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Are you a woman? Me too! So we know exactly who we are when it comes to sex: It’s better if we feel an emotional connection with our partner. We’re not crazy about pornography, but if it must be on, we prefer it narrative, softer lit, less violent. We are, relative to men, seductive, submissive, receptive, and monogamous. We get more attached than men do when we have sex. We want to be in trusting and respectful long-term relationships. Let’s call ourselves Dutiful Wives.
But wait—this just in: Journalist Daniel Bergner finds that none of the above is true! We are in fact turned on, he reports, by every contextless pornographic scene imaginable: straight and gay sex, masturbation, copulating apes. We get turned off by the too familiar (husbands…); we need distance and novelty to enjoy sex. Up to 60 percent of us fantasize about being raped by a stranger. We can have clitoral, vaginal, even cervical orgasms. We’re wilder and lustier than men, but we’ve been brainwashed by society to believe we’re Dutiful Wives. Let’s call ourselves Bonobos instead, after the famously most sex-positive primate species.
Bergner lays out the history of this brainwashing and then debunks it in his entertaining new book, What Do Women Want? (Ecco). He recaps ingenious studies that have plumbed our desires, including those we deny or hide from ourselves.
Another new take on female lust is British academic Katherine Angel’s Unmastered: A Book on Desire, Most Difficult to Tell (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)—a more personal journey into the wilds of female sexuality, using literature, politics, and Angel’s own experience rather than science as guides. She weaves impressionistic sketches of her ecstatic sexual experiences together with musings on feminism, pornography, and quotes from the likes of Virginia Woolf and Susan Sontag.
Neither book answers the clueless query of Freud’s that gives Bergner his title; in fact, neither addresses the inherent absurdity of one answer fitting all 3.5 billion of us. But they do try to expand the sexual territory women occupy in the world, and thus point us toward the questions we need to ask ourselves about sex.
Bergner surveys the history of men writing about women’s sexuality. I was shocked to learn of the long-held belief that women couldn’t conceive unless they climaxed—a scientific “truth” for 1,500 years that clearly was not vetted by women! Meanwhile, fear of lustful women has been spun out in cautionary tales from the myth of Pandora to whichever halls of power women manage to infiltrate today. In the 1600s, scientists discovered that orgasm was not necessary for reproduction, which only paved the way for a new myth—that of the sexless female (less scary because she can’t be disappointed). In the nineteenth century, women thus became purified, the gentle reins on men’s animal natures, enduring the indignities of the marriage bed—thinking of England!—to keep civilization up and running.
Bergner points out that though we now laugh at Victorianism, women’s supposed monogamous tendencies remain a core assumption about feminine nature via the ruling secular doctrine of evolutionary psychology: that men spread their seed, whereas women seek a lifelong mate to provide for the offspring. This construct is Bergner’s main target, and it’s about time. I’ve noticed that evolutionary psychology is especially beloved by men. Their fairly straightforward drives are mirrored in the animal kingdom more than women’s are: Unlike our mammalian sisters, we mate regardless of whether we’re not in estrus; our lust doesn’t aim at procreative sex—we’re usually trying not to get pregnant; and intercourse isn’t the primary means by which most of us achieve orgasm.
As Bergner points out, evo psych also validates the old double standard: If a guy cheats on his girlfriend or wife, it’s in his nature; you can’t argue with science, baby. But if she strays, she’s an aberrant slut. “Does the fact that women are expected to be the more demure gender in Lusaka and New York, in Kabul and Kandahar and Karachi and Kansas City, prove anything about our erotic hardwiring?” Bergner asks. “Might the shared value placed on female modesty speak less to absolutes of biology than to the world’s span of male-dominated cultures and historic suspicion and fear of female sexuality?”
Those excellent questions lead Bergner to studies that swing the needle from Dutiful Wife to Bonobo. The niftiest is researcher Meredith Chivers’ measure of women looking at pornographic images with a plethysmograph tucked into their vaginas, a sensor that measures blood flow and wetness. The women watched a range of pornographic clips: straight and gay sex, men and women masturbating, bonobos copulating. As they watched, they typed about what turned them on and what left them cold.
