A new book that paints an unprecedented picture of female sexuality and contains explosive theories regarding sexuality and desire may strike fear in the heart of every heterosexual male.
Journalist Daniel Bergner’s book ‘What Women Want: Adventures in the Science of Female Desire’ uses groundbreaking research to reveal that even in our enlightened and permissive culture, female sexuality and desire is completely misunderstood – by both men and women.
The book explains that research into the area of female desire and sexuality has been shaped by gender stereotypes and how cultural ideals of female sexuality have repressed and even reshaped women’s desires and their sex lives.
‘What Women Want’, which began life as an article in the New York Times Magazine in 2009, claims that despite much evidence suggesting female sexuality is every bit as strong and desire-driven as male sexuality, if not more so, research into female sexuality in both the animal and human realms has been blind to evidence of female lust and and unreserved sexual behavior.
In fact, Bergner found that female sexuality is everything we tell ourselves about male sexuality – that it’s base, ravenous and animalistic – is true of female sexuality.
Certain qualities society has traditionally attributed to women – that they are inherently and biologically better suited to monogamy, that women’s desires are based in romantic love – are ‘scarcely more than a fairy tale’, writes Bergner.
‘Women are supposed to be the standard’s more natural allies, caretakers, defenders,’ Bergner writes, ‘their sexual beings more suited, biologically, to faithfulness.’
Bergner told Salon.com that he was struck by ‘the distance between reality and the fable that we’ve been taught most recently by evolutionary psychology, that is, that men are driven to spread their seed and women, by comparison, are more driven to find one good provider, and that, therefore… women are much better suited to monogamy.’
The idea of women being passive and men being the initiators of sexual contact is also a myth, both in the human and the animal worlds, says Bergner.
He mentions the case of the rhesus monkey, Deirdrah, who upon observation could be seen relentlessly stalking the object of her desire.
‘For decades,’ Bergner told Salon.com, ‘despite evidence to the contrary, scientists had painted primate sex as male dominated. Males are the initiators; females the sort of almost indifferent receivers,’ when evidence showed this clearly wasn’t the case.
Women’s sexual desires and fantasies are often submissive or passive, says Bergner, and he believes ‘the force of culture has, to some degree, inverted things’ in terms of how women think about themselves and sex.
‘The force of culture puts some level of shame on women’s sexuality and a fantasy of sexual assault is a fantasy that allows for sex that is completely free of blame,’ Bergner told Salon.com.
‘So that’s one reason. Another, which [researcher, Marta] Meana brings up, and which I think is very compelling, is this idea that the feeling of being desired is a very powerful one, a very electrical one. And I think at least at the fantasy level, that sense of being wanted, and being wanted beyond the man’s self-control is also really powerful,’ he said, addressing the idea of submission fantasies.
Researchers have also found intriguing disparities between women’s minds and their bodies when it comes to sexuality.
A study by Meredith Chivers found that male and female subjects shown the same series of videos had markedly different physical and mental reactions.
The videos consisted of a heterosexual couple having sex, male and female homosexual couples having sex, a woman masturbating, a man masturbating, a naked chiseled man walking along the beach and a naked toned woman doing calisthenics – and a male and female bonobo monkey mating.
Men who identified as straight were aroused mentally and physically by all the videos featuring women – bar the monkeys.
‘Gay males were aroused in the opposite categorical pattern. Any expectation that the animal sex would speak to something primitive within the men seemed to be mistaken; neither straights nor gays were stirred by the bonobos,’ Bergner wrote in the New York Times Magazine in 2009.
But the female subjects of the study were not so straight forward. While they reported arousal at only traditional couplings
‘No matter what their self-proclaimed sexual orientation, [women] showed, on the whole, strong and swift genital arousal when the screen offered men with men, women with women and women with men. They responded objectively much more to the exercising woman than to the strolling man, and their blood flow rose quickly… though to a lesser degree than during all the human scenes except the footage of the ambling, strapping man — as they watched the apes.’
Bergner said that when the women reported their mental arousal, ‘mind and genitals seemed scarcely to belong to the same person.’
All this goes to prove, believes Chivers, that when it comes to desire, women are as visually stimulated and more easily turned on than men. The idea that a woman needs to feel emotionally connected in order to feel attracted and aroused seems to be another story we tell ourselves about women.
‘Being a human who is sexual, who is allowed to be sexual, is a freedom accorded by society much more readily to males than to females,’ Terri Fisher, Professor of Psychology at Ohio State University tells Bergner in the book.
Daniel Bergner’s book is likely to shine light on the range and power of female sexuality for both men and women, which could prove confronting for some.
Bergner says the idea that it’s not only men who struggle with long-term monogamy may cause men to start worrying less about themselves and more about how their partners feel about monogamy.
‘I just had two funny conversations,’ Bergner told Salon.com.
‘One with a male writer, a friend of mine, who said that reading the book had inspired deep concern, and another from an editor who said that it had scared the bejesus out of him. [Laughter] I laugh, but I think that maybe it should, and I hope that it at least lets us look past the blinders that we’ve had on.’
‘What Women Want: Adventures in the Science of Female Desire’ (Ecco) is out now and available in hardcover and digital editions.