Control Tower

Bridging Pleasure and Danger

It's almost Valentine's Day, and, as usual, I have mixed feelings about it. You would think I'd like VD better, since it is a holiday that can be celebrated with both chocolate and lingerie. However, I disagree with some of the sexual myths it propagates. Valentine's Day is supposed to be a special day for lovers, but if one wants to create a sexually intense experience, then those stuffed animals, lacy paper hearts, and sweet poetry are the wrong way to go. No, a sense of tension, uncertainty, even some risk is what is called for. Trust me on this, ladies: The intersection of pleasure and danger is something on which I'm an expert.

If you're skeptical, consider a now-famous study conducted by psychologists Arthur Aron and Donald Dutton in 1974. Aron and Dutton had a female interviewer conduct interviews on two bridges that span the Capilano River in British Columbia. One of them was a low, solid bridge, and the other was the famous Capilano Suspension Bridge, a narrow footbridge that sways 230 feet above the river below.

On day one of the study, the woman stood at the middle of the sturdy bridge, asking men who crossed to fill out a short psychology survey. She then gave the men her phone number, asking them to call if they were interested in finding out the results. The second day, she repeated the routine—except she did it on the more dangerous suspension bridge. The result? Men who were interviewed on the suspension bridge called the female interviewer and asked her out on a date far more often than the men who were interviewed on the sturdy bridge. The nonsexual arousal the men experienced from walking on the bridge—increased muscle tension, faster heartbeat, more rapid breathing—was often translated into feelings of sexual arousal when the men interacted with an attractive woman. The study was repeated with a male interviewer and female bridge-crossers, with a similar result.

The Shaky Bridge Study indicates that people are more prone to sexual attraction and romantic attachment when exposed to higher-than-usual amounts of adrenaline and stress. I'm not suggesting you try to scare your lover into a heart attack, but if you want a sexually memorable occasion, ditch the saccharine-sweet stuff and go for something unpredictable and with a little more bite.

In the spirit of that recommendation, I am celebrating Valentine's Day by appearing as the guest expert for a theater piece about women fucking men up the ass. Pegging may be a scary subject to some men, but Peg-Ass-Us bills itself as "the silliest, most heartfelt romantic comedy about anal sex imaginable." I can't think of a better bridge between a bit of extra adrenaline with a touch of apprehensive excitement and some hot sex.

Peg-Ass-Us, Feb 14–17, Annex Theatre, 8 pm, $15,


Comments (17) RSS

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Mayhem 1
Check. Plotting ways to elevate my lovers' heartbeats and sense of peril as I write this...

And happy V-D, naturally.
Posted by Mayhem on February 11, 2010 at 3:31 AM · Report this
It couldn't be that the people crossing the more stressful bridge were also the braver people, and therefore, more inclined to risk asking a stranger out to dinner?
Posted by crystallinegirl on February 11, 2010 at 5:50 AM · Report this
Danger 3
I approve of this.
Posted by Danger on February 11, 2010 at 6:49 AM · Report this
Yeah, the conclusion from this study seems dubious at best. Maybe the 'more dangerous' bridge was associated with stronger recall (you tend to better remember stressful events), or maybe those crossing the suspension bridge were more likely people with enough idle time to call a surveying stranger. Correlation, as always, does not imply causation.
Posted by correlationnotcausation on February 11, 2010 at 7:13 AM · Report this
I love the way science confirms what I've already observed about myself. Sure, I have all kinds of fantasies and such, but the ones that get me the most hot and bothered are the ones with adrenaline, uncertainty, and a healthy dose of "oh shit!"
Posted by AgLee on February 11, 2010 at 7:13 AM · Report this
What the hell? Where's Mistress Matisse?
Posted by Missing Matisse on February 11, 2010 at 11:44 AM · Report this
As some people here have suggested, there are of course possible alternative explanations for this particular study. However, this study is one of the first of 30 years' worth of research that has largely confirmed the same effect: misattribution of arousal is simply very common.

