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In a move that could itself be the basis for a sexy, erotic romance, Bailey measured his viewers’ responses both by asking them to self-report, and by using a device called a plethysmograph. For male participants, a mercury-in-rubber ring was placed around their penis. As an erection developed, the ring expanded, and Bailey recorded the change in circumference. For the women, a clear acrylic rod inserted into their vaginas contained a light source that shone on the capillaries of the vaginal wall. The more aroused a woman became, the more engorged with blood her vagina became and the more darkly her vaginal walls glittered with moisture.
The results for men, Bailey says, were as expected. Their arousal was “category-specific.” Men were turned on, in other words, only by the categories of people they prefer to have sex with. The women, however, had a different, far more surprising pattern of arousal: It didn’t matter whether the women said they were gay or straight, they were turned on by all the films. Bailey concluded that men’s and women’s brains are likely organized differently.
As you might guess, Bailey is a controversial figure. That study, published in the journal Psychological Science, as well as his other research concerning the etiology of sexual arousal, has been attacked by everyone from The Washington Times and conservative congressmen to gay activists. (Bailey was also one of the first researchers to suggest that homosexuality is substantially genetic.)
But why should a woman be turned on by a variety of stimuli any more so than a man? It may not make sense politically, but one of Bailey’s co-researchers, Meredith Chivers, might have found an answer by pushing the reasoning even further. She speculates that women’s genitals tend to lubricate in the presence of sexual cues as a defense against rape. Ancestral women whose bodies didn’t automatically lubricate during unwanted vaginal penetration might have sustained more serious injuries and would not have survived to pass the trait along to offspring. Becoming physically (if not mentally) aroused by a whiff of sex in the air, in other words, is evolutionarily adaptive for women.
Which is not of course the same thing as pleasure. On that score, Bailey’s findings are reinforced by Abramson’s scientific experiments on masturbation from the early ’70s. He showed his subjects films of people masturbating to orgasm. As in the other studies, straight women were aroused equally by both genders. Abramson concluded that women are equally adept at imagining themselves as either the pleasurer or the receiver.
Or simply the observer. Women, it seems, are hardwired to love gay, male sex.
“This is not something new,” Prof. Penley says. “It just has more possibilities to manifest itself now.”
Stephanie Vaughan scans the romance shelves at the Orange Town & Country Barnes & Noble. “Nope, nope. They won’t have it,” she says. Vaughan is one of the genre’s best-known authors, yet none of her books is here. For that matter, neither are those by Buchanan or other gay-romance authors.
There aren’t any gay romances here, in fact. Not even in the gay and lesbian section, which is lumped in with philosophy. Here, absurdly, Aristotle can be found next to The Guide to Ultimate Gay Sex. Vaughan flips through the guide, turning it this way and that. A man in the next aisle raises his head, sees what she’s looking at, and scurries away.
With auburn, bobbed hair, wearing a necklace of colored hearts, and a blousy red sweater, Vaughan is the quintessential suburban soccer mom. “I get that a lot,” she says, smiling at the contrast. “Writing smut is such an odd talent. I’ve always believed in finding what your gift is and giving it back to the world. Mine is to create romance for people who haven’t had a lot of it.”
“Vaughan” is a pen name. She lives and works in famously conservative Orange County, and has a husband and a 17-year-old son. “I have yet to find a genetic XY human who writes gay, erotic romance,” she says, trailing her finger along the rows of glossy, candy-colored paperbacks, all heaving bosoms and naked torsos.
“This stuff! There doesn’t seem to be any limit to how well it sells,” she says, picking up a book by Stephenie Meyer off an entire table of Twilight teenage vampire novels. “See? You look at that and think, ‘Why not me?’ ”
Vaughan is beloved for her Off World series, in which Sarhaan, a gruff, manly, genetically enhanced soldier falls for Caleb, a svelte, young, aristocratic diplomat. It is an attraction of opposites, set in outer space. “Sarhaan is based on Worf, from Star Trek,” Vaughan explains.
Her first five books were straight romances. Then she ran across an ad on craigslist: “The guy had had it with girls. He said he’s jumping the fence.” Soon followed Jumping the Fence, in 2005, her first gay, erotic romance. Next came a short story in the gay-romance anthology Kegs and Dorms, about college boys. “That was my ode to Grant Imahara in the TV show MythBusters. He’s so cute. It takes place on a train. Grant and someone else hook up en route.” The sales were miserable. Not even 100 copies. Off World did better, though, selling in the thousands.
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