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Do women want what they say they want?

28 September 2013

9:00 AM

28 September 2013

9:00 AM

What Do Women Want? Adventures in the Science of Female Desire Daniel Bergner

Canongate, pp.224, £10.99

What do women want? You might have thought the Wife of Bath had got this one sorted, but Daniel Bergner has brought science to bear on the perennial question. And the answer from this book is that what women want is not just sex but sex outside the confines of monogamy. You know the received wisdom about women needing relationship security and emotional commitment before they feel right about having intercourse? It’s all hokum, apparently. What women want when it comes to sex is, it seems, at odds not just with societal expectations but with what they — we — say they want. Actually, do you mind if I talk about women as ‘they’ in what follows? You’ll see why.

A book by a man about women’s darkest sexual desires — redeemed from filth by a grounding in sexologists’ (ha!) latest findings — has to be the stuff of publishers’ fantasies. You wonder how Daniel Bergner, a writer on the New York Times magazine, explained his assignment to his male friends: lots of interviews with mostly women sexologists about what turns women on, plus conversations with actual women about their sexual fantasies. Tough, huh?

The main experiment on which his conclusions rest seems pretty convincing. Bergner’s favourite sexologist asked a group of women, gay and straight, to watch an array of pornography in a dimly lit room, with a plethysmograph placed inside them, a device to measure the flow of blood to the vagina, to find what images they respond to. The images were varied: women and men, men and men, women and women and, ahem, a male bonobo ape with a female. The women were turned on pretty well by the lot, including the apes. Which was, of course, at odds with what they said they liked.

That discrepancy between what women find arousing and what they feel they ought to be attracted by runs throughout the book. It’s a negation of desire which, Bergner speculates, could only be possible in a gender that doesn’t, unlike men, display physical arousal in an unambiguous way. But if women aren’t naturally attracted to nice stable relationships — at least in terms of desire rather than practice — why have we thought differently for so long?

One answer Bergner posits is that most of the scientists who have investigated female desire, starting with our old friend Freud, are men, who see sex in terms of  male, not female, activity. Once you turn things round, the dynamic looks different. We start with a repulsive red-headed rhesus monkey called Deirdrah who goes to extraordinary lengths to rouse a somnolent male to sex. Once congress is underway, the male plays the active role but if you home in just on the act, you miss the fact it’s Deirdrah who frantically initiates it all. The same goes for female rats, immobile during intercourse but very frisky before the event.

Bergner suggests evolutionary scientists share the blame for the received wisdom that women go for commitment when it comes to sex (to provide a safe environment to bring up offspring) and that men go for as many sexual partners as they can get, to spread their genes. But there’s another model suggested here: the monkey group in which males habitually practise infanticide. In that context it makes sense for females to copulate widely, so as to make the males think the infants could be theirs. As with any evolutionary theory there’s no way of knowing.

Feminists won’t feel comfortable with these findings. A running theme in the research is that women are attracted by scenarios they really ought not to find arousing. Not just by rough sex but violent sex. By rape fantasies. By male dominance. As Bergner’s researcher put it: ‘It was possible to be stirred by all sorts of things one doesn’t in fact want.’ Good news for the publishers of Fifty Shades of Grey. Bad news for those plugging the kind of gender-balanced relationship in which men do their share of the housework. One feminist glumly recalls choosing her husband on the basis of their shared attitudes about gender, only to admit, several years on, that it didn’t make for sexual chemistry. Underneath all this is what Bergner calls feminine narcissism — the need to be wanted. The ultimate aphrodisiac, apparently, is to be desired.

If true, all this is bad news for those of us who advocate matrimonial monogamy. Eros, to put it politely, doesn’t really flourish with Hymen, at least not for long.

So, does all this add up to the death of monogamy? I think not. Women may indeed be naturally promiscuous, but this isn’t to say they’re driven only by sexual need. Pragmatism and principle make matrimony attractive. It’s better for raising children. It provides emotional security which women, paradoxically, also want. It’s also a good context in which to grow old, because if we’re all just following animal instinct, older women come off worse competing with younger ones. Most women make a moral and rational calculation when it comes to relationships: sex matters but so do other things. That’s one of the things about being human — we’re not solely driven by our hormones.

But my own reservations are about the model of womanhood that Bergner is debunking. How revolutionary is it anyway, to think of women as basically up for it? If you read Shakespeare or Boccaccio or William Wycherley, let alone Chaucer and the Wife of Bath, I’m not sure you’d be under any illusions.

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