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

Many adult women would rather have a cup of tea than have sex with their long-term partner. Sam Einhorn

Women want sex, according to a new book by American journalist and author Daniel Bergner. Embarking on “adventures in the science of female desire”, Bergner interviewed sexologists and sex therapists to uncover the mystery of women’s sexuality.

His conclusions challenge the romantic view of femininity.

Women are libidinous creatures, with a sex drive as strong as men’s. Monogamy is a fairy tale. And parental investment theory, which decrees that women are born to nurture, and men to fornicate, is a myth.

Animal experiments

Bergner is fascinated with monkeys and rats, or at least with sexual experiments on their mating behaviour. In lurid detail, he describes the predatory behaviour of the caged female as she “stalks” her prey – unquestionably in control.

This is about desire, not impregnation. She prolongs penetration for her own pleasure, then turns to a second partner as soon as the first is spent.

Are women as “animalistic” as Bergner contends? Sexual experiments with women watching pornography, while wired up to a vaginal plethysmograph - an internal probe that measures arousal - are offered to support his case.

Demonstrating an “omnivorous’ libido, women were aroused by a much wider range of images than men: straight sex, gay sex, masturbation, even Bonobo monkeys mating.

Bergner also presents detailed case studies of women desiring men, women, or a combination of the two. Women’s fantasies of domination, stranger sex, group sex and public sex, would all comfortably fit in a soft-porn novel.

But the body and mind tell a different story. While the plethysmograph suggested arousal, women in the sexual experiments denied being turned on by many of the pornographic images they were shown.

Nature vs society

This is not an "unconscious blocking” of desire, as Bergner claims; it’s simply social sanctions on women’s sexuality exacting their toll.

Surveys suggest that large numbers of women use porn, but few admit to it in public. Women fantasise about adultery, domination and submission – from the graphic sex in Fifty Shades of Grey, to the swashbuckling heroes of Mills and Boon.

Women undoubtedly have the capacity for powerful sexual desire, arousal, and response, but many don’t enjoy sex outside of imagination or fantasy. VanKeefer/Flickr

But, if they act out their fantasies, the consequences can be severe. Women who are sexually active outside of monogamy are commonly described as slags or whores. Sexual violence towards such women is often dismissed, with defence barristers arguing they asked for it, through “promiscuous” behaviour or their provocative appearance.

But at least we no longer describe sexually active women as nymphomanics, and treat them with clitoredectomy, borax in the vagina, or freezing cold baths as was done in the 19th century.

Indeed, drug companies have expended a fortune unsuccessfully attempting to produce a “female Viagra”, to increase women’s sexual desire.

But this is not to empower women in their sexuality. It is to medicate the millions who report sexual disinterest or lack of pleasure in long-term relationships. Indeed, Bergner tells us drug companies were terrified of creating sexually aggressive women, who would provoke “societal breakdown” if female Viagra was effective.

A sad reality

The centuries-old restrictions on women’s sexuality suggest it is a powerful force that must be constrained. In this vein, Bergner is correct; from chastity belts to genital mutilation, and prohibition of premarital sex, women’s libido has been expunged.

It’s not surprising that adolescent girls have little knowledge of their bodies or desires. Or that many adult women would rather have a cup of tea than have sex with their long-term partner.

The celebration of the sexually active younger woman through raunch culture may appear to contradict this trend. But the statistics tell their own tale.

In one recent survey of over 19,000 Australian women, 55% had no interest in sex, 28% experienced lack of sexual pleasure, and 20% sexual pain. Women with a new lover were most likely to enjoy sex.

Sexual experiments on women masturbating or watching porn, while wired up to machines, may provide prurient interest to Bergner and his readers. But we must remember that these experiments simply reflect women’s response to fantasy – there are no interactions with a partner to complicate matters, and no disappointed expectations.

Women undoubtedly have the capacity for powerful sexual desire, arousal, and response. But many don’t enjoy sex outside of imagination or fantasy. Perhaps this is because 100 years after Sigmund Freud first posed the question, “what do women want?”, it remains unanswered.

And heterosexual sex is too often focused on the pleasure of men.