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.

 

 

33 comments

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

    Ah, isn't it just like a journalist to gloss over the role of the media. The opinions of borderline scientists don't just "seep" into the popular consciousness. They are lodged there by irresponsible journalists who like to sensationalise reports from fringe researchers before they are properly reviewed (and usually rejected) by the mainstream scientific community.

    Commenter
    Gracog
    Date and time
    July 25, 2013, 4:30AM
    • and moreso gracog for i detect a slight fallibility in your hypothesis Ms Ruby, and I quote, dot dot dot "in the Science of Female Desire, by journalist Daniel Bergner", key word being journalist.

      of course it takes that grand achiever, the collater of the human enterprise, to dip their fingers in the pantheon of scientific discovery and emerge with glistening nails, scarley in guilt and intent.

      such misapplication of the scientific principle and continual perversion of its ambitions through the lens of human (read animal cum words) experience will only serve to highten the fervour and rancour of the scientific but 'naive'.

      Commenter
      lol
      Location
      brisbane
      Date and time
      July 25, 2013, 2:43PM
  • What nonsense.
    Your thesis herre is that all scientific evidence on gender differences is due to bias on the part of scientists studying gender differences. This is patently false as the entire foundation of science is the scientific method. This is specifically designed to eliminate bias in order to ensure that scientific findings are based on underlying truth rather than pre-conceived opinions.
    While it is true that human sexuality is complex and there are always people who don't fit the standard mold, the general theory that women are more suited to monogamy than men is true for humans as it is in almost every other species on the planet.
    The same is true for other aspects of gender differences. Aptitudes,etc. Society/government has been trying to hammer square pegs into round holes for 50 years now with "affirmative action" type policies in the misguided and unscientific view that men and women are basically the same apart from their external anatomy. Yet for all that effort, women still overwhelmingly choose traditional female fields of employment and men overwhelmingly choose traditional male fields. This is not becauseof any kind of discrimintion. It is due to the innate diffferences between the genders that the scientific studies you dismiss so cavilierly have discovered.

    Commenter
    Shane
    Location
    Canberra
    Date and time
    July 25, 2013, 6:30AM
    • Unfortunately I think there is SOME truth in this. I honestly believe that women need to set up a women only institute funded by rich women, staffed only by women with access to peer reviewed publication which is also only run by women and see what they come up with.

      I feel sure that there would be valuable output as women have proven to be excellent scientific thinkers and researchers. The difficulty I see is that women for some reason don't do this and I don't think it is clear why they don't.

      Women have economic power, there are plenty of rich women and plenty of female researchers. Where is the drive and determination to just do science free from the constraints of the patriarchy? They can then do all the unbiased....ahem....gender research they like once they have proven themselves to be a centre of excellence.

      Instead there is a never ending spiral of unclear, uncertain apparent logic which drives me to distraction. Statements such as scientists think there is a difference as so they find one belies a devastating lack of knowledge on the subject and really shouldn't be published.

      Commenter
      Biology girl
      Date and time
      July 25, 2013, 9:36AM
    • *forehead slap*

      Commenter
      AT
      Location
      Melbourne
      Date and time
      July 25, 2013, 9:37AM
    • Interesting to see how selective breeding comes into play.

      Which type of women reproduce? Which type of men?

      Commenter
      cranky
      Location
      pants
      Date and time
      July 25, 2013, 9:37AM
    • sure, the scientific method exists in a vaccum...LOLOLOLOLOLOLOLOL

      Commenter
      Iloveyourshirt
      Date and time
      July 25, 2013, 9:58AM
    • What are you basing your opinion on, Shane? Current scientific research and studies into monogamy in animals? Or on outdated research subject to the very bias noted in this article?

      There will be differences between individual members but when scientists study involuntary sexual reactions to stimuli and find that women are either just as or more likely to be aroused by bariety in stimuli and sexual situations I don't think that you can stamp your foot and say "Well, they're wrong 'cause everyone knows women barely like sex compared to men and all women want one man and that's it". Keep an open mind.

      Personally, I empathize with the label of "ravenous" when it comes to sexual appetite. And I'm just as interested in people outside of my relationship as my partner (who doesn't like eye candy?) I just don't act on it because I don't want to ruin my relationship. Desire and acting on a desire are two very different things.

      Commenter
      TK
      Date and time
      July 25, 2013, 10:28AM
    • Correlation does not equal to causation. What experiments usually tells us is a correlation but to figure out the cause is often much much harder.

      How much of women's preference towards "female fields of employment" and men's preference towards "male fields of employment" is due to their biology and how much of this is due to cultural and social expectations? And how can we know if which one when our current understanding of human behaviour comes from research only on people who are white, educated, industralised, rich and democratic as shown in this link: http://neuroanthropology.net/2010/07/10/we-agree-its-weird-but-is-it-weird-enough/ ?

      Also, skepticism is part of science as any "fact" can be proven wrong and discarded by observation and experimentation at any moment. To be so certain as you of the "fact" that "women and men are biologically different" is as bad as to be this certain of "the current observable difference between women and men are entirely due to society and culture". What this article is about is casting doubt about the former assertion.

      Commenter
      Urabrask the Hidden
      Date and time
      July 25, 2013, 12:14PM
    • Shane gets the gold star today for monumentally missing the point!

      Commenter
      Liv
      Location
      Sydney
      Date and time
      July 25, 2013, 12:30PM

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