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What Do Women Want?
Adventures in the Science of Female Desire
By Daniel Bergner
Plethysmograph: a miniature lightbulb and sensor that put inside woman's vagina to measure blood flow to the vagina. Researcher (Meredith Chivers) also provided a keyboard for the women to record how aroused they felt (at images on screen). The two measures hardly correlated at all.
One of more spectacular variations when asked women whether they were turned on by idea of strangers. They denied it, but measurements showed much greater interest then when pics of friends or lovers.
Galen of Pergamum, the great physician and medical researcher of antiquity, was one of many learned men of his time who believed that women had to have an orgasm during sexual intercourse for conception to occur. For 1,500 years this was the scientific consensus. How could we have continued to believe in the necessity of female orgasm when there must have been all kinds of evidence to the contrary? No one is sure, according to Daniel Bergner. When it comes to the study of female sexuality, scientists have tended to see what they expect, or want, to see, and there are fewer established facts than you would think. "Despite all the powers of contemporary science," Bergner writes, "the seemingly straightforward anatomical question, is there a G spot? remains unanswered."
So what are scientists seeing now? Bergner's previous book, The Other Side of Desire, is a thoughtful study of unusual sexual inclinations - fetishism, sadism, attraction to children or amputees. In his new book, What Do Women Want?, which appears to have grown out of his earlier research, Bergner turns to what you might say is the largest group of sexual deviants: women, whose strange sexual parts and desires never seem quite as mainstream as men's. Squeezed into these 200 pages are interviews with psychologists, psychiatrists and primatologists who have been "puzzling out the ways of eros in women"; a capsule history of ideas about female sexuality from biblical times to the present; the story of the so-far elusive hunt for a Viagra-type aphrodisiac for women; a discussion of the different types of female orgasm; and the personal accounts of a dozen or so ordinary women who talk about their sex lives and fantasies.
The experiments and data Bergner writes about vary widely and don't all point in the same direction, but he sets this tour of contemporary sex research against one particular shibboleth: the notion that women are naturally less libidinous than men, hard-wired to want babies and emotional connection but not necessarily sex itself. Bergner, a contributing writer for The New York Times Magazine, blames evolutionary psychologists for spreading a contemporary version of this old idea. He assembles a group of scientists from different fields who talk about how earlier sexist bias has obscured the existence, strength and significance of female sex drive in animal reproduction.
Here is one example, with monkeys: In the 1970s, a psychologist and neuroendocrinologist named Kim Wallen noticed that the sexual behavior of rhesus monkeys was affected by the size of their cages. In close quarters the monkeys went at it like mad, and the male seemed to initiate sexual activity, which in turn seemed to confirm the prevailing idea that female monkeys were entirely sexually passive. But in larger cages, as in the wild, the females were the ones who chose their partners and initiated sex by following the males around and touching them demonstratively. The small cages, with their forced proximity, reduced monkey sex life to intercourse, obviating all the mating rituals in which female lust was the essential factor that set sex in motion. After Wallen's observations, primatologists started seeing evidence that many kinds of female primates initiated sex, while their male counterparts pretty much sat around waiting for the ladies to take an interest in their erections.
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Are we that kind of primate? Human arousal and sexual behavior are difficult to study in a lab. Scientists don't so much have answers as some intriguing findings, ongoing projects and their own theories to share. The theory most often mentioned across disciplines is that women, like men, are inclined to promiscuity. This notion is so far supported by animal studies and long-range surveys of women, which have found that low levels of sex drive are correlated with the number of years they've been in a monogamous relationship; women's sexual interest in steady partners may plummet even more quickly than men's.
This view is corroborated in the book by couples therapists who specialize in trying to help women regain sexual interest in their partners through thought experiments and mandatory date nights. They are notably pessimistic about how much heat all this homework can be expected to generate. The crucial point, Bergner writes, is that flagging sex drive is not just an inevitability for women - it is specifically the result of long-term monogamy. Even the hormonal decrease of menopause can be entirely overridden by the appearance of a new sexual partner. According to Bergner, Kim Wallen, the psychologist who discovered the role of cages in monkey sex, "thought that monogamy was, for women, a cultural cage - one of many cultural cages - distorting libido."
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No one here is claiming that women's experience of desire, arousal and orgasm is exactly like men's. Bergner refers to the possibility of "a new, unvarnished norm" for female sex drive, but the scientists he interviews aren't simply arguing that women have a stronger sex drive than commonly thought; some of them are rethinking the significance of female sexuality in reproduction. Female orgasm lost its essential status when scientists in the 1600s began to figure out how the ovum worked.
