Sex & Relationships

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.

There is a conspiracy theory at the heart of this book. Even to the most casual observer of human history, it isn’t news that women’s sexuality has been feared, suppressed and lied about. But “What Do Women Want?: Adventures in the Science of Female Desire” by journalist Daniel Bergner uses groundbreaking sex research to show the ways in which our supposedly enlightened society still has female sexuality backward — completely, utterly, profoundly.

In accessible and entertaining prose, “What Do Women Want?” details everything from individual women’s fantasies to the search for a “female Viagra.” More important, though, it represents a complete paradigm shift. The book, which grew from a much-discussed New York Times Magazine cover story in 2009, reveals how gender stereotypes have shaped scientific research and blinded researchers to evidence of female lust and sexual initiation throughout the animal kingdom, including among humans. It reveals how society’s repression of female sexuality has reshaped women’s desires and sex lives.

Bergner, and the leading sex researchers he interviews, argue that women’s sexuality is not the rational, civilized and balancing force it’s so often made out to be — that it is base, animalistic and ravenous, everything we’ve told ourselves about male sexuality. As one researcher tells Bergner of all the restrictions put on female sexuality: “Those barriers are a testament to the power of the drive itself. It’s a pretty incredible testament. Because the drive must be so strong to override all of that.”

“Women’s desire — its inherent range and innate power — is an underestimated and constrained force, even in our times, when all can seem so sexually inundated, so far beyond restriction,” he writes. “Despite the notions our culture continues to imbue, this force is not, for the most part, sparked or sustained by emotional intimacy and safety.” In fact, he argues, “one of our most comforting assumptions, soothing perhaps above all to men but clung to by both sexes, that female eros is much better made for monogamy than the male libido, is scarcely more than a fairy tale.”

The implications are huge. As Bergner puts it: “What nascent truths will come into view, floating forward if these faiths continue to be cut apart?”

This book — how do I put this without sounding hyperbolic? This book should be read by every woman on earth. It should be handed out to pubescent girls right alongside “Our Bodies, Our Selves” and be required course reading for Human Sexuality 101. It is a must-read for any person with even a remote erotic interest in the female gender. It deserves to be listed on bridal registries — gay and straight. It could single-spine-edly replace at least a quarter of the sexual self-help section and the world would be better for it. It is a revelation, a story of redemption. I laughed, I almost cried — with joy. I was turned on, even. You want a female Viagra? This book is as close as we have to it.

I spoke to Bergner by phone about everything from monkey porn to rape fantasies.

What are the main bits of wisdom about female sexuality that you took away from writing this book?

Well, I guess the first thing to say is how struck I was 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, while men are very poorly suited to monogamy, women are much better suited to monogamy. But that just really doesn’t stand up when you look at the science. The science behind that is flimsy, circular. And the science, when you look at it clearly, that stands in opposition to that is actually fairly strong — still emergent, but fairly strong. And so, that was the first thing that was so striking to me.

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.

Some of the evidence suggesting that female sexuality is stronger than is typically suggested is based on plethysmograph (a tool used to measure vaginal blood-flow and lubrication) studies showing that women become physically aroused to a much wider array of visual stimuli than men (even as they subjectively report a much smaller range of arousal). But what of the hypothesis presented by researcher Meredith Chivers, that vaginal lubrication might not be a reliable measure of female desire, that it is a separate system, an evolutionary adaptation, meant to protect females from sexual violence and bodily harm? If this proved to be true, what would it mean for all these plethysmograph studies?

Now you’re at the most complicated part of this whole field, I think. So, let me pause and try to be coherent. OK, so, if that were true — underline if –that were true, that is, if there really are two separate sexual systems, one represented by these physical responses and the other represented by the very subjective sense of desiring, then [these plethysmograph discoveries] would be less relevant to understanding desire. But, I think that both Meredith and I have started to wrestle with a simpler interpretation: that the physical responses, registered in the plethysmography, really might well be a measure of being turned on, being in a state of desire. So, with the range of things that she’s exposed women to in the lab — that would be straight women watching two women together, two men together, men and women, and of course, famously, two monkeys having sex — both straight and gay women have consistently responded very powerfully and immediately, physically, to all these kinds of images. And I think, in Meredith’s mind, that really does represent something about desire.

On the subject of rape and sexual assault, and the fact that, also in the lab, women are responding generally to scenarios of sexual assault. Here’s where we get into a really tricky space, so I hope you have space for this when we’re talking about desire. No one, no one, no one — not Meredith, not Marta Meana, and not me — is in any way retracting “no means no.” That’s number one. Number two is, there are different levels of desire and of fantasy, and you know, fantasy and sexual assault in one form or another are pretty common, but does that mean that any of us want to go out and be sexually assaulted? No, it doesn’t. The realm of arousal and the realm of fantasy can tell us something about ourselves psychologically without indicating that we really want to experience that thing, far from it.

