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Positive Feedback ISSUE 3
october/november 2002


Gendered Audio: Why Sex Matters
by Auro D’Oro


(Following is our first contribution from "Auro D’Oro," our shadowy nom de plumiest of a different color. People will ask, "Who IS this mysterious stranger who writes so movingly about les objets d’audio, and life, the cosmos…and the gizmos thereof?? Is it the never-revealed ‘S.N. Seven’ of years ago? The return of Gizmo, come to haunt us from between the electrons?!"

Nay, friends, nay! Speculate not! I am sworn to a terrible secrecy about the identity of this contributor. Read on, reflect, ponder, and enjoy…but do not ask me to pierce the mystery of yon identity, for this I shall never do.

The cartoon, by the way, is the work of Bruce Walker, a fine artist in his own right…Ye Olde Editor)

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Meditating on the different responses male and female humans have to music—particularly reproduced music—it doesn’t take a student of the subtle or an analyst of the veiled subconscious to conclude that listening to music is one of the next best things to sex, for men. Well, not for all men, but certainly for audiophiles. For women, it’s nearly incomprehensible that this should be so. Women are apparently wired differently. Reading the letters to the editor of the Audio-Press, it soon becomes clear: guys outdo each other in rhapsodizing—the place between the speakers isn’t just the "sweet spot," it’s their "G spot." Other pleasure providers might be various mood enhancers, winning at gambling, a triumph in the real world, a fine single malt, a good cigar, whatever. For generations guys have been saying, "A woman is only a woman, but a good cigar is a smoke." Women don’t catch on that such protestations are not at all ironic, or using sexual metaphors as a means to titillate. They think men, including their husbands, are avidly into one-upping their pals with the latest and greatest of boys’ toys, and admittedly there is some of that motive in operation, a variation on "Mine is bigger than yours." (My rig is red hot, your rig ain’t doodley squat.)

I am not a psychologist, sexologist, sociologist, biochemist, or audiologist. I have no research data or statistics manipulating skill with which to support my notions that are grounded in nothing like scientific evidence—just anecdotal hearsay and random reading. From these I derive my opinions, outrageous as they may seem, my musings, or to lend my efforts some dignity—my pensées—and I take full blame or credit for them. I think the cat is out of the bag, now, and we understand that good audio playback systems are capable of giving men near-sexual pleasure. How is it that men and women have such diverse responses to recorded music? In the audio universe, sex matters—a lot.

If Newsweek’s (always politically correct) cover story on "Female Sexuality" (a few years back) is any example, it seems discussions of gender differences are permitted just now. Since gender difference is a hot topic, I thought I’d tie it to audio, because—as anyone on the quest for audio truth well knows—in our universe, everything ties in to audio.

Men and women are different, but that is not to say unequal. Following Newsweek, women’s sexuality is relationship driven and not focused on the big "O" of orgasm, while men’s response to sexual stimuli is primarily to get it up and get it off. Men and women are equal before the law and before eternity, but they are surely different as rams and ewes. Their realities, their perceptions, their sensoria, are different. Due to hormonally related reproductive and life-cycle stuff (testosterone production), in the aggregate men have a drop off of high frequency hearing that begins at about age twenty, becomes noticeable at thirty-five, and continues to roll off some demonstrable amount per year. The June, 2000 KEF advertising campaign shows a graphic with a photo of a speaker under the header, "hearing aid." Sound familiar? The hearing-loss-with-age curve almost perfectly overlays the curve for sexual activity decline with age. They both peter out with time. A Boston Acoustics recent advertising campaign features indoor/outdoor speakers of which it is said, "They rock. They roll. They stay out all night." So I’m not the first to understand the hidden persuaders of marketing, nor the felt needs advertising agencies are targeting. For men, audio is all tied up with aging and sexuality.

Women, owing to their estrogen levels, don’t experience such high-frequency hearing loss until after menopause, but after that (say, age forty-five) they begin to catch up, so that at age sixty men and women are both in about the same place (dBs down with frequency) on the hearing curve. Men experience a gradual droop over time; women hold constant for a long time and then experience a sharp drop. I’m not sure if women’s sexual activity so directly mirrors their high-frequency loss curve, or, if so, what that means. I’ll mention that Newsweek claims menopausal women go through hormonal and physiological changes that suggest (in the aggregate) certain sexual activities become painful. But individual women vary from one another quite widely.

For about thirty-five years of the life-cycle (the marriage years) men and women are out of synch concerning how and what they hear, which may mar domestic tranquility. Men don’t catch the trebles as easily as they did in their youth. Think of nearsightedness as a metaphor for treble loss. With increased age, for men lyrics become fuzzy and indistinct, masked by instrumental sounds at normal listening levels, and they have to squint to avoid missing out on conversation as well as musical recordings. Men want reproduced music to be cleaner and crisper to overcome their increasing failure to focus and discriminate fine detail with age. Right on KEF! Men compensate by turning up the volume. As whimsical poet Ogden Nash so presciently said before the advent of audiophilia, "Marriage is the inevitable union of two persons, one of whom prefers to sleep with the windows up."

