What science gets wrong about female desire


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Ever since Galileo pissed off the Catholic Church by suggesting the earth revolved around the sun, science lovers have put religion and science into firmly opposing camps.

There is no doubt that the knowledge gained through scientific inquiry has helped humanity progress both socially and technologically.

Following Felix Baumgartner’s audacious leap from the stratosphere in a custom-made capsule last year , comedian Ricky Gervais tweeted to his five million followers: “Dear Religion, I safely dropped a man from space while you shot a child for wanting to go to school. Yours, Science.”

However, the fervour of science fan boys and girls has in itself come to embody a religious-like naivete that appears to regard science as both infallible and inherently good. This is a worrying development because, much like religion, science is only as good as those who use it.


Although science has indeed “dropped a man safely from space” it also drops unsafe chemicals into the eyes of rabbits so that humans can have shiny hair that doesn't tangle.

Which is to say that sometimes, science (or more specifically scientists) gets it wrong.

And sadly, one of the most troubling things about the current state of science is how it reinforces old-fashioned and restrictive views on the nature and intelligence of women.

Scientists, being only human after all, are exposed to the same entrenched cultural attitudes and stereotypes as the rest of us, leaving them susceptible to – whether intentionally or not - conducting their research in a way that confirms their own biases.

The much-lauded new book What Do Women Want? Adventures in the Science of Female Desire, by journalist Daniel Bergner, reveals that for decades scientists have fallen for the “fable''   put forward by evolutionary biology that “men are driven to spread their seed and women, by comparison, are more driven to find one good provider”. 

According to Bergner, this view, based on what he calls “flimsy, circular science”, just does not hold up. Because scientists expect to find evidence for this common perception of female sexuality, they tend to ignore evidence suggesting that women and female animals are far from passive when it comes to sexual desire.

Essentially, researchers have been blindsided by a culture that is so hostile to female sexuality that it has sought to control it for centuries, wrapping it so tightly in a cloak of shame that both men and women have come to accept that women intrinsically desire less sex than men when, in actual fact, their desires have been repressed.

Women's sexual desire, counters Bergner, is not passive, meek, or intrinsically monogamous; it is “base, animalistic and ravenous”.

He goes so far as to call monogamy a “cultural cage” for women. “That female eros is much better made for monogamy than the male libido,” he scoffs, “is scarcely more than a fairy tale.”

Bergner's assertions seem to be supported by this recent study that found that more and more American women are having extra marital affairs. 

Of course, the implications for women go far beyond sex. Whereas once religion was used to control women and define their role and status in society, more and more, we are finding that science is being used in exactly the same fashion. What was once touted as God's law has become the rule of nature.

As Cordelia Fine outlined in Delusions of Gender, much of the accepted science of innate sex differences argues that female and male brains work differently. Males being more “systems oriented” means men are “hard-wired” to be better at science and maths, while female brains, naturally more empathetic, are more suited to “caring” occupations such as nursing.

So often has this been repeated by certain scientists, it has seeped into the popular consciousness to be accepted as cold, hard fact.

Outlets such as the conservative Fox News are now using problematic scientific findings to justify discrimination against women, further entrenching essentialist cultural stereotypes about women's “passivity” and biologically driven inclinations away from scientific thinking and towards homemaking. 

But, like the science on female desire, this has also been, if not entirely disproved, then certainly called into question, both by later research and by an examination of the methods used in the original studies.

Women are not held back by their own scientific aptitude but because even some scientists still think they lack it.

In 2006, a report by the National Academy of Sciences found that it was not biological differences that cause the underrepresentation of women in hard-science faculties but plain old “bias and outmoded practices”. 

Researchers design their research and read their results expecting to find innate gender differences in scientific and mathematical aptitude, and this expectation affects their conclusion.

So, for example, scientists studying empathy operate on the hypothesis that women have more of this trait than men and consequently read any difference in a brain scan as supporting evidence. Likewise, a male newborn who looks at a car longer than he looks at a human face is assumed to be exhibiting an inclination towards “systems”

Often, such “evidence” for sex differences is so statistically small that it has other scientists “astonished as to why this slight difference favouring boys has attracted such disproportionate attention”. 

The simple answer to that question is that these slight differences attract attention because they reinforce stereotypes about women that were, as irony would have it, historically championed by religion.

But what is most unsettling about our religious-like zeal for science is that science itself, unlike religion, is built on fallibility and scepticism, on being willing to let go of beliefs when new evidence comes to light.

And yet, no matter how much new evidence to the contrary, the  perception that women inherently sexually passive, and lacking in scientific aptitude remain firmly entrenched, proving it's not just religion but our own culturally-formed attitudes that hold us back.