obviously, cultural conditioning comes into play—gender roles, expectations, taboos. So do life experiences, real-life feelings of power or powerlessness, and like three billion other things. Sexual psyches are weird and complicated, even in this post-Freudian world.

But part of our preferences for sexual dominance or submission (or neither) has nothing to do with culture, or the way we were raised, or any of that. Part of it is wired in our brains, and not in some bastardized evolutionary psychology sort of way. Neuroscientist and author Ogi Ogas explains:

“Men and women’s brains each come wired with the neural circuitry for both sexual dominance and sexual submission. When Nature builds our brains, it installs both the “male” and “female” subcortical circuits, but apparently only links one of these circuits to the arousal system. Scientists can trigger lordosis in male rats by activating their dormant submission circuitry, and can trigger masculine mounting in female rats by activating their dormant dominance circuitry.

In humans, the hormonal vagaries of prenatal development appear to cause a substantial portion of men to be born with active submissive circuitry. These men find sexual submission as arousing—or, quite often, far more arousing—than sexual dominance

There’s a danger in putting too much stock in neurochemicals and circuitry when explaining behaviors and desires, but there’s also a danger of looking at these things in purely cultural (or “nurture”) terms. Sometimes, it is our brain circuitry (not our commitment or lack thereof to gender equity) that determines what gets us hot.

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    • Lo

      Only one? Seriously? I have to wonder what’s going on with my neurochemicals…

    • Alexis

      All these attacks on Katie are ad hominem. I’ve been a Pro Dominatrix in NYC for years and I’ll tell you that Katie Rophie is spot on in her article. Many of my Pro male Dom friends report that 90% of their clients are career women- late 20′s to 50′s. Hence, Katie’s Demo G. is correct. Most submissives are indeed upper middle class to upper class working men and women who want a break from being in control in the workplace and thus feel liberated when they hand the control over to someone else for awhile- get it?. It’s a Yin Yang. Believe me- I’m privy to the huge thriving underground S&M in NYC and globally – as everyone in “the scene” trades information. People outside the S&M scene have NO idea how many husbands, bosses, high power career women secretly see Doms and or attend S&M play parties. Again, Katie is spot on in her analysis. I think people would rather attack Katie than admit they are part of something new happening in our current cultural climate. S&M hitting the mainstream. S&M is a huge umbrella that covers someone’s BF slapping them on their arse during sex to calling them a “bad girl”. Everyone does it in various form from light to heavy play. Thus, I do think it makes people uncomfortable because it is close to their lives, not remote from them…it makes people think about their own relationships, their own boredoms, their own desires, etc., in a way they would prefer not to.
      If people are so offended by the growing trend of so many women(mostly career women) wanting male dominance, BDSM role play..that’s their problem. Katie obviously did her underground research and trust me as a expect on the demo g. for S&M with years of experience in the global S&M scene – Katie is right whether people “like it” or not. Just don’t shoot the messenger.

    • Assholeblogger

      The chick in the picture is ugly, hence the reason for the handcuffs…She doesnt want her prey to escape