Toward a science of 
female sexuality

What Do Women Want?:

Adventures in the Science of Female Desire

The presumption that while male lust belongs to the animal realm, female sexuality tends naturally toward the civilized; the belief that in women’s brains the more advanced regions, the domains of forethought and self-control, are built by heredity to ably quiet the libido, the premise that emotional bonding is, for women, a potent and ancestrally prepared aphrodisiac; the idea that female eros makes women the preordained if imperfect guardians of monogamy—what nascent truths will come into view, floating forward if these faiths continue to be cut apart? 

Daniel Bergner, in his book What do Women Want?: Adventures in the Science of Female Desire, attempts to do exactly that, to “cut apart” the field of evolutionary psychology’s long-held assertion that women’s sexuality and desire are biologically linked to closeness and intimacy, while men’s desire is ravenous and impossible to satiate, driving men to have sex constantly (and with as many women as possible). Speaking primarily to heterosexual sexual practices, Bergner argues that this narrative has had profound influence on relationships between men and women, and that it controls women’s sexuality by repressing and subduing desire. 

More specifically, Bergner joins the likes of Sex at Dawn: The Prehistoric Origins of Human Sexuality authors Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jethá, challenging the idea that monogamy is natural and more desirable to women. Instead, Bergner argues, using a mix of research with leading female scientists and sexologists, along with personal interviews with women, that 

Women’s desire—its inherent range and innate power—is an underestimated and constrained force, even in our times, when all can seem so sexually inundated, so far beyond restriction. That despite the notions our culture continues to imbue, this force is not, for the most part, sparked or sustained by emotional intimacy and safety. . . . And that one of our most comforting assumptions, soothing perhaps above all to men but clung to by both sexes, that female eros is much better made for monogamy than the male libido, is scarcely more than a fairy tale.

For many women this is no revelation. Yet this book plays an important role in uncovering research and posing questions that make a welcome contribution to better understanding the relationship between biology, sexuality, and socialization. His eye toward uncovering the real biological underpinning of female desire at times leads the book, ironically, down an evolutionary psychology framework that the book is premised on dismantling. Yet the research alone is worth reading, analyzing, and drawing your own conclusions from. 

Bergner begins with evolutionary psychology’s dominant narrative, using humans’ primate past to explain current sexual practices and desires. Chimpanzee social organization and behavior have long been used by evolutionary psychology to draw a line from the monkey kingdom to human behavior today. The title of these books says it all: The Most Dangerous Animal: Human Nature and the Origin of War, Demonic Males, and The Dark Side of Man. All of these are meant to directly explain war, rape, and aggression as linked to our primate past through evolution. The author of The Dark Side of Man writes, “Men did not invent rape. Instead, they very likely inherited rape behavior from our ape ancestral lineage. Rape is a standard male reproductive strategy and likely has been one for millions of years. Male humans, chimpanzees, and orangutans routinely rape females. Wild gorillas violently abduct females to mate with them. Captive gorillas also rape females.”

Research being done with bonobo and rhesus monkeys, however, provides a completely different picture and contributes to a more complex picture of our primate past. Among rhesus monkeys, females are the sexual initiators and aggressors. This is true also for capuchins, tonkeans, and pigtail monkeys. Very little aggression is found in bonobos; they have no formalized rituals of dominance and submission, live in matriarchal groups, and have a turbocharged sexuality mostly divorced from reproduction.  According to Kim Wallen, a psychologist and neuroendocrinologist interviewed in the book, whether these gendered behaviors apply to the majority of monkeys is unknown. Wallen concludes that not enough meticulous science has been conducted.