Women often can hear annoying things out of men’s range. Certain pitches I remember hearing in my adolescence are lost to me now, but my wife complains about them. Things like fly-back transformers on older TV sets that have a characteristic "whistle" above 15k Hz, fluorescent tube noise, light bulb filaments about to fail, she hears. Moreover, recent research at Texas A&M University (reported by Dr. Mary W. Meagher and Dr. Jamie Rhudy, in The Journal of Pain, Feb 2001) suggests women have a lower threshold of sensitivity to loudness. This research, confirms what every married couple already knows: what the husband thinks is loud enough, the wife thinks is too loud. Briefly, what most tested men consider "startling," most tested women consider "painful." Women are annoyed by overly loud music. It hurts them.

I remember when our kids were little, my wife could discriminate our kids’ voices from among a roomful of kids at play and she kept cool while I reacted to almost all vocal distress calls and jumped up to investigate. ("Lost piping" the academics call it, and we’re hardwired to react to urgent pleas from our li’l uns.) She knew our kids’ cry of "Mommy! Mommeee!" from the dozen other similar cries. From this I inferred women could do what we now call "voice printing." I can similarly differentiate among my favorite saxophonists in a few seconds. I’d have thought such an ability to recognize the subtle differences between kiddie voices transferable to saxophone players, or jazz singers. But to this day my wife mistakes Ella Fitzgerald for Sarah Vaughan, which is, to me, a more obvious difference than the voices of our kiddie daughters—now grown to a soprano and a contralto. Of course! She has no relationship with Ella or Sarah. They are not her children. Imagine the sound of palm slapping forehead.

Fine treble details I used to hear in music are now, alas, lost to me. That doesn’t mean I’m deaf. I hear lots of stuff very well, and I am ferociously sensitive to sibilance and spit in recordings, but I have lacunae in my hearing, mostly high frequency dips in the curve. To compensate, I listen more loudly than my wife. She puts up with me. Maybe if all audio wives understood the phenomenon of age-related loudness compensation for high-frequency roll-off, they’d be more stoic Venusians. They’d realize it was in their interest to listen to the music turned up a little, rather than have their husbands on the street and out all night looking for some gal who’d rock and roll and make them feel young again. Maybe if all husbands understood that women are driven up the wall by stuff we barely hear, stuff we can barely remember from adolescence, they’d be less belligerent Martians. And then there is all that calumniating of each other’s "taste." But another thing (I think) I am not is—a marriage counselor. Que sais-je?

That humans are hard-wired to be pleasure-seeking beings was plainly self-evident to Epicurus and the classical Hedonistic philosophers, a list that sometimes includes the relatively modern Utilitarians, Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill. We can appreciate each of our five senses in exquisite degrees of differentiation. Read the literature on perfume, or wine and cheese, or performed music and you find specialized vocabularies of real, if subtle, differences in scent, taste, and hearing. Similarly, visual vocabularies with which to discuss art, sculpture, photography, and plain ole walkin’ around lookin’ at stuff.

Then there is the language of touch. I recently read that we have a vastly disproportionate number of nerve ends in our fingertips. The folk-wisdom of neurologists has it that "brain surgery begins in the hands." Of course, in the extreme, we can experience pain in each of these realms too. As kids we learn to avoid pain and seek pleasure, and if that gets blurred early in life we can become little sadists and masochists. That is not what I’m about here. But it might be a good mystery novel, "The Case of The Sadistic Audiophile."

I’m an Ethical Hedonist, and we are different from our wives. Viva La Difference! We have treble roll off. We tolerate loudness. We value the startle response. In addition, we have something like the ability to project our selves into exultant situations via spectator sports ("the thrill of victory, the agony of defeat"), movies ("I felt like Rocky when he beat the Russian."), visual pornography ("When I saw Miss Hardcore seat herself on her leading man, it was as if I felt her tactile presence on me."), and music ("I was so carried away I reached for my ‘air-guitar’ and played along."). Women seem more tuned-in to relationships; in sports ("I was so sorry for Martina Hingis when Mary Pierce beat her."), movies ("I was so happy for Meg Ryan when she got together with the sleepless Tom Hanks."), love stories (there is even a Romance cable channel that shows nothing but), and music. "Isn’t it great how Christy Baron sings ‘She’s Not There’ [Steppin’, Chesky Records, 2000] from the woman’s view? Not a zombie’s?"