Since we’re on the topic of rape fantasies, can we talk about why they are so common among women?

I mean here, again, I want to be careful because, number one, I’m a man. You know I’ve listened a lot at this point and asked a lot of relentless questions, but my answer is going to be inherently a fallible one.

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. So that’s one reason. Another, which 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.

That brings up another theory, which is that there’s something “narcissistic” about women’s desire. Can you explain the thinking behind that idea?

Yes, it’s important to underline here that I don’t think Marta Meana, who first introduced that to the conversation, meant narcissistic in a condemnatory or critical way at all, just in a descriptive way that a really powerful engine for female desires is being desired, is being wanted. It’s both — it is a powerful feeling, I think, to have that level of desire coming at you, and an electrifying one.

Is this narcissistic desire innate or is it a cultural byproduct?

I think that was one of the things I wrestled with most in the book, and I can still visibly remember wrestling with it as I was turning in final chapters. I kept thinking back to Deidrah, our monkey, and thinking, OK, that is not a sexuality that seems to depend on being desired. She has a desire; she is going out and getting what she desires. I can’t describe to you how clear that drama was as we watched it. If you’re talking about innate patterns of sexuality, how do you get from that to us? One of the answers is that the force of culture has, to some degree, inverted things. And, you know, maybe that’s the only wise answer, if you want to talk about innate factors.

Culturally, I think there’s all kinds of other ways to look at it. We’ve very strongly eroticized women’s bodies and, of course, women are going to feel that as well as men. And then all the other forces that have, not only allowed, but encouraged men to be the aggressors in all kinds of ways, and constructed femininity around the very opposite kind of characteristics are going to play into this. Then there’s Freud — and no one likes to talk about Freud, he is problematic, but he’s also awfully wise in some ways. He and his protégé Melanie Klein, who eventually sort of split off from Freud in some ways, write about the intensity of an incest relationship with the mother’s breasts, and how much power that breast has, how much erotic power that begins to set up in our psyches. We don’t want to think about the culture; we’re very squeamish thinking about childhood sexuality. But of course to talk about the psychological loops and things, I think we better think about that, and so both Freud, but even more so Melanie Klein, emphasized the influence of the breast on the way our sexuality forms, and so it makes sense to me that, not only men, but women, would still be feeling that erotic influence as adults, both directly, as an attraction to other female bodies but also in wanting to have that power that the mother’s breasts once had. So, being desired with that intensity, puts women back in that sort of omnipotent place that their mothers once had for them as infants.

You write that one of your researchers views monogamy as a “cultural cage” that distorts women’s libido. Is monogamy more suited for men than women?

Certainly, women are no better suited for monogamy than men are. That, I think, is clear. It seems possible, if you look at some of the data, that women are even less well-suited for monogamy than men. It’s important to distinguish between the sexual level of desire, and what we choose in our relationships for all kinds of reasons. But on a sexual level, women are even less suited to monogamy.

Partly, I do think that, ironically, has to do with the force of culture. Now that would take us to a really complex part of neuroscience that maybe is best left for another time. I do think that men who’ve been blessed to happily think that it’s only they who are having trouble with monogamy, and that their wives or long-committed girlfriends are more or less just fine with it, they may have a lot to worry about.

It did strike me while reading the book that some parts might be fairly alarming for male heterosexual readers.

I think maybe it should be. I just had two funny conversations—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.

This is the question you’re probably most resistant to answering, but are there any lessons in your research for couples attempting long-term monogamous partnerships?

It’s nice of you to acknowledge that I might be resistant to the self-help approach. That said, two things. I think there’s real wisdom in what I discuss in the book, which is finding ways to, not only acknowledge, but reinstall the kind of distance in relationships. Our culture has somehow absorbed, or idealized, the merging, the “you complete me” line from “Jerry Maguire.” The idea of unconditional love within couples. And I think we’ve probably way overdone that.

The simple thing is, I sometimes think we have to be a little braver about just caring more. Caring, and being open about caring about sex, with one’s long-term partner sounds like it should be easy, but I think often it’s not because you can fail and you can feel hurt. And so I do think that candor and caring are important and then signing up to welcome distance back into relationships might well be the root to maintaining passion.


Tracy Clark-Flory is a staff writer at Salon. Follow @tracyclarkflory on Twitter and Facebook.