Almost identical findings have been found in studies using all kinds of other set-ups that avoid some of the possible confounds with the bridge study. For instance, the bridge experiment Matisse describes was only one part of that particular paper. Another experiment in the same article (very appropriately for this column!) describes how men were brought into the lab and told, in the presence of an attractive woman, that they were about to receive either a strong or weak electric shock. Men who were told that they were getting a strong electric shock described themselves later as being feeling more "sexually attracted" than men who expected just a weak shock!

Similarly, another study found that men who watch an emotionally arousing video in the lab (positive or negative doesn't matter) report liking the attractive woman they interact with afterwards much more than men who watch an emotionally non-arousing video (White et al, 1981).

This isn't true for just sexual attraction either...when we experience physiological signs of arousal, we seek out an explanation. Sometimes it's obvious - "My palms are sweaty and my heart is racing. Duh, I'm about to give a speech in front of 700 people." Sometimes though it's not obvious to us - and that's when we get it wrong. Giving people caffeinated tea, for instance, but telling them that it's decaf makes people report stronger feelings of anger when something frustrating happens subsequently. Presumably, they misattribute the effects of the caffeine (b/c they are unaware that it's a possible cause) and assume that their feelings of faster heart rate, etc. are due to the frustrating experience (Baumeister & Bushman, 2008). In fact, there is a whole theory of emotion that suggests that at least part of the emotions we feel don't just "happen" but are constructed by our implicit understanding of the situation.
Posted by research rocks on February 11, 2010 at 1:08 PM · Report this
OTOH, pretty pink clothespins sporting those candy hearts adds a certain hint of romance...
Posted by DominEditrix on February 11, 2010 at 2:50 PM · Report this
Danger = arousal is a myth. The body has two basic systems that are called the sympathetic and parasympathetic systems. Only one can be "on" at any one time. The sympathetic system is "on" during situations that the body feels are dangerous. The parasympathetic system in "on" when eating, sleeping, and having sex. This is why a relaxing picnic increases arousal and why most dates go out to dinner.

The study referred to here has many possible reasons other than the bogus one cited of increased sexual interest. For one, arousal increases memory... there is a high likelihood that people called because they were more likely to remember that they met someone...
Posted by heartfelt on February 11, 2010 at 4:12 PM · Report this
oops I meant "adrenaline" increases memory :P
Posted by heartfelt on February 11, 2010 at 4:16 PM · Report this
#6, what are you on about?
Posted by Blake4 on February 11, 2010 at 7:14 PM · Report this
#9 - The parasympathetic and the sympathetic nervous systems CAN both be "on" at the same time, and indeed both are involved in sex. (At least, studies show that both have to be involved for a man to orgasm.) They are not mutually exclusive.
Posted by ennaren on February 13, 2010 at 1:49 PM · Report this
OMG, crystallinegirl, I have been taking psych classes for 4 years at a great university, and have learned about this study countless times. This is the first time anyone has brought up that particular confounding variable. Who says you learn more in school than in real life?
Posted by creamrose on February 13, 2010 at 3:25 PM · Report this
And yep, similar to what ennaren said, during orgasm both the parasympathetic and sympathetic nervous systems are active, so they can both be "on" at one time.
Posted by creamrose on February 13, 2010 at 3:28 PM · Report this
We went over that study in college. The men the woman interviews /weren't just random men/. They were volunteers in the study who were sent on a trail, either to end up on the first or second bridge.

A follow up study had a similar set up, except some men were questioned on the trail and some on the bridge. The men had to fill out a questionnaire after hiking the trail. Those who ran into the woman on the bridge rated her attractiveness several points higher than those who ran into her simply on the trail.
Posted by Zuulabelle on February 13, 2010 at 6:27 PM · Report this
I much better like the Paula Niedenthal explanation:

"Two women are walking over a bridge. One is afraid of heights, so her heart pounds and her hands tremble. The other is not afraid at all. On the other side of the bridge, they encounter a man. Which of the two women is more likely to believe that she has just met the man of her dreams?"

For Niedenthal, it's the fact that her heart is beating so hard, in a similar fashion that it would if she was in love, that instructs her about her feelings, thus causing her to think she's in love.…
Posted by mokawi on February 14, 2010 at 11:15 AM · Report this
Gawd Matisse just gives me a heart-on;)
Posted by sydvic on February 16, 2010 at 5:55 PM · Report this

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