Fifteen minutes of fame and a chance to meet Oprah -- most of us would jump at it. Marta Meana? She had to think it over.
The psychology professor's new theory on what ignites desire in women recently was featured in a lengthy article in The New York Times' Sunday magazine. She received hundreds of e-mails from readers afterward as well as a call from The Oprah Winfrey Show producers, who were surprised at her initial reluctance to appear.
When it comes to sex research, salaciousness tends to win out over helpful information in media coverage, said Meana, president-elect of the Society of Sex Therapy and Research.
"I'm not in this to become a celebrity, and people in my field tend to worry about how their work will be portrayed," Meana said. "But I thought about it and figured, what's the point of academia if it's not to give it away? Even if there is some misrepresentation of oversimplification, it's probably a lot better than nothing at all."
Maybe It's Not the Relationship
Meana, whose groundbreaking research on sexual pain disorders led to much more effective treatments, has made headlines for her developing new theory on female desire. In reviewing past research, she found that 30-40 percent of women report low desire. "The way I see it, if 30 percent of a population has a 'disorder,' maybe it's not a disorder. There's something amiss with how we're looking at it."
So Meana began dissecting what could be amiss. At the same time, graduate student Karen Sims decided to study low desire among otherwise happily married women for her dissertation. What they found goes against conventional wisdom: It's not all about commitment and love.
"If it were, then the sex should be thriving in these long-term relationships," Meana said. "Women value the relationship more than they value exciting sex, but that's not the same thing as saying that a fulfilling relationship necessarily leads to fulfilling sex."
A better understanding of what turns women on may lead to better practices in therapy. Often, when low desire becomes a problem for women, therapists approach the issue by working on the relationship.
"We live in a world where we still feel very uncomfortable talking about female sexuality unless we place it in the realm of relationships," she said. But if the problem isn't the relationship, as Meana believes is often the case, then "fixing" the relationship therapy isn't going to improve the sex.
So What Does Turn Women On?
It's complicated, Meana says, but sex researchers are now realizing the important role that being desired plays in arousing a women's sex drive. "Being desired means that a man doesn't just want to have sex, he wants to have sex with you," Meana told the Oprah audience.
And women may need the "exciting stuff" even more than men. "People will tell you that male sexuality is very novelty dependent, but it's not like that doesn't work for women," she said. "It might be that sex has to be even more exciting for women as for men because their drive for sex is a more sensitive, fragile affair."
Meana's analysis of female sexual desire will be published later this year in The Annual Review of Sex Research, and she is planning further studies. She also presented her analysis at national conferences so other interested researchers can test her theories.