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The Truth About Female Desire: It’s Base, Animalistic and Ravenous

A new book on women's sexuality turns everything we think we know on its head.

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You point out some remarkable ways that scientists have ignored evidence suggesting that women — and female animals — are far from passive when it comes to sex and are in fact often initiators. Do you have a favorite example of this?

I really do. Deidrah, a rhesus monkey, a member of the species that we sent into space in the ’60s as our doubles, to see how well we would survive, is one of my favorite characters in the book. I went down and spent a while at a primatology center with a scientist who was trying to take the blinders off the way we see the sexuality of our closest ancestors. And what I learned was that for decades, despite evidence to the contrary, scientists had painted primate sex as male dominated. Males are the initiators; females the sort of almost indifferent receivers.

But standing next to this scientist Kim Wallen, it was clear that that was not at all true — almost comically so. We spent a day following Deidrah, a relatively tranquil, low-key female monkey, who was nevertheless relentlessly stalking — sexually stalking — her object of desire. If there’s any objectification going on in the monkey kingdom, it’s the females objectifying the males, chasing them, and sort of all but forcing them. It wasn’t just Deidrah, of course — it was all the female monkeys that we were following, and it was just alarming how we could be so sure of this other reality, and blind to the truth that was just staring us right in the face. So that was one example of our blindness to female sexuality and, ultimately I think, our fear of it.

Quickly, back to women for a second, a quick example, if we can get a little graphic for a sec, about understanding the size and reach of the clitoris. We’ve been doing dissections of bodies for centuries, pretty effectively, but it wasn’t until very recently that there was any acknowledgment of extensions right underneath the surface of the skin — very rich in nerves, very primed for pleasure, reachable there through the vaginal walls — that rival the size of the penis; probably are greater than the size of the penis. One of the scientists, who was really influential in calling attention to the size, put it this way: the reason we’ve ignored this is because we’ve managed to convince ourselves that one gender is all about reproduction and the other is all about sex. That is, women are all about reproduction and men are all about sex. Again, a complete distortion.

At one point in the book, researcher Marta Meana shows you a pair of joke control panels — one with an on-off switch, the other with tons of knobs. These were meant to represent male and female desire. Is female sexuality really that much more complicated that male sexuality?

I’m glad you framed it that way, because sometimes I think back to that moment and wonder if the answer isn’t, no, it’s not that much more complicated —biologically, innately. I think it’s important to make that distinction, because the force of culture can create all kinds of complications. Of course it does for all of us, men and women.

But I do wonder whether that metaphor has much more to do with the force of culture and if, fundamentally, female desire might be quite straightforward.

Then again, and there’s always a “then again” — probably because I spend so much time thinking about this, but also because we’re human beings and there are lot of “then agains” — I think that most of the researchers I spent time with would caution against sort of the direction of the question you just asked and the direction of what I just said, and say, “Well, wait.” There might be an element of truth in sort of seeing the straightforwardness underneath it all, but there’s also a tremendous subjective quality to the way we live and experience things.

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