Since then scientific scrutiny has focused overwhelmingly on women's reproductive rather than sexual function; at times the existence of female desire and arousal and orgasm has been outright denied. A stubborn sense of uncertainty surrounds female sexual anatomy. The G spot was identified (avant la lettre) by a Dutch physician in the 1600s. It was described again (as an erotic zone . . . on the anterior wall of the vagina along the course of the urethra) by the German gynecologist Ernst Gr채fenberg in 1950. It was reported yet again in the 1982 best seller The G Spot: And Other Discoveries About Human Sexuality, by Alice Kahn Ladas, Beverly Whipple and John D. Perry. That book was met with surprise and scientific skepticism; the latter still lingers. Female ejaculation has a similar history of discovery, denial, incredulous rediscovery, lingering unknowns.
Now, researchers who work with animals argue that female anatomy in fact might be specifically adapted to sex with multiple partners - not just over a lifetime, but in the course of a single sexual episode. The different pace at which men and women build to climax might have the purpose of facilitating sex with multiple men in short succession, which would increase the odds of getting pregnant. Paraphrasing a theory put forward by the primatologist and anthropologist Sarah Blaffer Hardy, Bergner writes that the characteristics of female orgasm "could well be thoroughly relevant among our ancestors. Its delay, its need of protracted sensation . . . was evolution's method of making sure that females are libertines, that they move efficiently from one round of sex to the next and frequently from one partner to the next, that they transfer the turn-on of one encounter to the stimulation of the next, building toward climax."
If this is true, then female orgasm has played a crucial role in successful human reproduction - even though it is not necessary to conception itself.
So where does that leave us? Should we join swingers' clubs? Have threesomes? Cheat with the piano tuner?
Only at our own risk. Bergner acknowledges that people agree to monogamy not because it's the sexiest possible arrangement but because it seems the best way to have things like emotional stability and trust and therefore long-term companionship, which appears to be something both human males and females want - even if they also want to sleep around. One could imagine a more drawn-out examination of whether monogamy is indeed the best foundation for long-term relationships, given that both men and women (studies now show) sometimes find the strictures stifling to sexual happiness.
In reading this book, I was reminded of the columnist Dan Savage's long-running contention that heterosexual couples would have more stable relationships if they had a less rigid devotion to the ideal of monogamy. But Bergner doesn't linger on the puzzles of long-term couplehood. The human tendency to become intensely attached to particular sex partners doesn't figure in here. Instead, the book's disparate parts are held together by Bergner's general insistence on the very existence and force of female lust.
Our author sometimes seems to get lost in the sexiness of it all. In laboratories, vaginal blood vessels 'throb' with arousal. Women are shown pornography that 'stoked them - stoked them instantly - toward lust.' A 'raw portrait of female lust . . . was emerging' from the work of one researcher, who found that for heterosexual women, the sight of 'an isolated, rigid phallus filled vaginal blood vessels and sent the red line of the plethysmograph high, niceties vanished, conventions cracked; female desire was, at base, nothing if not animal.'
Bergner proceeds as if the value of being called 'animal,' of being considered highly libidinous, were self-evident - as if such charges had never been used against women. The fact that scientific and medical study of women's reproductive systems has over the last three centuries been a fun house of ethically questionable experiments and misogynistic pronouncements doesn't weigh as heavily on this book as you might expect. It is with apparently innocent enthusiasm that Bergner describes scenes of women masturbating while hooked up to M.R.I. scanners and having their vaginal blood flow measured by machines.
There is something drastically undertheorized about what all these tentative findings and speculations are doing in the same volume and what they might mean taken together. Why is female lust getting such a big dose of scientific legitimacy at this moment? Are these theories influenced by women's and men's evolving social roles? By women's increasing economic and political power? By feminism itself? Many of the scientists are, after all, women, a novel situation. The history of the study of women's sexuality tells us that when many scientists are finding the same sorts of things at the same time, it is because they have gone looking for them; a cultural shift has already taken place. For some reason - maybe for many reasons - the story of the libidinous male and sexually indifferent female doesn't make sense to us anymore.
We shouldn't mourn its passing. As long as we continue to think (in the back of our minds, to some degree) that men are hard-wired for sex and women for intimacy and babies, then we are stuck with the logic that only men really want to have sex; women want to trade it for something else. This makes straight couples into hagglers: self-interested, ungenerous, wary of being played. Better for men and women to approach each other as more or less equal partners in lust, and work out the rest in the morning.
