Questioning the Science of Desire: ‘What do Women Want?’ – A Review by Sandra Tzvetkova

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Back in the early 2000’s the onset of a humid Virginia summer meant the end of hibernation for my sandals, shorts, skirts…and measuring tape. At my high school your grades could be high, your behavior pristine, but a skirt or shorts shorter than 3 inches above the knee would get you suspended. This was a reliable hot-weather anxiety for me. Outside of the school’s doors movies, commercials, celebrities and clothing stores dealt in the currency of female sexiness. The shorter the better! But inside the school, my own thighs could land me in hot water. So in the years in which I formed my first understanding of what “normal” adult sexuality was, I tried to process this message. The female body was something to be sexualized, but only sometimes, and at your own risk of shame and possibly danger. On the flip side, the message to and about boys was that within them lies a sexual hunger so powerful that once awakened, they couldn’t possibly be entrusted with controlling it. Thus the institutionally mandated rule: cover up the girls to keep the boys’ lust from creating “distractions”. This told teenage-me something about what boys were supposed to want: sex. It said less about the desires of girls. For us it was vaguely about something more. Connection? Emotion? Love? Whatever it was, it wasn’t just the act.

Since that time, many aspects of female sexuality have remained mysterious to me. Some months ago I read a book with a title that promised to deliver answers. Daniel Bergner’s What do Women Want? Adventures in the Science of Female Desire takes an eloquent dip into current research on women’s desire. He draws on the work of a “gathering critical mass” of mostly female scientists who have delved into the apparently still taboo, still underfunded, subject of female sexuality. Studded with quenching, candid stories taken from interviews with anonymized women, the book is written with a caring flourish that drew me in. But most importantly, What do Women Want? did provide persuasive answers to, astonishingly, the precise set of questions that have long nagged me. It also went one step further. It hinted at a whole new framework for understanding female desire.

The subject of schools policing young girls’ clothing has anything but died down since my time in high school. Indeed the practice seems everywhere now that it’s more contentious to the public eye. Just a few days ago, for instance, the Guardian ran a story about a UK school turning away 29 girls at its gates for skirts and trousers deemed not “demure and modest” enough. In response to the unfavorable limelight, the school stated it would “continue to take a strong stance on adherence to our uniform policy, especially with girls who are wearing short skirts and tight trousers”. The headteacher even indicated that the policy was meant to “protect girls from unwanted attention or advances from boys in the school”. Why shouldn’t boys instead be made to curb their advances?

One of the first things Bergner’s book does is explain the root of this kind of thinking. Evolutionary psychology, which puts a lot of faith in the idea that “our patterns of behavior and motivation and emotion are primarily the expressions of our genes,” has, according to Bergner, further advanced a somewhat popularized idea called parental investment theory. According to the theory, there are some key differences between the reproductive energy budgeting of males and females that influences their sexual desires and behaviors. While men have unlimited sperm, women have limited eggs. Once fertilized, women have no choice but to expend time and energy in pregnancy, take risk at birth, and then spend more time and energy breast-feeding. The only effort men make is to spread their expendable sperm. Because of the comparably larger burden taken on by women on behalf of offspring, they should in theory be more selective of their mates – picking those that might have the best genes, status and resources. This is the way that females secure the success of their own genetic code. Males, on the other hand, attempt to do so by spreading their sperm far and wide in fierce competition with each other for the selective females.

This seems like a neat, scientific explanation for the sexual stereotypes present in even the most progressive societies around the world today. Males groping females on public transport, women playing “hard to get”, dress codes written to contain the lust of young boys. According to the theory these behaviors, which we see daily, were put in place by genetic factors evolved steadily over time, and are thus not only reasonable but also inherent. Some even argue that we can measure them in our hormones.

Bergner takes us through a series of animal-based studies that seem to nimbly upend this theory. Take Kim Wallen’s rhesus monkeys. The females have as little testosterone as women do in comparison to men. Yet the female rhesus “run the sexual show, incite warfare and rule the world of rhesus politics.” In essence, they exhibit those characteristics thought to be genetically reserved for males, all while making the big investment in pregnancy, delivery and nursing. The females pursue their mates until the mates succumb and often fight other females over these sexual conquests. What’s more, while males experience gratification at ejaculation, females might not. Thus, Wallen describes how a female rhesus has sex, and when the male goes into a “post-ejaculatory snooze”, she immediately goes after a new male. Another researcher, Sarah Blaffer Hrdy rationalizes this behavior in no-less salient terms than those of parental investment theory: “The advantages female animals get from their pleasure-driven behavior [of having multiple partners] range from the safeguarding against infanticide in some primate species to, in all, gathering more varied sperm and so gaining better odds of genetic compatibility, of becoming pregnant, of bearing and raising healthy offspring”.

How could this have been previously overlooked? Bergner isn’t shy about drawing out the potential for sexism in science. He points out that predominantly male scientists might have—until relatively recently—seen only what they wanted to see, cherry picking behaviors that would fit a theory that fits a status quo obviously favorable to their own gender.

