What if everything you ever thought about female sexuality was wrong. What if a body of scientific research conclusively proved that women are not naturally suited to monogamy; that women are more inclined to want sex for pleasure than emotional intimacy; that women’s sexual appetites are salivating, omnivorous forces; and that women are just as visually-stimulated as men? What if the entire cultural script of restrained female sexuality was simply a ‘fairy-tale’ designed to comfort a society that has pegged social order to monogamy? What if a wet, fleshy, cavernous gulf yawned between what women said they desired and what their bodies SHOWED they desired? In short, what if women actually loved sex, hated monogamy and were just as randy as men?
Whether society is ready to deal with the conclusions of Daniel Bergner’s What Women Really Want is yet to be seen, but this book has put the fact of women’s unruly sexuality beyond dispute. It’s a long-awaited HELLO to lusty, libidinous ladydrives and SAYANORA-DON’T-COME-BACK to the myth of passive and chaste femininity.
Bergner hops and darts between science, psychology, history and interviews with everyday people to make essentially two arguments: that we have vastly underestimated women’s erotic potential and that women crave sexual variety more than emotional intimacy. It all makes perfect sense. Why else would Fifty Shades of Grey be so successful? Why else would porn star James Deen be a hit amongst teenage girls? What makes this book different from any before it is that Bergner has shown how science and psychology – two disciplines notorious for curtailing or ignoring female sexuality- can be marshalled in the service of our collective clitoris.
Bergner joins sexologists in their quest to go beyond culture ‘to apprehend a piece of women’s primal and essential selves: a fundamental set of sexual truths that exist – inherently- at the core.’ This is a big task and Bergner is clever enough to know that nature and nurture can never be disentangled. But the scientific observations he profiles do a great job at showing how the two are often at war in the arena of women’s desire.
Take the experiment of sexologist Meredith Chivers. Here women were asked to lie back in deck chairs and watch 90-second clips of porn that included bathing lesbians engaged in clitoris-whisking, a Swedish man ambling naked down the beach, straight sex, gay male sex and copulating apes. Each woman inserted a light-beaming plethysmograph into her vagina to measure the blood flow to that area (as surges of blood stimulate moisture creating wetness). ‘It was a way to get past the obfuscations of the mind’ and to ‘find out what turns women on’ Bergner says. As they watched the images the subjects also rated their own feelings of arousal. Chivers found that women were basically aroused by everything (except the flaccid, ambling Adonis on the beach). They found gay male sex appealing, straight women were turned on by lesbians and images of apes sent them all into transports of erotic bliss. Yet the womens’ self-reports conflicted with almost all their bodily responses. Straight women denied their same-sex desires and no-one fessed up to liking the apes.
When Chivers conducted the experiment on men, they were more conservative in their desires. They didn’t like the apes and gay men found nothing appealing about lesbian sex. Yet there was a good match between men’s bodily responses and their self-reports. Unlike women, there was no conflict between what their bodies were telling them and what society was telling them. Men had grown up feeling entitled to sexual expression. For women, in contrast, there was a collision between the physical and the psychic. Whether women were unaware of their erotic responses or felt embarrassed to admit them, the conclusion is the same: our culture has led women to deny their own desires. That such rapacious female desires still exist in spite of the social policing of female sexuality - from slut-shaming to the bible - shows just how powerful those desires must be.
Bergner’s arguments around monogamy draw on equally fascinating observations with animals. Through prying into the private lives of rhesus monkeys, scorpions and rats Bergner partly explains why many women report a loss of libido in marriage. It’s not that women’s desires are weaker than men’s. It’s simply that, like other female animals, women may be designed to want polygamy. For instance, the female scorpion has to wait 48 hours before being ready to have sex with the same partner again, but only an hour and a half to have sex with a different partner. Amongst rhesus monkeys, females are the aggressors in sex and community warlords who lead their families into battle. They’re also promiscuous: while the man goes off in his ‘post-ejaculatory snooze’, the woman then hunts for another. Female rats interrupt sex to ensure that it lasts longer and to find new partners and male orang-utans lie inert on the ground, penises in the air while the women close in, pump, then dump. Similarly, human females’ sexual fantasies revolve around strangers and no counselling or chemicals can fix a loss of female libido like a new relationship. The biggest threat to women’s libido, Bergner suggests, is the kind of emotional stability women are told they crave.
Tracy Clark-Flory from Salon gushed that Bergner’s book ‘should be read by every woman on earth’. It’s true that this is an exciting book, but I’d also be a bit wary. Bergner never ceases to talk in universals about ‘all women’ and the ‘truth’ of their sexuality, yet he only ever interviews educated women from developed countries. I’m also not convinced that we can ever ‘know the truth’ of something as plastic and culturally determined as sexuality, particularly through science. That said, it’s a rollicking read with lots of naughty bits that offers yet another reason why we need to adjust our gender norms to reflect the fact that women, as much as men, are simply sexual animals.