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The male characters in gay romances, then, are perhaps men only superficially. At heart they’re women. They may look like boys, and make love with male bodies, but they think and act and love like girls.
But can the body and mind be divorced so readily? Or at all? Desire, after all, is shadowy, the daughter of both flesh and mind.
Penley finds evolutionary biology too reductive, but ironically certain biological studies bear her out when she says that who we are aroused by, and who we identify with, is much more fluid than we might expect. (At least, the studies support her thesis where women are concerned.) In 2004, Northwestern University Professor Michael Bailey published the findings of his study on sexual arousal. He had shown to men and women brief, sexually explicit films of two women having oral sex, two women with a strap-on dildo, two men performing fellatio, or male-female couples.
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.”