“Naked Young Woman in Front of the Mirror” by Giovanni Bellini
Zoe Williams talks to Daniel Bergner, the American author of What Do Women Want?, an explosive new book about female desire
I was on the Victoria line with my boyfriend, telling him about a new book by the American author Daniel Bergner, called What Do Women Want? Its headline, traffic-stopping message is that women, routinely portrayed as the monogamous sex, are actually not very well-suited to monogamy. In fact, far from being more faithful than men, we may actually be more naturally promiscuous – more bored by habituation, more voracious, more predatory, more likely to objectify a mate. The expectation upon us not to feel, still less exhibit, any of these traits causes us to bury them, Bergner argues, giving rise to two phenomena.
First, women experience a loss of interest in sex within a marriage – commonly ascribed to low libido, but actually more a thwarted libido. Bergner interviewed a number of women in long-term relationships, many of whom elaborated on this waning desire. One woman said of her husband, “We did have sex maybe once a week, but it didn’t reach me. My body would respond, but the pleasure was like the pleasure of returning library books. And the thing about being repulsed by him was, I felt my body was a room that I didn’t want to mess up. Unlike that openness at the beginning, when my body was a room and I didn’t mind if he came in with his shoes on.”
The second, and perhaps more surprising phenomenon, is that all this thwarted sexual energy, like anything suppressed, has its power redoubled, to become something violent and alarming, if for any reason the brakes come off.
I thought I’d illustrate this to my boyfriend using two of Bergner’s stories about monkeys. The first tells us that, in scientific tests, women become aroused when they watch a film of two copulating bonobos (men don’t, by the way), and that they strongly deny this arousal when asked. The explanation, proffered tentatively by Bergner, is that female sexuality is as raw and bestial as male sexuality. But, unlike men, our animal urges are stoutly denied, by society and by ourselves, so that when they surface, it is not as a manageable stream, but as a rushing torrent that will sweep up everything it passes, even a pair of shagging primates. Bergner goes on to quote a 42-year-old woman named Rebecca, who had a threesome after her husband left her, and who makes an observation about the nature of female desire that is both poetic and precise. “The phrase that keeps coming into my head is that it’s like a pregnancy of wanting. Pregnancy’s not a good word – because it means pregnancy. It’s that it’s always there. Or always ready. And so much can set it off. Things you actually want and things you don’t. Pregnant. Full. The pregnancy of women’s desire. That’s the best I can do.”
You need only look at Fifty Shades Of Grey: at 5.3m copies, it is the biggest-selling book since UK records began. More than one in five British women owns a copy. On the basis that people lend things, let’s say 10 million women have read it, or almost half Britain’s adult female population.
• The Atlantic: Turns Out Women Have Really, Really Strong Sex Drives: Can Men Handle It?
A new book questions the conventional wisdom about female desire. What now?
Hugo Schwyzer Jun 6 2013, 9:30 AM ET
Women want sex far more than we’ve been allowed to believe. So suggests a new book that shatters many of our most cherished myths about desire, including the widespread assumption that women’s lust is inextricably bound up with emotional connection. Are men ready to cope with the reality of heterosexual women’s horniness? The evidence suggests we aren’t, at least not yet.
In his just-released What Do Women Want? Adventures in the Science of Female Desire journalist Daniel Bergner suggests that when it comes to acknowledging just how much women lust, we’ve passed the point of no return. Bergner profiles the work of a series of sexologists, all of whom have, after a series of fascinating studies with animal and human subjects, come to what is essentially the same conclusion. Women want sex just as much as men do, and this drive is “not, for the most part, sparked or sustained by emotional intimacy and safety.” When it comes to the craving for sexual variety, the research Bergner assembles suggests that women may be “even less well-suited for monogamy than men.”
Bergner’s work puts what may be the last nail in the coffin of the old consensus that women use sex as a means to get something else they really want, such as enduring monogamous emotional intimacy and the goods and safety that come in marriage with a protector and provider. In her review, Salon’s normally hyperbole-averse Tracy Clark-Flory was beside herself: “This book should be read by every woman on earth,” she writes; “the implications are huge.”
It’s not, of course, as if feminism, or Internet porn, or any other feature of modernity has suddenly created desires that never previously existed. Rather, as Bergner and his researchers show, science is finally asking the right questions about what women want, perhaps because enough of us are ready to hear the answer. The broad and enthusiastic coverage of What Do Women Want—Amanda Hess at Slate and Ann Friedman at The Cut are nearly as swept away as Clark-Flory—suggests a collective cry of relief: At last, irrefutable evidence that women are so much more like men, and so much more full of erotic potential, than we had ever admitted.
Yet acknowledging that women are as horny as men (if not hornier) isn’t enough to guarantee equality, just as the recognition that women are increasingly adept at breadwinning doesn’t ensure pay equity. Even as we see more and more evidence that women want what men want, antiquated sexual scripts mean that women are caught, as Friedman puts it, in a “catch-22” with “few options.” But is that dilemma one for which both sexes are equally responsible?