The evolutionary break from our primate past is also unarticulated by Bergner, leaving the reader to draw a direct parallel between human sexuality today and a more progressive uncovering of our primate past. While some relief is in order that our direct descendents were not entirely made up of violent male sexual predators, there is thankfully much more that distinguishes humans from monkeys. Most importantly, humans evolved a distinct ability to labor consciously. Starting with the development of opposable thumbs, humans evolved to produce and think creatively in order to transform (not just adapt to) the environment in which we live. Sexuality then developed differently according to how different societies collectively labored and organized themselves, allowing for a multitude of possibilities for human sexual arrangements and activity throughout history. The degree of change and transformation of human sexuality is arguably more worthy of “meticulous” research than that which would shed further light on our primate past. 

Underdeveloped research is a theme throughout the book and admittedly one of its own limitations. Research dedicated to female sexuality remains underfunded and marginalized today. Bergner writes, “The investigation of women’s sexual psyches is, with the exception of pharmaceutical quests, dismally funded. . . . Where there should be an abundance of exploration, there is, instead, common assumption, unproven theory, political constraint, varieties of blindness.” 

But the book is worth reading for the scientific research it brings to light, however limited. Bergner begins with a series of scientific experiments led mainly by female biologists, psychologists, and sexologists. Beginning with the work of Meredith Chivers, who attempts to uncover female desire by researching the perceived gap between what women consciously express and what they biologically respond to. Using plethysmographs (an instrument that measures vaginal blood flow) and keypads, women were asked to record their feelings of arousal after being shown images ranging from gay male porn and masturbation to monkey sex. It was simultaneously recorded by the plethysmograph. The result? What women reported being aroused by and the extent of that arousal using the keypad were at complete odds with their actual arousal as measured by the plethysmograph.

Women feel constrained and unwilling to acknowledge the intensity of their own libidos. But this goes beyond what Bergner sees as “willful denial.” He writes: “In journals she [Chivers] found glimmers of evidence—unconfirmed, insubstantial, like so much that she wished she could rely on, build on, as she attempted to assemble sexual truth—that women are less connected to, less cognizant of, the sensations of their bodies than men, not just erotically but in other ways.” 

Contributing to this lack of connection and cognizance is how little is known about the female orgasm. In the chapter “Four Orgasms,” the limited research on the female orgasm, namely the existence of the G-spot, is discussed. There is conflicting research with progressives falling on both sides. For some women, its existence is an important validation of an ignored biological function that women and men are largely unaware of. For other women, years are spent searching and frustrated by an inability to find it. Bergner introduces new evidence, providing more questions than answers, with studies done with paraplegic women about four nerve paths, two of which are unrelated to clitoral stimulation (and do not require paths through the spinal cord) seeming to indicate that stimulation of the vaginal wall in some women can produce orgasm. There is also evidence that women can think themselves to orgasm without physical stimulation at all. Again, this chapter necessarily raises more questions than answers and demonstrates the need to fund more research to understand the most simple and pleasurable function of women’s bodies. 

Where science and research are not lacking in funds is a newfound interest by the pharmaceutical industry in a “cure” for women’s weakened and repressed libido. The drug company Emotional Brain has developed Lybrido and Lybridos to increase the sex drive of women as they age or enter later stages of committed relationships. Women have entered clinical trials eager for help with their waning libidos. Andrew Goldstein, who runs the Washington, DC, center for clinical trials, was one of the most prominent gynecologists in the country and president of the International Society of the Study of Women’s Sexual Health. Frustrated by the lack of progress made with prior drugs addressing female sexual desire, Goldstein is hopeful about this new drug being able to address a widespread issue plaguing monogamous relationships: the increased lack of interest over time in having frequent sex. Bergner writes, “Lybrido, Lybridos, the pharmaceutical efforts that had come before them, the inestimable millions or billions that the industry poured into research—the race was for a drug to cure monogamy. This was the main demand, the market with the biggest potential payoff.” 

What’s missing in Bergner’s analysis, however, is an understanding that those who run the pharmaceutical industry have no interest in helping women get their groove back. When “payoff” is calculated by this industry, it is not measured in orgasms, but in money. As long as there is a market for sexual desire, medical research in a capitalist society will find a way to profit from such needs. This also informs the new classification in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders of “hypoactive sexual desire disorder” or HSSD. Some women may find this welcome help and recognition that women’s desires matter. However, the irony that repressed desire in women is widespread (negating the very definition of disorder) deserves greater scrutiny than Bergner provides. 