About two years ago it was an uncharacteristically sunny day in London and I, also uncharacteristically, decided to go for a run along Regent’s canal. At a leisurely gait, I jogged past a guy with a gleeful toddler perched upon his shoulders. That’s nice, I thought. No sooner had I thought this than I heard the man wolf whistling behind me. Unbelieving, I turned around to gape. I was swiftly received with kissing sounds. This man, with a tiny boy wrapped around his head, like an eerie totem pole of males, attempted to follow me on my jogging route, spewing sexual remarks, forcing me to speed up and change paths.

Would I ever have the nerve or desire to do this to a man? No. As a small child, did any female guardians clap me onto their shoulders while aggressively pursuing a man? Also no. Do young men experience the aggressive advances of women in their daily life? Probably not. What do Women Want? places significant importance in the lifelong socialization of men and women. In another series of studies, Bergner shows that thanks to social conditioning, there may be more than what meets the eye in female sexuality.

In one study, Dr. Meredith Chivers has her subjects recline in a La-Z-Boy while they watch an array of porn on a computer monitor. As they do so, a plethysmograph beams light against their vaginal walls. The measurements recorded reveal the blood flow to the vagina: Surges in blood cause the formation of moisture through the cell walls of the canal’s lining and in this way, the machine gauges wetness. By avoiding the muddying of the mind, the instrument tells Chivers essentially what turns women on. As the experiment goes on, subjects also hold a keypad and self-report their feelings of arousal. There is a glaring dissonance between what the women report and what the plethysmograph reads. While the women self-report the expected category-specific arousal (straight women stating they are most aroused by porn featuring men with women), the plethysmograph readings have surprised Chivers. Regardless of who is performing on the screen—men with men, women with women, men with women, lone men or women masturbating, apes even—the women’s vaginal pulse amplitude soars (albeit in varying degrees). Men, on the other hand, are category specific in the expected ways—aroused by women alone, women with men and above all women with women.

Dr. Terry Fisher’s experiment is an equally interesting one. She asked 200 female and male undergraduates to complete a questionnaire with queries on masturbation and the use of porn. Students were separated into groups and, crucially, wrote their answers under three different conditions: 1. They were instructed to hand the finished questionnaire to a fellow college student who waited just beyond an open door and was able to watch the students, 2. They were given explicit assurances that their answers would be kept anonymous, and 3. They were hooked up to a phony polygraph machine complete with false electrodes taped to their hands, forearms and necks. Under all three conditions, males answered the same way. But for females, the conditions were critical. In group one, many females claimed they never masturbated, never watched porn. In group two, their answers turned to “yes” a lot more. In group three, the women’s answers corresponded with those of their male counterparts almost identically. And when asked about how many sexual partners they had ever had, group three of the women actually gave figures higher than the men’s.

So what, according Bergner’s persuasive book, do women really want? He is careful not to reach any definitive conclusions, but the direction is obvious. He points out that men have long dominated women’s sexual narrative. In history—where women’s sexuality has often been seen as dangerous and therefore silenced, in science—where the status quo has been well-served by reinforcing theories, and in society—where girls learn that they must manage the raw desire of boys who are slaves to their hormones. “With scientific confidence,” Bergner says, “girls and women [have been] told how they should feel.” With equal scientific confidence, Bergner puts forward the work of a new guard of female researchers who are diligently dislodging what has long been accepted. These are the lessons he gleans: women’s desire has an “inherent range” and “innate power”. Women’s desire is largely not “sparked or sustained” by emotional intimacy or safety. And lastly: the widely perceived notion that women are genetically inclined to be guardians of monogamy is not only a fable, but perhaps exactly opposite of the truth.

For weeks after reading this book, it stuck in my daily thoughts. I connected personal experience to its lessons and understood many of its conclusions as correct. I thought, wow, maybe we women do have a far stronger sexual desire than society allows. Perhaps we have the capacity to be aroused by a wider range of things than we’re made comfortable with. Beneath society’s patriarchal norms, we might be more sexual than men. If only we were set free, we could finally fulfill all our innate desires… or, maybe not. After those weeks had passed I thought, maybe you shouldn’t group a set of people under any type of sexual ideal, be it demure or all devouring. Maybe the studies of Chivers and Fisher are more a reflection of socialization than of innate tendencies. Perhaps they tell us of an amplified desire that results from its being pent up—not a genetic precondition. But then what of Wallen’s rhesus monkeys, their gene-driven lust for multiple mates to increase their chances of successful offspring? What about how the pace of men and women’s orgasm—men’s faster, women’s more drawn out, sometimes multiple—lines up with this theory? These biological facts can’t really be attributed to socialization. But that doesn’t mean they tell us what we want. Our lifestyle has come quite some way from that of our ancestors. For many of us, most sexual encounters are not a means to reproduction. Thanks to effective contraception, the pleasure in sex has been somewhat detached from its biological end goal. And our capacity to think critically about our actions, to alter our decisions on the basis of new information, and to teach our children new things, I like to think, has more bearing on who we are than the inclinations we might or might not owe to our genes.

Because of this, Bergner’s What do Women Want? is important. It presents a narrative of female desire that convincingly challenges the deeply entrenched sexual status quo that is passed on as inevitable. The book contains information that can change the way we behave by injecting reality with alternate possibilities. Perhaps that moves us one step closer to a society that doesn’t insist on telling us what to want…or at least one that gives us more options.

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