Men and women are 180 degrees out of phase, or women are on FM while men are on whole wheat toast. I know it proves nothing, but have you ever seen a woman play "air-guitar" or even "air-baton"? Maybe it has something to do with masculine vying for dominance in the male hierarchy (another of the hardwired DNA masculine curses), but I’ve never seen a guy fantasize about being a backup musician. I have lived intimately with five women in my life: my moms, my sis, my wife; and my very musically able and accomplished daughters whom I call, when they sing, "The Pointless Sisters." And while they each have great involvement in music, including decades of training at the local Conservatory and summer music camps, none has ever played "air guitar" or "air baton." If you think my sample too small to be statistically significant, I’ll remind you that the great Swiss psychologist, Jean Piaget, developed a whole system of cognitive-developmental psychology by observing his own children: that is, his N was three. I’ll be the first to admit, I am no Piaget, and again I’ll offer my stock disclaimer, "What do I know?" But it is suggestive that there haven’t been too many women involved in audio.

Is it possible that men have access to their pleasure centers in some ways that differ from women? Even though our sensory apparatus seems nearly identical? Guys seem to be able to Zen themselves into a state of blissfulness while listening to music, a state reached by certain meditative techniques, and characterized by certain physiological conditions that could be measured if someone had the time and money to conduct properly designed research. I have a hunch audio induced bliss states would mimic trance states if we measured body temperature, respiration, heart rate, R.E.M. (Rapid Eye Movement), various brain-waves, and endorphins in the blood (with stratified random samples, control groups, and double blind procedures, or whatever methodological means that would meet the academic requirements).

But, again, what do I know? This bliss-like trance state is one the Eastern mystics teach how to reach by using traditional methods—fasting, sleep deprivation, ingestion of mood-altering substances, standing on one’s head, enduring fevers—and once you’ve learned how to achieve bliss, they warn it is a an illusion one has to pass through to attain truly disciplined enlightenment. Bliss-like trance is a recognizably seductive step on the path toward greater enlightenment. It is so commonly seen as a trap, it is warned against.

In some ways this bliss-like state is related to sexual ecstasy; that’s why it’s so seductive and guys like getting there, spend lots of time and energy to get there. I’ve heard reports from guys saying they have felt warmth radiating up the spinal column toward the brain as a consequence of listening to recorded music. One guy reported, "It was so pleasurable I reached for my genitals to see if I had an erection, and I was surprised to find I didn’t." Based on this limited sample, and concurring from my own experience, I reason this bliss-like state must lie on the neural map somewhere near the sex-pleasure site, and its function is to manufacture and distribute endorphins, those little bliss molecules, into the blood stream. Of course there is no such map except in my addled mind. Maybe I should claim this non-existent entity, The Male Audio Pleasure (or MAP) Center, and name audio induced pleasure molecules, "Audiones." Nah! I think the perfume industry has me beat, as they have already named some chemical they slip into aftershave to make us feel more studly, "Exaltilide." Seriously! Check it out!

I have seen many photographs of Sadhus, and other Eastern mystics, in blissed-out meditative state, but I have never seen a female mystic in such a photo. Never. The female guru I have seen most video tape and photos of is a Southern Indian woman, the teacher of some old friends of mine. She is often filmed in interaction with others, or doing her version of Sufi-dancing. My informants from the Female World have confided that listening to recorded music, while pleasurable, seldom approaches the bliss-like state for them, and never comes close to actual sex. While women I’ve known have danced themselves into bliss-like states, they have never achieved this rapturous state while sitting in a chair listening to music.

To add to the paradoxical nature of this examination of listening pleasure as analogous to sexual pleasure, I remember a few high spirited teenaged girls demonstrated to my scientifically-minded teenaged self that they could achieve orgasm without any help from me. One girl, when conditions had been agreed to, just sat in the front seat of her family car as I drove down the road, and without any ear nibbling, or hand holding, or any touching of herself, got this most ferocious look of Spelling Bee concentration on her face, like she was trying to remember how to spell Superkalafradgedalisticexpialidocious, got flushed, said "Ungh," and seemed to melt. The unmistakable aroma of jasmine filled her father’s car. Then she looked at me, smiled, and said, "See!" After she showed me that trick, I half expected her to fly. Within a few months I had polled all the girls I could get to go out with me. "I understand some women have this ability to have orgasm without any help. Bet you can’t do that." Something like half could! And that sometimes led to cooperative efforts. At the time, there was no sacrifice I wouldn’t make for Science. The point is, most women can achieve rapture without men, yet don’t experience rapture through reproduced music. It’s a bloomin’ paradox.