A profit motive is also not the only explanation for the creation of such drugs. Our familial and sexual relationships are dependent ideologically on monogamy as well, creating an additional incentive for the effectiveness of these pharmaceutical pursuits. This is not to “cure monogamy,” as Bergner states, but instead to chemically assist our compliance to it. 

While Bergner is critical of the pharmaceutical industry, he shares the framework that female desire should be addressed primarily through biology. This begs the question: how much of female desire can be explained or uncovered through molecular science? Is there a natural state of women’s sexuality that is possible to be unearthed? 

This framework becomes most problematic in the chapters “Narcissism” and “The Alley.” In these chapters Bergner discusses the research of Marta Meana, concluding that women’s desire is biologically bound to narcissism. Influenced by Freud, this research understands objectification, voluntary and involuntary, as connected to a “wish to be the object of primal need. The attainment of this wish, she argued, required not closeness but a measure of distance.” While helping to argue the premise of the book that female desire is not inherently linked to intimacy and closeness, there is no mention in this chapter of the relationship between objectification, perceived narcissism, and sexism. I would recommend the perspective in John Berger’s Ways of Seeing instead. Ways of Seeing illustrates the ways in which women internalize the male gaze, not due to narcissistic tendencies, but instead as a result of women being objectified by men. This “gaze” further alienates women from their own bodies and desires as they view themselves through a lens alien to and outside of their own. 

Unfortunately, the chapter “Narcissism” is followed by a chapter dedicated to understanding why rape fantasies are widespread among women. According to Bergner, depending on the study between 30 and 60 percent of women acknowledged they took pleasure in this kind of imagining. Following the previous chapter, it’s hard to not read the testimonials of women and draw the conclusion that such fantasies are linked to a more primal need to be desired. Although Bergner and Meana are insistent that fantasies are inherently divorced from real life scenarios and therefore shouldn’t be inferred to represent female desire in their waking life, it’s hard not to be troubled and disturbed by this chapter. Bergner would perhaps argue that such provocation is the point. I think there is a discussion necessary, if the studies are correct, that seeks to understand the reasons behind such fantasies. Unfortunately, without linking sexual violence to the permeation of rape culture in wider society, the ability of the reader to separate fantasy from reality, and divorce the testimonials from the previous chapter’s framework of “narcissism” is close to impossible. 

What Do Women Want? is not oblivious to the influence of culture on biology but spends far too little time discussing the relationship. In fact, there is little mention of sexism throughout the book as being, what I would argue, a primary distorter of women’s bodies, sexuality, and desire. What follows, unfortunately, is a book attempting to respond to the highly conservative field of evolutionary psychology with a more progressive version, leaving the premise of evolutionary psychology largely unchallenged. Bergner is correct in asserting that the widespread narrative explaining women’s sexuality as more naturally linked to monogamy is primarily about controlling women’s sexuality. But what purpose does such control have?

Female sexuality doesn’t hold a yet-to-be realized superpower. Our society does not fear an unleashed sexual desire of women, per se, but fears what such unleashing represents. Women having more control over their bodies and sexuality shatters a sexist narrative that keeps the status quo afloat: women provide the social glue to society—emotionally, sexually, and domestically. There is a subservience that capitalism requires of women with a corresponding narrative about our natural desires. Men are about sex, women about reproduction. 

What Women Want? is worth reading for the science and research it examines, which is presented accessibly, and for the provocative questions it raises. Throughout the book, Bergner yearns for more research and science, hopefully under way. Readers will yearn for more analysis that explores sexism with greater depth.

Issue #103

Winter 2016-17

"A sense of hope and the possibility for solidarity"

Interview with Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz
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