Book Review: What Do Women Want? Adventures in the Science of Female Desire

Judging this book by its cover – an exaggerated female hourglass shape -, and its bold title, it’s not one of the books I’d ever have picked up in a book store if I had passed by it. I’d have read the title and thought to myself: What pretentious idiot thinks he can find just one simple trait shared by all women?

But this book isn’t about that.

Daniel Bergner does not rely on his experience and wisdom as a man to tell us what exactly it is that women want. Instead, he describes how he followed various scientists while they conducted a number of studies about female sexual behaviour. Almost all of these scientists were female themselves.

One of these women is Meredith Chivers, sexologist and former professor of Psychology at Kingston’s Queen’s university.

She led studies in various cities, trying to find out what constitutes female sexuality beyond social conventions. Admittedly, it should be hard to find out exactly to which extent our behaviour and sexual desire is influenced by our cultural environment, as we are unable to recreate natural conditions. What Meredith Chivers did instead was to measure the level of arousal in a number of women, by showing them porn and recording the blood flow in the walls of their vaginas. The pictures and clips she showed ranged from differently paired couples, both hetero- and homosexual, to shots of body parts, to monkeys having sex.

What Chivers found out was that for most of the female participants arousal acted almost anarchic, following no specific patterns, meaning they were basically turned on more or less by all of it, though it’s notable that pictures of erections scored the highest levels of arousal in heterosexual women, whereas a flaccid penis left them comparatively unimpressed.

Interestingly, when Chivers supplied the women with a small keyboard to additionally rate their own arousal, a large number of the data was contradicting. Even though the increased blood flow proved the contrary, most women claimed the lesbian and monkey porn didn’t turn them on.

Chivers conducted the same experiment with men, coming to a totally different conclusion. Their reading coincided with their ratings.

A possible explanation for this divergence might be that the male body gives immediate feedback of arousal in the shape of an erection, while for women bodily reaction is much more subtle.

When Bergner asked Terri Fisher, she proposed another idea:

“To be a sexual creature, someone who’s allowed to have a sexuality, that freedom is granted to men much more freely than to women.”

Could it be possible the women in Chiver’s study denied their arousal because they were ashamed of it? Or could it be they weren’t even aware of their bodies, because they hadn’t learned to pay attention to them?

In Chapter two, Bergner describes the restrictions that have been put on female sexuality throughout history, starting from a point in time when female lust during intercourse was considered necessary for conception, to the Victorian Era and today’s assumption that women are more emotional and need to feel safe before they can engage in sex. Even Freud claimed that women have less of a libido than men.

Today we have a branch of psychology called evolutionary psychology, that attempts to reason by drawing on the rules of evolution, lately coming up with a theory of parental investment, stating that because a woman might get pregnant and has to carry the child for nine months within her own body, it only makes sense that she looks for a stable relationship first, so that she won’t be the sole caretaker. (Author’s note: Disregarding the possibility that women might pool resources to raise each other’s children together.)

Bergner blames the evolutionary psychologists for coming to a number of false conclusions by observing cultural norms and taking them for naturally granted, as David Buss of the University of Austin does, when he claims that culture is a proof of genetic predisposition, and that because a large number of cultures have a clearly divided roles for men and women, it must be naturally so.

It doesn’t take much to see this isn’t a very scientific claim.

Still, it’s the pervading view of the 21st century, which is precisely why books challenging the ideal of “the demure woman” are so important.

For centuries, women in our culture have been the “guardians of monogamy”. While men were seen as sexually predatory, women were supposed to be chaste and thus civilising men by withholding.

Unashamed sexual desire, particularly desire for more than one person, inevitably destroys the family.

Monogamy is still considered to be the one true way of having relationships, and supplying the glue for our society. Without it, how would we sustain families?

According to Dossie Easton and Janet W. Hardy, authors of “The Ethical Slut”, our beliefs about monogamy date back to agrarian cultures, where a large monogamous lifetime family was a working alliance and vital to survival. With the increase in living standards, we now marry for different reasons, and are free to leave relationships that are no longer emotionally and sexually fulfilling without having to fear starvation. Monogamy, while certainly useful and totally appropriate for a number of couples who are actually able to stay faithful to one partner, is not the default state of human nature.

Is there scientific data to back this up? Hell yeah, there is.

Daniel Bergner describes how Meredith Chivers launched a second experiment to try and determine which relationship scenarios are the most arousing to women. They were offered audio clips of erotic short stories in which they were to imagine themselves as the protagonist. The blood flow in the vagina increased when scenes with female friends were described to the test subjects, but they doubled for the scenes with female strangers.

Male friends had no effect, but male strangers caused the level of arousal to rise eightfold. In almost all cases strangers were more arousing than long term partners, even if those long term partners were described as perfect.

Now, Chivers and Bergner are not the only ones who’ve come to question the actuality of a monogamous lifestyle. Bergner describes how while researching for this book, he continuously came upon women who were in a monogamous long-term relationship, but felt the “spark” had dimmed. They weren’t attracted to their partners anymore, like they had been in the beginning, yet most of them were unwilling to give up on the relationship or consider the possibility of opening up to multiple partners.

Adriaan Tuiten, a Dutch Scientist, is now proposing a different solution to save monogamy. He’s come up with a drug that’s been dubbed “female viagra”. There are two versions of it, Lybrido and Lybridos. By stimulating certain regions in the female brain and increasing lubrication of the vagina, the drugs are supposed to have an arousing effect on women. If the drugs really do work, Adriaan Tuiten is about to become very rich.

One of the women Bergner interviewed said: There are all these drugs for all the other psychological problems. Why not for this?

Neither Bergner nor I want to answer that question. There’s no one true way of dealing with relationships, and if there’s anything this book depicts it’s a multitude of ways in which sexuality might manifest. Peppered with interviews and fates of different individuals, relationships and science anecdotes, What Do Women Want? proves to be a riveting, short-winded read, advocating diversity and not taking cultural norms for granted.

It created one of the few instances where I felt taken seriously as a woman, where I even felt included in that gender group, because the word itself did not come with the usual expectations I could never meet.

But is there a trait of sexuality shared by all women? Well, maybe not by all of them. But it can probably be argued that for most, and also for most men, the simple feeling of being wanted and desired might be one of the main incentives for engaging in sexual relationships.

After all, what’s more thrilling than the simple expression of “I want you,” verbal or otherwise.

Charlotte was listening to a fly repeatedly smacking against her window in the desperate attempt to find freedom. 

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