What Being Editor in Chief of Playgirl Taught Me About Female Desire

The case for abandoning the myth that "women aren't visual."
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Playgirl

On the day of my job interview at Playgirl, the current editor in chief had flipped through an issue, giving cursory descriptions of the photos in a tone that fell somewhere between jaded and annoyed. "Naked guy fixing a car, naked guy with tan lines from his thong in some kind of a jungle setting, TV stars we think are hot—freeze frame on Don Johnson's Johnson, nice! Black guy is the centerfold in some silky bedroom, guy on a leopard print couch, another guy on leopard print pillows—he's uncircumcised—and a threesome of two guys and a girl in a car wash."

I fixed a bored, nonchalant look on my face, which I hoped conveyed to her that I saw this kind of thing every day.

I was then asked to write the "boy copy" to accompany a naked pictorial of well-muscled man running naked on a sand dune. Naked Sand Dune Guy posed suggestively with a spear in his hand and, later, lounging on some pillows that looked like they came from Pier One Imports. My only way to connect with all of this was to look at the whole experience as a comedy writing job. But I figured there had to be some women out there who actually got turned on by the images in our magazine.

"Who exactly reads Playgirl, anyway?"

It was a question I got all the time during my time at Playgirl, where I eventually became editor in chief. I knew what it implied—that no straight woman in her right mind would actually volunteer to look at naked male genitalia. But the magazine, which has been a cultural icon since its inception in 1973, is not just for gay men. Some women like their beefcake, and others (like me) prefer the skinny rockstar look. But I was pretty sure that all of us, at some point, want to ogle naked men. Because I felt so certain that there was a female audience for Playgirl and because there was little demographic research made available to me, I began to seek these women out.

One of them was Sarah, a divorced single mother from the Midwest who had entered our "Win-a-Date with the Centerfold of the Century" contest. On a hot summer day, I picked her up at LaGuardia and she chattered non-stop all the way to her complimentary hotel in Manhattan about how excited she was that she was actually going to meet Jean-Michel. (Yes, that was really his name.) Petite, young, and attractive she wasn't the type I expected. But she and our hunk got a couples' massage, took a carriage ride through Central Park, and to my knowledge, stuck to the clause in their signed contracts agreeing not to have sexual intercourse.

Then there were the throngs of women the other editors and I met on a night out scouting for new talent at Hunkmania. I figured stuffing dollar bills into the G-strings of hunks with enough oil on their chests to keep us from fracking for at least a decade was the enterprise of bored suburban housewives, but these were hot young 20-somethings cheering and screaming for the guys. At the office, when I opened our Centerfolds' fanmail, the envelopes were addressed in girly, bubble handwriting. Along with glitter and confetti, out of these letters spilled all the dirty things these women wanted to do with our hunks.

And although the men in our magazine were never my cup of tea, it bothered me that people would repeat the old refrain that "men are visual" and women require an emotional connection in order for their panties to get wet. The idea that women ARE visual when it comes to sex makes people uncomfortable.

It's a lot safer to say that women prefer erotic fiction ("he put his hand on my pulsing sex") or the images found in a silly romantic comedy montage: couples holding hands, feeding each other strawberries, and taking long, luxurious bubble baths together. The idea that we want to be visually turned on, that we expect potential partners to be visually appealing (and not just good providers or charming jokesters) is, to many people, pretty threatening.

A recent study at the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis backs up my theory. Study leader Andrey Anokhin measured the brain activity of women while they were viewing erotic images. Anokhin expected the women's response to be slower compared to men, which would align with previous research on the subject, but in fact it was just as fast. "Women have responses as strong as those seen in men," he said.

Whether it's Daniel Craig emerging from the ocean in a cock-revealing bathing suit, Brad Pitt in Fight Club or Adam from Girls with his shirt off (yes, please) women desire visual stimulation just as much as the next guy.

Women may not be turned on by a full-page picture of a penis the way men might like to look at close-ups of vaginas in porn, but what we're discovering is that male and female sexual desire is more alike than different.

In his new book, What Do Women Want? Adventures in the Science of Female Desire, journalist Daniel Bergner finds there can be a vast divide between what society expects women to desire and what actually turns them on. In an interview with Time he explains how scientific evidence forces us to reevaluate old assumptions about women and sex. "We're speaking in generalities here, but on average, we're told that women are sexually programmed to seek out one good man and thus more suited to monogamy. That seems so convenient and comforting to men and so soothing to society, that we can rely on women as a kind of social glue." By citing studies using plethysmography, which measures blood flow to the vagina, Bergner begins to demystify a subject that had previously seemed unknowable. Instead of relying on hearsay about what women want, we are challenged to look at the hard science.

Harry Reis, professor of psychology at the University of Rochester and a co-author of a study published in the February 2013 issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology says that while the psychological differences between men and women have historically been neatly lumped into two distinct categories, statistical evidence does not support that. The study authors write:

Contrary to the assertions of pop psychology titles like Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus, it is untrue that men and women think about their relationships in qualitatively different ways... Even leading researchers in gender and stereotyping can fall into the same trap.

What turns women on is not a mystery wrapped in an enigma. The pervasive idea that female arousal is a circuitous, delicate, and finicky thing is a sneaky way of spaying us. It's certainly more socially acceptable for men to value physical appearance. Case in point—male nudity at the movies. When we see male nudity on film it's often played for laughs. While men (and women) are treated to Halle Berry's breasts, the best we girls can get is "joke dick"—think Jason Segel in Forgetting Sarah Marshall or Mark Wahlberg at the end of Boogie Nights. If we acknowledge that women are visual creatures then it puts more pressure on men to look good. While a shlubby sitcom writer might try to convince us that hot girls do, in fact, want to marry fat, funny bald guys, most women want to be visually attracted to their partner. In fact, a 2012 survey conducted by Harris Interactive revealed that physical attraction matters to both men and women. Seventy-eight percent of over 1,000 men and women polled said being attracted to their partner is "very important."

Sexuality is not a one-size-fits all proposition. And I'll admit that many women are not turned on by the images in Playgirl. But I'm against downplaying the strength, vigor and animalistic quality of female sexual arousal by dressing it up with flowers and chocolate-dipped strawberries. When it belongs to the right person, a naked male body can be exactly what a woman wants.

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Ronnie Koenig is a freelance writer based New York City. She the author of the forthcoming book Am I Your Mother? A Memoir of Love, Girl Scouts and Figuring This Whole Baby Thing Out.

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