What Do Women Want?: Adventures in the Science of Female Desire
by Daniel Bergner
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After reading enthusiastic reviews on Slate and Salon, I had to download this book and start reading it immediately. [I did that. I also started writing this review like a month ago. It just took me a long time to wrap it up.] It had everything I was looking for a in a new perspective on female sexuality. Female monkeys and rats chasing their male counterparts, demanding sex? Check. Evidence that studies done on animal sexuality are largely done in unnatural contexts that conform to human presuppositions about male sexuality being active and female sexuality being passive? Check. Cutting-edge prescription drugs that provide the antidote to libido-killing monogamy, squelched by big business and politicians who feared it work so well that they wouldn’t be able to control their wive’s and daughters’ uninhibited sexual appetites? Check. Rape fantasies attesting to a self-centered sexual appetite? Check. Indiscriminate arousal as evidence of an omnivorous female libido? Check.
It’s almost as if the patriarchy has conspired by means of fairytales about loyal princesses who chastely kiss princes and live happily ever after to convince women that their sex drives were non-existent and irrelevant in order keep them locked in the kitchen and cultivate a false consciousness that finds satisfaction in duty, loyalty, monogamy, and tedium so that men could indulge in guilty pleasures and return to the sanctuary of their homes for absolution by their pure and good wives. Except that mess of women’s desire occasionally slips out of cracks in Pandora’s box and women find themselves disappointed and disillusioned by the the only things that are supposed to make them happy. Thank God for anti-depressants, and thank Him that men know they can satisfy their primal sexual urges elsewhere while still loving their wives and wanting to remain enmeshed in their families…
At the end of the book, I was angry for a second that it was over. I was reading an ebook and didn’t even realize I had reached the last page. “NOW WHAT?!” I yelled at nobody.
This book got me thinking so long and hard (that’s what’s she said!) about female sexuality that it left me with more questions than answers.
How different would our world look if women’s libidos were taken as seriously as men’s? And what if women’s libidos are stronger and more ravenous than men’s? It makes sense if our orgasms are more intense and we can have a couple in a row, unlike those guys. Would believing that we have appetites to feed instead of chastities to protect undermine the constant terror of rape instilled in most of us? How different would society look if we believed women’s sexual attention span was just a couple of years long, after which restless female partners started searching for fresh sources of stimulation? What if both men and women were allowed to openly crave variety more than monogamy, and women weren’t obligated to stay at home on their kitchen pedestals because men don’t like to share their toys?
It tripped me out to read about the women who still felt deeply in love with their husbands but were no longer inclined to have sex with them…but there was reason to believe “taking a lover” would rekindle their interest in the enterprise. I read a longform article ages ago by a woman who had cheated on her husband before their divorce (the details that I remember are too vague for me to find it) and was watching her friends struggle through the mid-lives of their own marriages. She proposed a social arrangement where the women would band together to raise their children, the husbands would come over to fix shelves and leaky pipes providing companionship , and young lovers would rotate in and out, providing sex and romance. It was eerie how close that idle fantasy was to the observations Bergner, or at least his stable of experts, made about women’s sexuality: omnivorous, and in need of constant and fresh stimulation. It also brought to mind other statistics I’ve read: all things being equal, women are more likely to initiate divorce than men.
What if this kind of society with men playing supporting roles to close-knit groups of women raising children were the most natural way for humans to group together? What if we’re compelled to behave in ways that are best for humans as a whole and not just individuals with unique DNA?
What if men’s libidos are so ravenous because ideally, there would only be a few of them to service multiple women? Maybe it’s not just an “ideal”: if men are the ones out there hunting and fighting, then of course more of them would put themselves in harm’s way and fewer adult men would return make it home after each escapade. Monogamy would not be the best policy if there were a high chance that your partner was going to be killed on any given day and you couldn’t avail yourself of anyone else’s dedicated partner. Maybe women only became the second sex when humans became civilized enough that the populations of men and women became more or less equal.
What if women’s libidos were more omnivorous because they were willing to have sex with other women, maybe as a means to foster intimacy and camaraderie within their own social group? Maybe that’s why women seem to have trouble separating sex and emotion–because women would use sex with other women, in the absence of partners to procreate with, as a way to bond within their social group. Maybe it’s more weird that men can separate emotions from sex, speaking in broad generalizations.
What if women are essentially more socially adept–maybe these skills would help them attract a mate away from other women, at least long enough to get pregnant, or those skills could help them negotiate a “schedule” with the other women. Maybe women would be less jealous in polygynous relationships if as a group they were negotiating the terms among themselves to distribute the limited male “resources” instead of having the terms dictated to them by a single man. But then men might feel used and objectified…
What if men die earlier than women because it’s not good for them to outlive the quality of their sperm? What if men die earlier to let younger, more virile men with better quality sperm to take their place?
What if women chose to procreate only with the “best” male partners, but lesser men, still driven to spread their DNA, became opportunistic rapists when rejected and forced to live on the fringes of organized human societies?
To be honest, I hate this kind of essentialist thinking, but usually because it sounds like excuses for bad behavior more than explanations for what’s actually going on. Maybe it’s just my own naivete or ignorance that makes me question in this direction. Maybe there are other books I need to read.
We’ve just celebrated our second anniversary of the day we met and we’ve been married just over six months, so I’m not any kind of expert. On the one hand, Bergner’s observations about women’s fickleness about monogamy terrify me and I don’t want to believe what he says is true, at least not for me. The thought of even thinking about straying from my husband, of ever causing him an ounce of confusion or uncertainty, let alone pain, makes me feel nauseous and makes my chest tighten up like I could cry. It’s the stuff of my nightmares.
On the other, more rational hand, Bergner’s points about intimacy killing romance seemed actionable. Erotic love desires the “other”, and seeking to be totally united with your spouse can undermine that impulse. There’s a danger in turning your sexy new mate into into the most comfortable thing in the world, a danger that they’ll become nothing that sets your heart on fire: the human equivalent of eating macaroni and cheese in a snuggie. I can live with a little emotional and mental distance between us if would make our happiness last longer, and I think it would give us something to talk about over dinner, anyway. Should we pursue our own interests and enjoy sharing our rich lives together? That’s not even a question.