Daniel Bergner’s provocative, pupil-dilating new book is called What Do Women Want?, whose title refers to Sigmund Freud’s exasperated question about those curious female patients of his that he couldn’t pin down, but Bergner’s book isn’t about that. A more accurate title would be, What Do Women’s Bodies Want?, though even that’s not specific enough, since women’s bodies want a lot of different things. The most accurate title is probably What Do Women’s Bodies Want From Sex? — and about that question the book is loaded with fascinating stuff. Turns out that the new science of sexology is revealing that women want not only intense sexual pleasure — duh — but that they want it a lot more than men do.
Yes. They want it more than men do.
The book opens with a description of some studies conducted by the sexologist Monica Chivers, who hooked up hundreds of men and women to something called a plethysmograph (for women, a small bulb and sensor placed inside the vagina and which measures blood flow and vaginal wetness, twin indicators of sexual excitement) and then showed them different kinds of sexually explicit video in 90 second bursts: hetero lovers having missionary sex, an attractive naked man walking on a beach, a woman going down on another woman, gay male oral sex, a woman masturbating, gay men having anal sex, a man masturbating, even a pair of bonobos — a kind of ape — having sex in a grassy field. And guess what? “Chivers’ [female] subjects, straight and lesbian, were turned on right away by all of it, including the copulating apes. To stare at the data amassed by the plethysmograph was to confront a vision of anarchic arousal.”
This was not true for the men, who were much more discriminating about what gave them erections: gay men, as you might predict, got excited by gay porn, straight men by straight or lesbian porn, and men in general were left pretty ummoved by ape sex. Compared to men, Bergner writes, “the female libido looked omnivorous.” Bergner looks at the studies of a lot of other sexologists, whose studies of rats, monkeys and other humans mostly confirm and add to Chivers’s conclusions, and augments the science with in-depth interviews with dozens of women, many of whose stories of sexual unhappiness (or compulsion, or fantasy) he tells with considerable sympathy and insight.
Among the insights: Women’s sexual desire, Bergner discovers, is most intensely actuated by narcissism, that is, by being wanted powerfully by someone else. Thus, women’s fantasies often take the form of being overwhelmed sexually — by groups of randy men, or even by someone who forces himself on her. Submission, or rape, fantasies, in fact, are common. (Bergner even discusses some ambiguous data that shows that some women orgasm during real rape, a very delicate discussion he nervously cuts short by quoting a researcher to the effect that “arousal is not consent.” Granted, but that only deals with the legal, not the psychological, issue at hand.) There’s also a discussion of how monogamy affects woman’s desire — to put it concisely (and sadly, for most married folk): “within the bounds of fidelity, the heat of being desired [grows] more and more remote.”
Now, the idea of woman as anarchically arousable sexual omnivore defies a couple of powerful cultural scripts. The first is the scientifically shaky one that most people accept from evolutionary biology, which tells us that “men are hardwired to hunt for the gratification of sex [while] women are rigged by their genes to seek the comfort of relationships.” The other is the one handed down by the Victorians and accepted by most people even today — that women’s strongest needs are to connect emotionally with others, and that their sexual desires are easily within their control. Bergner’s book is making a lot of noise right now because he’s offering up evidence that’s culturally dangerous, particularly for men. Cultural and religious conservatives will deny the science — or else accept it and say: Of course, this is what the Eve story (or the story of Pandora’s Box, or Euripides’s tale of the bacchantes, or any number of ancient cautionary stories) told us from the beginning, which makes it more necessary than ever that we keep women’s desire suppressed and in check. Lots of men, I suspect, will just be freaked out by the idea that women (their mothers, daughters, sisters, girlfriends, wives) can be so polymorphously excitable. And then there are the assholes out there who’ll think this gives them license to exploit women, who’ll use Bergner’s insights to argue, “She really wanted it.” (There’s a “Brief Interview with Hideous Men” story in this; too bad David Foster Wallace isn’t around anymore to write it.) Many women, however, will likely find themselves intrigued, even comforted by its insights.
As fascinating as the book is, it can wear you out to read about research assistants massaging the clitorises of rats, of clipboard-wielding scientists overseeing masturbating subjects, or the very idea that the best way to measure sexual arousal is to examine what happens when people watch porn. And a final chapter about the pharmaceutical industry’s search for a female aphrodisiac — “the race … for the drug to cure monogamy” — conjures a brave new world where bodies are so chemically manipulated that the meaning of sex would be utterly transformed.
Still, this is an unignorable book — an important new addition to the continuing conversation Freud initiated almost a century ago about civilization and its many discontents.
WHAT DO WOMEN WANT? ADVENTURES IN THE SCIENCE OF FEMALE DESIRE, Daniel Bergner, Ecco Press, 210 pages