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Answering Dr. Freud's question

Answering Dr. Freud's question

What do women want? Freud asked the question nearly 100 years ago. Queen’s Psychology professor Meredith Chivers is discovering not only complex and contradictory answers, but also unexpected and fascinating ways of asking women that age-old question.

Queen’s psychologist Meredith Chivers is a relative newcomer to the halls of academe, but at 36 she has already experienced the 15 minutes of fame – and then some – predicted for each of us by pop artist Andy Warhol.

Prof. Chivers, an Ottawa native, came to Queen’s in
2007 when she accepted a position under the Queen’s
National Scholars program.

Queen’s psychologist Meredith Chivers is a relative newcomer to the halls of academe, but at 36 she has already experienced the 15 minutes of fame – and then some – predicted for each of us by pop artist Andy Warhol.

Her brush with instant celebrity was triggered by a provocative January 2009 New York Times Magazine cover story. Entitled “What Do Women Want?” (a question put forward by Sigmund Freud almost a century ago), the article focused on Chivers’ ­unexpected findings while investigating the intricacies of female sexual response.

Just back at work from maternity leave, she had been attempting to set up a laboratory and teaching program at Queen’s when the article propelled her into the public eye.

Over the weeks and months that followed, she was deluged with interview requests by national and international media, ranging from Oprah and Charlie Rose to Elle magazine and European documentary film producers. A feature article on Chivers ­appeared in The Globe and Mail, and an accompanying on-line Q and A on the newspaper’s web site subsequently had 46,000 hits, making it one of the most widely read pieces on that site.

What kind of research elicits such intense interest from the popular press? And how did the recently appointed Queen’s professor, a self-proclaimed “science geek” who’s trying to reconcile the demands of work and new parenthood, suddenly find herself at the centre of a media whirlwind?

An Ottawa native, Chivers received her introduction to the field of human sexuality as an undergrad student at the University of Guelph. Looking at how the differences in male and female thinking relate to their sexual orientation piqued her research interest.

That curiosity led her to apply for a position at a clinic in what is now the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health at Toronto’s Clarke Institute of Psychiatry. As a young research assistant, she worked with Kurt Freund, a Czech-Canadian physician who ­developed the first method of objectively measuring male sexual arousal and who had established at the Clark Institute a sexology research program that focuses on both research and treatment of sexual disorders.

There’s a growing appetite for information about sexuality, from both men and women, and increasing opportunities to study it. That really excites me.

Chivers was struck by the fact that almost all of the patients were men. “We weren’t seeing women with the kind of unusual or dangerous types of sexual preferences that come to the attention of psychiatry and the law,” she says. “I wondered why that was, and, more broadly, what the differences are between male and female sexuality.”

She pursued these questions in the graduate program at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois. Her advisor there, Dr. Michael Bailey, was an expert in the area of sexual interests, but he hadn’t worked extensively on women’s sexual orientation. Nevertheless, he supported Chivers in starting the sexual psychophysiology studies that laid the groundwork for her current research.

Exploring the idea of “specificity” of sexual arousal – whether sexual response is specific to the kinds of things that people say interests them sexually – she discovered to her surprise that “with women, there’s something different going on.”

Her preliminary findings had implications for understanding women’s sexual orientation and showed the disconnect between physical sexual response in women and their own reports of feeling sexually aroused.

It was during this period that she conducted the now-famous “bonobo” experiments, which The New York Times article highlighted. For this study, which compared gender differences in sexual arousal, subjects were shown videotapes of a variety of sexual activities by heterosexuals, homosexuals and – yes – African monkeys.

Female volunteers inserted a wired device resembling a tampon that recorded increases in their genital blood flow. The equivalent device for males measured changes in penis size while they viewed the images. All subjects were also asked to record their own conscious reactions on a keypad.

Contrary to popular notion, the results suggested that women of all sexual orientations also are aroused by non-human, heterosexual and homosexual activity – even if they report differently. Men, on the other hand, tend to be aroused only by images that align with their sexual orientation.

Returning to the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health in Toronto as a postdoctoral fellow, Chivers continued to look at the relationship between mind and body in sexual arousal. “Where are these models of sexual response coming from?” she asked ­herself. “Why are we using them to try and understand women’s sexuality when it’s obvious that they don’t work?”

Chivers brought her innovative research to Queen’s in 2007, when she accepted a faculty position that didn’t begin officially until April ’09. Hired under the Queen’s National Scholars (QNS) program, which provides financial support for departments to ­recruit promising young faculty, she credits the program for her decision to move to Kingston.

Psychology professor Vernon Quinsey, who headed the department when Chivers was hired, notes that her expertise on female sexual arousal nicely complements the work of another Psychology professor. Dr. Caroline Pukall is focusing on female sexual dysfunction. Says Quinsey, “The QNS program allowed our department to hire strategically and continue a longstanding tradition of research in sexology, emerging as a leader in the field of research on women’s sexuality.”

I’m just starting my career, but my goal is to contribute to our understanding of the many different components of women’s sexual response.

Chivers’ husband, Dr. Michael Seto, MA’92, PhD’97, is a clinical forensic psychologist at the Royal Ottawa Health Care Group’s Brockville, ­Ontario site, 80 km east of Kingston. “We were looking for a place where we could live and work together in our career areas, and this seemed to fit our needs very well,” Chivers says. Now, with two-year-old Oliver, the young family has made Kingston their home base.

Assisted by two graduate students who began working in her lab this fall (two chosen from applications that arrived from around the world after all the media attention she received), Chivers’ research at Queen’s is focusing on three distinct areas.

First, she is exploring why women respond physically to things that don’t correspond to their professed sexual interest and is studying the properties that make something “sexual”. Second, she is continuing to measure how sexual responses relate to women’s sexual orientations and identities. And, finally, she and her students are looking at the relationship between mind and body in sexual response. “I want to get at the broader goal of trying to define certain aspects of a female-centred model of sexual functioning,” she says.

Chivers is also involved with a research group at Women’s College Hospital in Toronto, developing an on-line support group for women who have expressed difficulty with sexual functioning as a result of having gynecological cancer. The intent is to create a space for them to come together in a safe environment where they can explore the changes that cancer has brought to their lives. “We want to lift the veil of secrecy around these issues and give women the opportunity to learn from each other,” she says.

A second collaboration, also at Women’s College Hospital, examines peri-natal sexuality and postpartum depression. Although many questions have centred on the resumption of sexual intercourse during these periods, she notes that discussion to date has been male-focused.

By challenging models developed in the late 1960s and 1970s by researchers such as Masters and Johnson, who concentrated on sexual function rather than desire, Chivers’ revolutionary research has opened up a whole new area of inquiry. While acknowledging the huge scope of this task, she is enthusiastic about taking it on.

For more information on Prof. Meredith Chivers’ research ...


[Queen's Alumni Review 2009-4 cover]