Men, who can achieve rapture through listening to recorded music, don’t get off to the music. A mirror-image paradox. Men seem to require friction, rhythm, lubrication, warmth, and scent to get off. (Spot that quote! Who said? "Without the nose, there is no sex.") Women, who have superior hearing and everything required to achieve orgasm within their own physiology, and might get themselves off without touching, by looking at sunsets, or beautiful flowers; women don’t report achieving rapture through listening to recorded music. Doesn’t that beat all?

Maybe it’s age related, a developmental phase they go through, a time in their lives when girls are susceptible to the myth of Orpheus; but it seems through the generations there is always some one guy who plays the music that makes the young girls cry. In Greek mythology Orpheus’s music was so beautiful it soothed wild beasts, caused the trees to dance, the rivers to stand still. In our time we’ve seen how Rudy Vallee, Frank Sinatra, Elvis, The Beatles, even Barry Manilow could make the young girls cry and swoon. I don’t know if crying and swooning goes past adolescence, or if it just gets more controlled, more personal. Tens of thousands of women have packed themselves into Madison Square Garden sized arenas to hear Luciano Pavarotti: they have listened through Public Address systems to hear him, and have peered through binoculars to see him, he who is neither young nor Adonis-like. They neither squeal nor shriek, but they exit smiling that Mona Lisa smile. Women writers I’ve read suggest they have become aroused by a guy’s hand, or how he holds his cigarette, or by a gesture, a glance, a touch, no matter that he’s not the ideal of manly good looks... All this transfers to developing Orphic pop icons, at which the record companies have become most adept.

Maybe, just maybe, the reason women seem disinterested in audio is, they don’t need audio to get to rapture. They can do that on their own. "What’s the big deal? Been there. Done that." I’m suggesting that women experience recorded music in a much more distanced way than men. I can’t say for sure, never having been a woman. Que sais-je? And I have to admit my information is merely anecdotal, merely impressionistic, and with a small sample. But, it’s starting to add up in the incremental way that common sense things do. Intuitively I offer what amounts to an hypothesis: women imagine having a relationship with the current generational Orpheus, they love Orpheus, following their biochemically-induced need for nesting; while men project themselves imaginatively into the role of the current Orpheus, they momentarily become Orpheus via their "air guitar," following their hormonally programmed need to vie for dominance in the male hierarchy.

I’ve seen women singing along to their car audio sitting at stop lights. I’ve seen women boogie around the kitchen to their favorite Motown tunes, or strut their stuff along with Tina Turner. I’ve seen music loving women who could get "in the mood" for something non-specifically sensual through music. I know there are some star-struck groupies who dress up like their favorites, and try to mimic their hairdos, make-up, and finger-nails (like Barbra Streisand’s), and waltz around singing "Feelings." But that isn’t what guys do. It is similar. There are points in identity. But for total congruence I’d have to see women get up and rock on "air guitar," or conduct with "air baton" Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, and I’m still waiting for that.

To sum up! Women have measurably better hearing than men from age twenty to nearly sixty, and they can differentiate subtleties such as "voice printing" of their young. Men’s bonding with the music of their youth seems to put them in touch with their youthful selves. Men have high-frequency roll-off with age and progressively lose fine resolving power. Typically, to compensate, when listening to reproduced music, men turn the volume up. Women, hearing each whistling diode, each too-hot resistor, every sibilant capacitor, every suggestion of electro-mechanical distortion, turn it down. Women experience startlingly loud music as painful. Women can reach rapture alone: men can’t. Women don’t seem to get to "near-bliss" state through music: men can. Women project themselves into fantasy relationships with (live) performers: men seem to project themselves into the star performer’s role. Women love Orpheus: men imagine they become Orpheus. By some mysterious psychological mechanism, men derive great pleasure from audio, even when they’re not being Orpheus: women, being "relationship-driven," don’t derive the same pleasure from recorded music as they do from live performers. Well, maybe, but certainly (from sales data and magazine subscription lists) about one tenth as many. Men seem to develop a kind of attachment to their gear, as great as one can develop with inanimate objects that give pleasure. Women think of audio gear as big boys’ toys.

That’s the way it looks from here. Men and women are at loggerheads about audio because (owing to their differences) they value the audio experience differently. Hell, they experience the audio experience differently. Sounds like audio kinda guys and their significant others have some compromising to do to reach an audio rapprochement. But we oughtta.

Then, again: What do I know?

"Without the nose, there is no sex," was first said by W. Fliess, an early collaborator of Freud’s. I could be wrong: it wasn’t where I thought it was when I looked it up. Hey! "Que sais-je?" What do I know? This has been another mindless pleasure for your amusement and edification. It made momentary sense to me. I hope it makes sense for you. After all, we all love music. One survey I’ve read said that after food, clothing, and shelter, music was the thing we’d each like least to live without. That makes music more important than sex, or "Death by Chocolate" ice-cream. My modest proposal is that the sexes should agree to terms about the role of recorded music in their relationships. No small matter.