“Visiting a sex lab completely changed my understanding of female desire”

Written by Rosie Wilby

When an opportunity to participate in a ‘sex lab’ came comedian Rosie Wilby’s way, she thought it might be an interesting way to discover more about herself. It ended up changing her entire understanding of sexuality and desire…   

Back in the 1990s, while studying at York University, I tentatively and fleetingly came out as bisexual. However, in such homophobic times, many activists felt it was important to ‘stand up and be counted’ and this seemed to encourage more of a gay or straight binary than the fuzzier spectrum of queerness that we embrace now. In fact, many fluid, bi and curious women came out as ‘political lesbians’, rejecting men in order to make a feminist statement. I wanted to be a good feminist too. And all my deep romantic attachments were with women. So I switched my label to ‘lesbian’ and started to exclusively date women.

So, nearly 30 years later, when an opportunity to participate in a ‘sex lab’ pops up on my Twitter timeline, I feel intrigued. Perhaps I might finally discover whether, in making that decision, I erased something of my own identity.

I’ve read about these sex studies before, many of them taking place in the US with heterosexual participants being wired up to computers to measure their genital arousal and pupil dilation (also an involuntary response to arousal and attraction) while they look a range of ‘erotic’ images. The findings often point to straight women seeming to display a much broader pattern of arousal than straight men. Straight women seem to be equally turned on by watching clips of either men or women. Whereas straight men, apparently, display a strong preference for women.

This particular experiment, at the University of Essex, is exclusively for women who identify as ‘lesbian’. Well, that’s me… isn’t it? 

I arrive at the lab, enter a cosy private booth, settle into a reclining chair and have my eyes lined up with a camera to measure my pupil dilation. Over an intercom, a friendly researcher invites me to insert the ‘sterilised vaginal probe’ (which apparently works by bouncing light against the vaginal walls and reading the illumination that bounces back… thus measuring blood flow and lubrication and thereby indicating your level of arousal). I remove what looks like a sort of techno-tampon from a sealed package and break open one of the sachets of lube.

It squirts over my hand and I have way too much to slather over the tiny techno-tampon. Standing awkwardly with my jeans around my hips, l slide the device in and throw myself back down into position on the chair to stop it from slipping right back out again.

“How’s it going?” asks the researcher over the intercom.

“All good, thanks,” I reply, slightly flustered.

“Great. I’ll just check your pupils are still lined up… could you move slightly to the right… that’s perfect. OK, I’ll play the images now. There’ll be a few prompts in between the clips. Just use the mouse to respond.”

Soothing clouds float across blue skies in front of my eyes.

The screen abruptly flicks to a yellowish bedroom. A blonde woman is lying on the floor masturbating, next to some discarded headphones and a haphazard pile of magazines. 

Adopting a stomach-crunch position to try to keep my head aligned with the camera, I think, ‘I challenge anyone to actually feel aroused in this situation.’

After a couple of minutes, the screen goes black and a question appears.

How likely would you be to date this person?

What the actual fuck?

I consider how likely I would be to date a heterosexual porn actor roughly half my age. I imagine this would be very unlikely indeed. However, I’m feeling generous. I give her a five out of 10. 

The screen then switches to a calming image of the African savanna. This must be the control clip to return me to a ‘normal’ arousal state. I hear a familiar voice, which immediately transports me back to the innocence of my nerdy nature-loving childhood.

As the seasons change and the rain comes, the grasses spring up once again.

Bloody hell… it’s David Attenborough.

Before I get too engrossed in the fast-motion shots of greenery emerging from the desert plains, my visual panorama alters. This time, a man is lying back on a leather sofa fondling his erect penis. ‘At least that’s a wipeable surface,’ I think.

Mind you, there’s something about this man with his dark, playful eyes and firm stomach that connects with me. Curious, I lean in a little. Seeing a naked man feels like a novelty. I can’t think when it was… it must have been that time… well, anyway, it’s been a long time.

The clip gets cut off just as he was getting really into it. I can’t help but feel a little disappointed.

How likely would you be to date this person?

This is complicated. I actually felt more interested in looking at him because I could see his face and he was looking at the camera. And yet I’m a lesbian. So surely I would be less likely to go out with a man. I don’t want to get caught out and be ejected from the experiment. What if they think I’m a rogue heterosexual woman masquerading as a lesbian? Quite what any forty-something straight woman would be doing bunking off work and pretending to be gay just to get paid £90 for watching dimly lit erotica in physically uncomfortable conditions, I don’t know. I give him four out of 10, one point less than the woman.

During the next David Attenborough clip, I momentarily recall a chapter from a book I once read called What Do Women Want? In one chapter, the author, New York Times journalist Daniel Bergner (the irony that a man wrote this book is not lost on me) interviews a female scientist who has conducted similar experiments over a number of years. Where men tend to have a strong correlation between what they are physically turned on by and what they say they’re turned on by, women often have a complete disconnect between the two. Decades of social conditioning prompt us to judge ourselves, play down our hungrier, private, animal instincts and assume that our arousal must surely be narrowly aligned with our publicly stated sexual preferences. I have just done exactly that, I think.

However, the researcher’s hypothesis, laid out in the article I read before applying, is that lesbians might have a more ‘masculine’ specificity of desire. He is anticipating that I will be turned on by women and women alone. Yet as the images unendingly alternate between women and men – on a bed, on a chair, leaning against a wall or kneeling on a tasteful rug – I feel equally intrigued by all of it.

When I get home, I say to my wife, “I think I sometimes fancy men.”

“Yeah, me too,” she says, quite unperturbed.

She just gets it… and gets me.

In the old days, I’d have whisked her off to bed. But I have a flashback to the sticky lube and the techno tampon, and I head for the shower.

A few weeks later, I receive an email with some details of my results. According to the graphs, I really had been equally aroused by both the images of men and women. Sadly, they weren’t monitoring my vaginal blood flow during the David Attenborough clips.

Further correspondence reveals they found that only 30% of lesbian women actually demonstrate what they call a ‘masculine specificity of desire’. It turns out that the majority of lesbians are turned on by everything… just like straight and bisexual women. So perhaps my label isn’t so fraudulent after all. And it might be our wider cultural assumptions about female sexuality, and our lack of willingness to embrace and accept the vast, varied and sweeping landscape of women’s desires, that are in far more urgent need of an update.

Rosie Wilby is the host of The Breakup Monologues podcast and author of the book of the same name (Bloomsbury; £12.99), which is out now. 

Images: Getty

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