Researchers at Muhlenberg College in Pennsylvania released a study earlier this month suggesting that works by American painter Georgia O’Keeffe appear more erotic to women who are in the fertile phase of their menstrual cycle. The study found that participants were more likely to use sexual terms to describe O’Keeffe’s art in the days leading up to and including ovulation. After ovulation, the paintings appeared less suggestive.
The research team began by polling a group of students to determine which of O’Keeffe’s floral paintings bore the strongest resemblance to the female anatomy. The students concluded that “Red Canna” (1923), “Jack-in-the-Pulpit IV” (1930), “Grey Line with Black, Blue and Yellow” (1923), “Red Poppy” (1927) and “Slightly Open Clam Shell” (1926) were the most erotic.
Researchers also selected works by abstract artist Joan Miro and English Romantic painter John Constable — the latter of whom psychologist Jeffrey Rudski described as “the most nonerotic artist I know of” — to serve as control variables.
For the next phase of the study, the researchers turned to 83 female volunteers. The participants were sent one painting by each artist every six days over the course of a month.
The women, who believed they were taking part in a study about mood and perception of art, answered questions about their emotions, stressors and responses to the art. They then wrote open-ended narratives about what the art meant to them. At the end of the study, they were asked whether they were taking hormonal contraception and about the timing and length of their menstrual cycles.
As expected, the participants saw O’Keeffe as more sexual than Miro or Constable. One wrote, “This is a flower that also looks like a vagina emerging out of a fire.”
But responses also depended on hormonal state. Among women who weren’t taking birth control pills, 31 percent included sexual themes in their narratives during the first half of their cycles, compared with 9 percent during the second, less fertile half. Women on birth control showed no significant difference in description, regardless of time of month.
According to Rudski, the findings are consistent with the evolutionary psychology approach to sexuality:
“Once you go a couple days after ovulation, which is pretty much the second half of the cycle for most women, from an evolutionary perspective, the thought of having sex really isn’t all that important because you aren’t going to get pregnant,” Rudski told LiveScience.
However, Rudski also points out that human sexuality is too complex to be fully explained by one theory:
…[T]he study supports an evolutionary view of sex, but …”there are a lot of problems with that perspective when you talk about sexual behavior in humans.”
Humans, [Rudski] said, often actively avoid pregnancy — which is particularly true of the young undergraduate women in the current study.
That means there are many other factors at play, Rudski said, including cognitive cues that may have linked menstruation to vaginal interpretations of the art.
Additionally, social pressures and self-reporting may have colored the study. After learning the researchers’ true motive, some participants admitted that they found O’Keeffe’s paintings erotic, but they had been too embarrassed to mention it.
Pictured: "Blue and Green Music" by Georgia O'Keeffe (1921)
Image credit: Wikimedia Commons
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