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It was Freud who famously observed to one of his female disciples that even he, after 30 years of research into the feminine soul, could not answer the fundamental question about female desire: what does a woman want?
Daniel Bergner, an author and a writer for The New York Times, dares to think that he's found an answer. Sex. Exciting, and sometimes transgressive sex. Sex with strangers, sex that is more about power and desire than intimacy and solicitous concern. Sex that escapes the staid, the known and the familiar for the shock of the new and the charge that comes from being pursued. Sex that turns our assumptions about women's instinctive preference for stability upside down, and suggests that women may be even less suited to monogamy than their husbands and boyfriends are.
Bergner knows that his thesis doesn't match the social, historical and cross-cultural evidence about women's sexual behaviour. They seek less sex than men, are less promiscuous, fantasise and masturbate less. The differences between the sexes have been assumed to be innate, and powerfully linked to women's role as reproducers. Women are naturally cautious about who they go to bed with since any sex might result in the lifelong responsibility of bringing up a child. Evolutionary psychology tells us that this is why they aren't as easily sexually engaged as men, are more discriminating about who they choose as sexual partners, and why they look for trust and emotional intimacy as a precursor to sex.
Bergner suggests that there may be nothing natural about these gender differences in behaviour. Instead they are the result of powerful cultural conditioning. Every society has sought to control women's sexuality. Female sexual appetite has been seen as a threat to social functioning ever since Eve's curiosity expelled humans from paradise. He argues that women's sex drives have not only been channelled, controlled and punished, they have also - and most critically - been denied.
The evidence Bergner has gathered for this theory comes from psychologists, neuroscientists, sex therapists, and women themselves, but the most electrifying research he quotes comes from the sexologist Meredith Chivers.
Chivers is a young and distinguished Canadian scientist who set out to find a way of separating women's elemental sexual responses from those they had been trained to give. To do that she devised a miniature sensor which could be placed inside women's vaginas to measure their degree of physical arousal. Then she played the women short clips of porn. They watched women with women, women with men, men with men. They watched a naked man ambling along a beach, naked men masturbating, women exercising nude. They even watched bonobos (a species of ape) having sex. At the same time, the women were given a keypad and asked to register how aroused they believed they were by what they were seeing.
The results were astounding. With the single exception of the ambling man, the women were turned on, instantly, by all of it, even by the copulating apes. But that wasn't what they reported on their keypads. Straight women claimed to be uninterested in gay female sex and even less interested in gay males. Lesbians claimed to be uninterested in male activity. Both said they were utterly indifferent to the bonobos. The women's minds did not, perhaps could not, acknowledge the powerful sensations that their bodies were feeling.
The same was not true of men. Hooked up to sensors around their genitals, the men knew exactly what aroused them, and their arousal was much more specific. Straight men liked women alone, women together, women with men. Gays liked gay sex. All of them were as indifferent to the apes as to mountain landscapes. For men, perhaps because they spend their lives unavoidably conscious of their physical responses, there was no barrier between bodies and minds.
Other research confirms this fundamental difference. Male students asked about sex and masturbation gave the same answers whether they were being watched by another student, assured their replies were anonymous or told that they were connected to a lie detector. Women who were watched claimed never to have masturbated or watched porn, admitted to a little more when they thought they were anonymous, but gave answers almost identical to the men when they believed that lies could be detected.
Women, it seems, are not allowed to feel sexual in the way that society allows men to be. They are taught that for them sex without intimacy is unsatisfying. A psychology professor in Nevada, Marta Meana, is one of those discovering that although women value supportive partnerships, these are not the route to fuelling lust. Quite the opposite. Women in long-term monogamous relationships lose interest in sex with their partners much more readily than men. It is the cause of tremendous grief as women struggle to recapture their sense of sexual excitement with men that they do indeed love. Counsellors urge them to try gentle, thoughtful massage.
It doesn't work. What turns women on, as Meana is discovering, is not closeness but a measure of distance. For many women, the romantic ideal of merging with a partner suffocates the erotic drive. What most excites them isn't more tenderness, but the possibility of being desired by other men. Fantasies of having to submit to sex with total strangers arouses them most of all. As far as their sex drive is concerned, women long to be the object of primal need.
Bergner points out how terrified society is by the possibility that women may not be the natural defenders of monogamy. Companies researching the female Viagra are torn about seeking success: they want to reassure the regulatory authorities that whatever they come up with, it won't lead to hordes of women wanting, as one man says, to "do the football team".
What this book concludes is that women's sex drives are as base, as animalistic as men's. Bergner thinks we've never seen this because we weren't looking for it. He points out, for instance, that it's only very recently that researchers have realised that female monkeys are not the passive recipients of sexual activity but the eager, joyful, promiscuous initiators of it. Science is only as good as the questions that researchers ask.