You know where this is going. While their fingers said, “Not really my thing,” their nether regions clanged the lust-o-meter’s bell like a young stud showing off for his date at a carnival. The only image that didn’t win the little ladies a stuffed animal was that of a hunky man sauntering on the beach, erectionless. As another sex researcher, Marta Meana, puts it, “The male without an erection is announcing a lack of arousal. The female body always holds the promise, the suggestion, of sex.” The plethysmograph also found that women got more turned on by imagining sexual encounters with strangers than with friends or their romantic partners—even as they typed out their denials.
Men, when administered a similar test, revealed no such dissonance. Gay-male porn made the gay men hard, but women left them limp; vice versa for the straight guys. What to make of this? I would venture that while everyone’s sexuality is shaped partly by culture (look at the range of female sex objects, from the Venus of Willendorf to Kate Moss), women’s lust is more so, and it’s vastly more complex. We’ve been the objects, not the authors, of sociological study for most of history, and we bring more shame, doubt, and worry to bed with us. Many women report having rape fantasies and like being overpowered in bed—we seem to use taboos very creatively to turn ourselves on.
Bergner concludes with a study challenging the proposition that speed-dating patterns prove men are less choosy and women more monogamous because men check more boxes indicating people they would like to date than women do: At gatherings where the women rather than the men got up and moved on when the bell rang, the women checked “I’d date him” as frequently as the men did when they were the “movers.” Prowling for prey seemed to excite more openness and desire in both sexes.
I enjoyed but was not really convinced by Bergner’s book—he seems to want to ground women’s sexuality completely in their physicality in much the same way men seem to be, rather than digging deeper into this fascinating mix of biology, culture, and psychology. Ideally, of course, we would rid society of misogyny and then see how our fantasies and behaviors change—but I’m not holding my breath.
I expected Katherine Angel’s Unmastered to be more my cup of tea, bookwise. I was certainly predisposed to trust a Katherine more than a Daniel on the topic of female desire. Angel raises familiar anxieties about being female and sexual: the pressure to be silent, pleasing, sexy but not too sexy, and never greedy. But she doesn’t connect them to her own sexual reveries, and her feminism doesn’t seem to impede her pleasure with her dream guy. She shyly asks him to rough her up, and his response is “pitch-perfect”: He won’t do it right then, on command, but he ambushes her later when she’s not expecting it. It is as sublime as she had hoped, unclouded by feminist guilt. I was left wondering, Then what’s the problem here, exactly?—and I hungered for more quoted insights from Sontag and Woolf.
Angel doesn’t connect the personal with the political, while Bergner peddles a new strain of animal-based essentialism: We’re nothing like those Dutiful Wives—we’re all Bonobos. But both books raise the right questions. Every woman’s sexual self is patrolled by a bewildering array of good and bad cops—our parents, our religions, our femininity, our feminism, our fear of being undesirable, our training in pleasing and making others comfortable, and a culture that’s subtly or not-so-subtly misogynistic. We need to turn the spotlight around and inter-rogate them all, along with all the “experts” who historically have used their science to keep our sex, and our sexuality, in its place.
We need to question anyone who seeks to explain us to ourselves. For example, are we all on board with the idea, which Bergner unmistakably implies, that to have more “masculine” sex is progress—that we’ll be happier if we all embrace stranger-sex and exult in the hunt and the conquest, or if we scavenge for a new hot thing when the sex cools off? Would buying sexual services enhance our sexuality—does that way lie liberation?
Might it be possible to ignore the clamor of other voices and listen instead to ourselves and our lovers? Is it Victorian to suggest that discovering your freest sexual self might be connected to trusting, liking, and—sorry, Bergner—maybe loving the person you sleep with? Angel cocreated a relationship where kink could bloom organically, pushing back the censors and finding heat in the contradictions and the defiance. We don’t need to censor our lust. We know this intellectually but can’t quite believe it, and so we keep defaulting to outside opinions of what’s “normal” or “natural.”
The important questions about sex for women are not category questions—because who feels sexually normal, consistent, or classifiable? Anybody else a little bit Dutiful Wife and a little bit Bonobo? Some mix, however subtle or implicit, of straight and gay? Anybody else occasionally surprised by what she wants? “What do women want?” is a terrible thing to have to worry about. It distracts from the only two questions that do matter in sex: What do I want, and what do you want?