Unlocking a cultural cage: Daniel Bergner believes both genders would be surprised at what women really want from sex. Photo: Supplied
We all know what causes the inherent tension between the sexes - men want sex more, lots more, than women. They're genetically programmed to spread their seed as widely as possible, while women want to mate for life. Right?
Wrong. The truth is women want sex just as much as men do, and with lots of different partners, according to a provocative investigation into female desire by American author Daniel Bergner. They're just not being honest about it with themselves - or with anyone else.
''One of our most comforting assumptions … that female eros is much better made for monogamy than the male libido, is scarcely more than a fairy tale,'' Bergner argues in his book What Do Women Want? Adventures in the Science of Female Desire.
'A desire pill might help to keep us in our marriages': Daniel Bergner. Photo: Supplied
Bergner, who visits Australia this month, says ''it's almost comical'' how long the myth that women are better suited to monogamy than men has existed. His journey into the wilds of female desire turned up no evidence that women are ''evolutionally scripted'' to be more chaste than men.
''There is nothing to suggest there is any difference between the innate selves of men and women, their sexual desires, their promiscuous desires, their visualisation desires,'' he says on the phone from his home in Brooklyn.
Instead Bergner blames our culture for holding men and women to different sexual standards for thousands of years. The slut/stud double standard has constrained female sexual desire to the point that women don't even fully recognise it within themselves.
''We human beings are infinite in our erotic variations but, in general, women seem more disconnected from desire than men,'' says Bergner, whose previous book The Other Side of Desire traversed the extremes of desire. He believes men find it reassuring to think women aren't as randy as they are. ''This is so comforting for men, and society in general, to think half the human species is naturally made to be a stabilising force. It's particularly comforting for men to think the woman they're with is not thinking about other sex partners as much as they are.''
To find out what women really want in the bedroom, Bergner interviewed sexologists, ordinary women, scientists working on the development of a female Viagra and spent a week at a primate colony.
He discovered women actually lose interest in their long-term partners quicker than men do, are more likely than men to want to receive sexual pleasure than give it, and get much more turned on by strangers than known lovers. The revelation that women are just as lusty as men could spell real danger for monogamy - except women are unlikely to own up to their true desires.
Canadian psychologist Meredith Chivers starkly illustrated the female desire disconnect in a series of experiments that prompted Bergner's book. She placed a miniature light bulb and sensor (called a plethysmograph) inside the vagina to measure the blood flow as her female subjects watched a variety of pornography. To establish what turns women on, Chivers showed them sex between men and women, men and men, women and women, and a pair of bonobos (a type of chimpanzee) while she measured their physiological reactions. The women also had to rate their own feelings of arousal on a key pad.
According to their self-reports, straight women were indifferent to the bonobos, and not especially turned on by gay sex involving men or women. Yet their plethysmograph readings told a different story, soaring no matter who was on the screen and what they were doing.
''Chivers found there was a very consistent difference between what women say turns them on, and what their bodies say turns them on,'' Bergner explains.
When Chivers conducted the same experiment with men, their physical and mental responses matched. Straight men were unaffected by the bonobos, sort of turned on by male sex, very turned on by heterosexual sex, and incredibly aroused by lesbian encounters. So why are women less in tune with their sexuality than men? Bergner says we still raise our girls with far less sexual permissiveness than we allow boys.
''Even though we live in a sexually unrestrained, a sexually infatuated society … there is still a slut shaming culture to some degree [for women],'' he says. ''There is no corresponding shaming for men.''
Yet up-end those cultural norms and women are more likely to express their true desires. In a typical speed dating scenario, when men progress down a line of women, men tend to pick a lot more candidates for second dates than women do.
But Bergner says when researchers reversed these gender roles and women progressed down the line, they selected just as many partners for second dates as men did, and rated their desire equally.
''It vividly shows when you remove the forces of culture, female desire gets stronger,'' Bergner says. ''There is something in the act of approaching - it's active, it's a bit aggressive, it sparks a feeling of desire. When our culture places women in a passive role it is containing desire.''
One psychologist quoted in What Do Women Want? calls monogamy a woman's ''cultural cage'' that distorts their libido. A German study of thousands of committed couples found female desire wanes more rapidly than male desire during a long-term relationship. Within several years of being together the woman's desire for her partner plunged, while the man's desire for her declined gradually over time.
Once again our culture is at fault, the theory being that because men are encouraged much more than women to think sexually, that reinforces the neurocircuitry of desire in their brain in a way that female desire isn't. ''Men bring that home at the end of the day,'' Bergner suggests.
What Do Women Want? also debunks the myth that whereas men need sex to feel intimate, women need intimacy to feel sexual desire. On the contrary, women crave being erotically worshipped, and nothing is more of an aphrodisiac than a fantasy involving a stranger.
One psychology professor interviewed by Bergner says women's desire is ''not relational, but narcissistic'', that is, it's not about the connection with their partner, it's about themselves. Research shows that compared with men, women's erotic fantasies are less about giving pleasure than receiving it.
''The research [suggests] that intimacy, too much closeness, creating one soul out of two may lead away from heat, away from lust,'' Bergner says.
Meredith Chivers uncovered the sexual pull of the stranger for women in another round of experiments. She played tapes to her female subjects of X-rated stories involving people known to them and strangers. While women maintained they weren't turned on by the stranger scenarios, the plethysmograph showed sex involving male strangers stirred eight times more blood than sex involving friends or former lovers.
It seems what makes for sexual frisson - distance and wanting something you don't have - is incompatible with the elements of an enduring committed relationship such as emotional intimacy and stability. But even though intimacy is not the key to getting the female libido pumping, women still pursue monogamous relationships because that's the cultural norm, and they're considered the most stable foundation for families. American drug companies are now racing to create a female desire drug, for which there is estimated to be a potential $US4 billion market in the US alone. Bergner believes a female Viagra would bolster, rather than threaten, monogamy because it would be sought by women in long-term relationships who have lost their desire. ''The buyers won't be women going out on a third or fifth or seventh date,'' he says. ''There's no shortage of desire early on. The problems come with time, because, biologically, genetically, there's no evidence that when it comes to lust, women are any better suited to monogamy than men are… A desire pill might help keep us in our marriages.''
Ironically, despite efforts by the anti-monogamy movement to co-opt Bergner into their cause, the author claims he is the romantic in his own relationship. ''I cling to my monogamous relationship,'' Bergner insists. ''[With the book] I'm trying to strip away the cultural notions about love and commitment, which cloud discussion of desire.''
Frustratingly he doesn't offer many solutions as to how we integrate his findings about female desire into the monogamous relationship model that most still favour. ''The best books, the best journeys to understanding, are the ones that don't result in tidy solutions,'' he says. ''We are human.''
While Bergner thinks it would be arrogant of him to tell women how to unlock their innate lustiness, he does have this advice for men: ''Hold on to the sides of your chair, and even if you need to ask five times before getting a candid response about your partner's sexual desires and wishes, have a candid conversation that might actually lead to sexual electricity.''
Daniel Bergner will speak at the All About Women Festival at the Sydney Opera House on March 30.