It's Bergner's contention, in this fascinating and controversial book, that we must recognise the deep tension that exists between what many women may want for social and familial reasons, and what fulfils them sexually. There is no easy resolution to that dilemma - should we build greater distance into our relationships? Should we have private assignations like the upper-class French? - but pretending that it doesn't exist is creating great private agony. Acknowledging it and understanding its costs and its reality offers the hope of leading more fulfilling lives.
An extract from What Do Women Want?
On the subject of women and sex, Meredith Chivers was out to obliterate the civilized world. The social conventions, the lists of sins, all the intangible influences needed to go. "I've spent a lot of time," she said, "attempting to get back in my head to what life was like for proto-humans."
When Chivers and I first met seven years ago, she was in her mid-thirties. She wore high-heeled black boots that laced up almost to her knees and skinny, stylish rectangular glasses. Her blond hair fell over a scoop-necked black top. She was a young but distinguished scientist in a discipline whose name, sexology, sounds something like a joke, a mismatching of prefix and suffix, of the base and the erudite. Yet the matching is in earnest - the ambitions of the field have always been grand. And Chivers's dreams were no different. She hoped to peer into the workings of the psyche, to see somehow past the consequences of culture, of nurture, of all that is learned, and to apprehend a piece of women's primal and essential selves: a fundamental set of sexual truths that exist - inherently - at the core.
Men are animals. On matters of eros, we accept this as a kind of psychological axiom. Men are tamed by society, kept, for the most part, between boundaries, yet the subduing isn't so complete as to hide their natural state, which announces itself in endless ways - through pornography, through promiscuity, through the infinity of gazes directed at infinite passing bodies of desire - and which is affirmed by countless lessons of popular science: that men's minds are easily commandeered by the lower, less advanced neural regions of the brain; that men are programmed by evolutionary forces to be pitched inescapably into lust by the sight of certain physical qualities or proportions, like the .7 waist-to-hip ratio in women that seems to inflame heterosexual males all over the globe, from America to Guinea-Bissau; that men are mandated, again by the dictates of evolution, to increase the odds that their genes will survive in perpetuity and hence that they are compelled to spread their seed, to crave as many .7's as possible.
But why don't we say that women, too, are animals? Chivers was trying to discover animal realities.
She carried out her research in a series of cities, in Evanston, Illinois, which sits right next to Chicago, in Toronto, and most recently in Kingston, Ontario, which feels utterly on its own, tiny, and fragile. The Kingston airport is barely more than a hangar. Kingston's pale stone architecture has a thick, appealing solidity, yet it doesn't chase away the sense that the little downtown area, on the frigid spot where Lake Ontario spills into the Saint Lawrence River, isn't much more formidable than when it was founded as a French fur-trading post in the 17th century. Kingston is the home of Queen's University, a sprawling and esteemed institution of learning, where Chivers was a psychology professor, but the city is stark and scant enough that it is easy to imagine an earlier emptiness, the buildings gone, the pavement gone, almost nothing there except evergreens and snow.
And this seemed fitting to me when I visited her there. Because to reach the insight she wanted, she needed to do more than strip away societal codes; she needed to get rid of all the streets, all the physical as well as the incorporeal structures that have their effects on the conscious and the unconscious; she needed to re-create some pure, primordial situation, so that she could declare, This is what lies at the heart of women's sexuality.
Plainly, she wasn't going to be able to establish such conditions for her studies. Almost surely, for that matter, such pure conditions never existed, because proto-humans, our forehead-deficient Homo heidelbergensis and Homo rhodesiensis ancestors of some hundreds of thousands of years ago, had proto-cultures. But what she possessed was a plethysmograph: a miniature bulb and light sensor that you place inside the vagina.
This is what her female subjects did as they sat on a brown leatherette La-Z- Boy chair in her small, dimly lit lab in Toronto, where she first told me about her experiments. Semireclining on the La-Z- Boy, each subject watched an array of porn on an old, bulky computer monitor. The two-inch-long glassine tube of the plethysmograph beams light against the vaginal walls and reads the illumination that bounces back. In this way, it measures the blood flow to the vagina. Surges of blood stir a process called vaginal transudation, the seeping of moisture through the cells of the canal's lining. So, indirectly, the plethysmograph gauges vaginal wetness. It was a way to get past the obfuscations of the mind, the interference of the brain's repressive upper regions, and to find out, at a primitive level, what turns women on.
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