It’s a strange anomaly of male behaviour.
Builders are the only men who feel free
to shout loudly at passing females.
Journalists, for example, do not bawl, “Oi, love,
do you want to see the short piece I have to get
in by the end of the day?
Ha ha ha!” Uber drivers don’t cry, “Hello darling,
haven’t you got anything smaller? Ha ha ha!”
And politicians are not prone to declaring,
“Over here, sweetheart – do you want to see
the size of my majority? Ha ha ha!”
Only builders jeer. Nobody else. Hairy-armed builders
have always commented freely on passing women, and,
even this deep into the 21st century, they still do,
totally undeterred by 50 years of feminism or even,
some would say, common decency.
Men working on building sites still cling to
the old ways, the archaic rituals of a time
when bawling, “Oi, darling!” was legitimate foreplay.
Wolf-whistling, catcalling, skirt-bothering builders
recreate an age that has long disappeared
into the mists of history.
They make a pantomime of old-school sexism,
a you-don’t-get-many-of-them-to-the-pound world
where the concept of sexual harassment didn’t exist.
They are quite literally re-enactors, going
through the motions of men from another time,
Wolf whistling always felt like the very last gasp of
the unreconstructed lad. It was somewhere beyond old-fashioned.
It was the echo of an age long dead. But then a 23-year-old
woman called Linda Smart reported a bunch of jeering builders
to the police. And suddenly the sex war was back on.
At first she ignored them. But as she walked past
the building site the shouting and the physical
intimidation went on for a month. In the end Linda
complained to the police about sexual harassment.
She became front-page news. To begin with, the case was
reported with an air of you-couldn’t-make-it-up disbelief,
as if here was a modern classic of political correctness gone mad.
The builders were portrayed as purveyors of harmless fun,
upholding a ribald tradition that nobody should take too
seriously, while Linda herself was presented as a prissy
little middle-class killjoy making a fuss about nothing.
“Wolf whistling is part and parcel of working on a site,”
said one of the bewildered builders. “It’s complimenting a girl!”
But the truth was more complicated. Linda had called
the police after a builder had physically blocked
her path and scared her witless.
“He was probably 18 or 19, and got right
in my face, standing next to an older man.”
“He didn’t touch me but they were in my personal
space on the pavement, in my way, even though
I blanked him. It’s incredibly intimidating.
Wolf whistling is not against the law – although making
obscene remarks can constitute a breach of the peace.
On Her Way to
Occupy Wall Street
Sex & Brain Activity
Most of what we know about how the brain responds
during sex comes from studies of young heterosexual men.
These specimens are found in abundance on college campuses
and are only too willing to volunteer for sex studies.
The Brain During Orgasm
We can think of sex as a play with different acts. The first act is desire, the next one is sexual stimulation and pleasure, and the final act is the aftermath, the languorous glow of the sexually sated.
It’s hard to study what happens in the brain during orgasm. In French literature, the release from orgasm is famously referred to as la petite mort, the little death.
Freud thought that orgasms opened the way for Thanatos (the death instinct) after Eros had departed. These death images capture the lassitude that follows orgasm, but not the emotionally satisfied feeling.
The satisfied state probably results from release of a combination of beta-endorphins, prolactin, and oxytocin. The hypothalamus regulates the production of prolactin and oxytocin. Prolactin, a hormone that helps women produce milk when breastfeeding, contributes to the sense of sexual satiety.
At least in men, prolactin plays an important role in the refractory period after orgasm during which men have little further sexual desire.
Given the blockbuster sales to men of drugs like Viagra, it is no surprise that prolactin-inhibiting drugs are being researched with the hope of minimizing this refractory period. Oxytocin is a hormone associated with trust and a sense of affiliation.
In sex, it is the “cuddling” hormone. Users of the death metaphor for the post-orgasmic state simply ignore the warm glow of endorphins and oxytocin, unless they know something about death that the rest of us do not.
When people are sexually satisfied, they have more neural activity in the lateral OFC. This is the same pattern of increased neural activity seen in people who are sated with food.
Neural activity in this area suppresses our reflexive tendency to act on urges. Damage to this area as well as to the anterior and medial temporal lobe can produce hypersexuality.
These areas that regulate behavior, either because desires have been satisfied or because acting on desires could get us into trouble, were almost certainly damaged in the patient that made a grab for me.
Pleasures are more than simple reflexive reactions to desirable things. We saw this principle with food, and the same applies to sex. The context in which we encounter objects makes a big difference in our subjective experiences.
For example, pain can topple into pleasure. Women have higher thresholds for pain when sexually aroused. These thresholds increase on average by 40% with vaginal stimulation and by 100% near and during orgasm.
Despite these changes in what counts as pain, the sensation itself is not dulled and is no less arousing. Rather, the same intense sensation is not experienced as pain. In the brain, the insula and anterior cingulate are active during arousal.
These same areas are active when people feel pain. Curiously, people’s faces take on similar contortions when experiencing intense pain as when experiencing orgasms. Here the sensations producing pain are still experienced, but they are not unpleasant.
Why should brains have a mechanism to keep the arousing properties of pain and discard their unpleasant ones? The adaptive significance of this mechanism is probably to reframe the pain of childbirth.
Minimizing pain during the “vaginal stimulation” of childbirth is a good thing if women are to repeat the event. This adaptive mechanism explains why otherwise painful stimulation can be pleasurable during sex.
The sensations remain intense and during sexual arousal are not aversive. An adaptive mechanism that evolved for procreation got co-opted for recreation.
Pleasure helps us learn. In animals, food or juices are commonly used as rewards. In the same way that food can be paired with something neutral to make Pavlov’s dogs salivate to bells and whistles, sex can be associated with neutral objects. This association is one way that fetishes develop.
In the 1960s, researchers exposed young men to sexually arousing images along with knee-high boots. After the exposure, these men found boots sexually arousing. Linking sex to neutral things may be especially powerful during adolescence when our brains and behavior are being molded by sex hormones.
This phenomenon explains in part why fetishes can seem bizarre to people who do not share the fetish. It is the intrinsic neutrality of the fetish object that makes it seem so strange if you have not had the experience of pairing it with the pleasure of sex.