Book Review: What Do Women Want? (2013)
by Alan F. Zundel
What do women want? For one thing, better sex.
Women and sex is the topic of “What Do Women Want? Adventures in the Science of Female Desire” by Daniel Bergner, a writer for several national magazines as well as four other books.
Bergner provides a quick and easy tour through recent scientific findings on the subject, peppered here and there with illustrative anecdotes based on interviews with a lot of women—I was amazed he induced the latter to talk about this stuff as openly as they did. I was also amazed as well as challenged by what he found.
First, some surprises. Women respond to more types of pornography than men do, only women seem to be unaware of their own response. A (woman) researcher measured genital and self-reported arousal by women and men, both lesbian/gay and straight, to a variety of forms of pornography.
Straight men were genitally aroused most strongly by videos of women with women sex, next most strongly by women with men or women masturbating, slightly by men with men, less so by men masturbating, and not at all by apes having sex. Gay men responded most strongly to men with men, next most strongly to men masturbating, slightly to men with women, barely at all for women with women or women masturbating, and not at all to the apes. Not so surprising so far, but wait.
Women, both lesbian and straight, were immediately genitally aroused by all of the porn, including the videos of the apes. The apes even won over a video of a hunky man strolling naked on a beach! Women responded more strongly to human sexual activity than to the simian hi-jinks, but still they seemed more sexually “omnivorous” than men did.
Yet their self-reports didn’t reflect this. They said they were indifferent to the apes, and straight women reported being a lot less aroused by scenes of women with women or women masturbating than their vaginal response showed. There was an even larger gap when reporting arousal by scenes of men with men. Lesbian self-reports also contradicted genital indications of arousal, especially about men with men or men masturbating.
The same researcher, Dr. Meredith Chivers, did a similar experiment playing audiotapes of stories of the subject of the experiment (all straight women) being seduced. Genital arousal was higher for stories of female seducers than self-reports indicated, and much higher for seduction by female friends than male friends. Genital arousal was even higher when the scenario involved a stranger, especially a male stranger—higher than being seduced by the subject’s current lover. Again, the self-reports were very different.
The results from Chivers and other researchers obviously jostle the old nature-vs.-nuture debate, and Bergner does not shy away from the implications. He questions our cultural assumption that men are “by nature” sexually promiscuous in their interests while women want bonding and domesticity in order to be aroused, as the evidence thus far does not support it. He is downright dismissive of evolutionary psychology as but a shill for the straightjacketing of women’s sexual desire by our cultural myths.
As an example of how these cultural assumptions can blind the scientific community, Bergner says that only recently has the idea of males as the sexual initiators and females as passive recipients been upended in the study of rats and apes. It turns out that if you define sexual initiative as an erect penis and sexual activity as copulation, you will miss the myriad pats, taps, jumps, stalkings, humpings, and other “come hither” acts of females ready to get it on.
The findings also challenge therapists like me, who usually approach couples counseling with prevailing cultural assumptions. When women have lost their libido in a relationship, do they really want more attention from and bonding with their partner, or are they suppressing a desire for some variety in partners? The record of therapists helping increase sexual satisfaction between long-time partners is apparently not so hot.
Most controversial of all are findings of how prevalent the rape fantasy is among women seeking to induce their own sexual arousal, touching as it does on arguments about women “wanting it” or “asking for it” in their behaviors. Bergner is careful on this topic, wisely distinguishing between fantasies and what people actually want in reality.
What he does suggest is that women’s sexual desires are so suppressed that they come out in strange forms. The violence of the rape fantasy may be an indication of the need a woman has to destroy her own suppression of her desire for sex with strangers, not a desire for violence to her body.
The stories of women losing the oomph in their marriages are poignant in the repeated theme of initial excitement giving way to a lessening erotic interest in their partner over the years. Some got the excitement back by getting a new partner after breaking with the old one, only to find that excitement also wearing off over the years. Others arrange with their old partners to take on temporary new ones from time to time. Many go to therapy sessions, either alone or with their partner, with the odds of success not very hopeful.
According to Bergner, what these women are really searching for is “a cure for monogamy.” Yet the research dollars flow instead to the invention of new drugs. Which will be the miracle drug that increases female libido? (Only not by too much, or not a new date rape drug—we wouldn’t want that of course!) Just as in most “mental health” research, drugs are where the money is.
But what really turns women on, the non-drug research seems to indicate, is evidence of their power to turn other people on. Once they know they have you, their interest will wane. They need fresh evidence of their sexual desirability to keep their flame lit.
So what do women want? They want to pursue their sexual desires free of cultural inhibitions.
The sexual revolution, apparently, still has miles to go.