Even Freud felt unequipped to speculate about the true nature of women’s sexual longings, but journalist Dan Bergner was bold enough to investigate what science has since learned. His new book, What Do Women Want? Adventures in the Science of Female Desire, offers some surprising insights. TIME spoke with him about his discoveries about female sexual desire.
What made you want to write this book?
I had done an earlier book about desire. One of the researchers I’d worked with for that book said, “You need to come to my wife’s lab. She’s doing some fascinating research.” That was Meredith Chivers and she was comparing what women say turns them on versus what their bodies say using this little device called a plethysmograph [which, in this case, measures blood flow to the vagina]. That was the beginning of this journey for me.
And she found things like women apparently becoming aroused when viewing images of bonobos having sex.
I want to stop right there because it seems to me that that cannot actually measure what women “really” want. Both men and women sometimes show signs of physical arousal during sexual assaults that they most definitely do not want…
Number one, above all, not Meredith Chivers, not any other researcher and definitely not me is retreating even a half degree from, ‘No means no,’ and that’s got to be upfront. And secondly, as I discuss in the book, the relationship between the body’s response and the mind’s is complicated, really complicated, and I don’t mean to suggest at all that we should listen to plethysmography over what women are saying.
But I refer to that [question] as one of many points where researchers and most women I spoke with and I confronted this sense of cultural distortion placed on female desire.
So why look at plethysmography?
There are two mistakes. One would be to dismiss physical responses like wetness as meaningless and entirely separate from desire; the other would be to say that it always means desire.
Where Meredith and I would come down to on this is that it is certainly meaningful. It’s a set of data to collect scientifically about a very emotional subject that we should look at carefully.
And what do you think it does say about desire?
For a long time, we have as a society told ourselves a kind of fairytale about male and female desire, that males are programmed for spreading cheap seed around, for promiscuity, and females desire relationships, with some exceptions.
We’re speaking in generalities here, but on average, we’re told that women are sexually programmed to seek out one good man and thus more suited to monogamy. That seems so convenient and comforting to men and so soothing to society, that we can rely on women as a kind of social glue.
That is one of many things we need to look beyond because the evidence for that is thin at best.
I know you are arguing against evolutionary psychology here, but to be fair, they don’t say women are built for lifelong monogamy and never want to cheat: they say women tend to want to be monogamous for about 4 years, long enough to get a child walking around.
Evolutionary psychology is grounded in the idea that present-tense realities can prove prehistoric truths, which then in turn tell us that present realities are in a way inevitable. At some fundamental level, this is a set of circular arguments.
But you wouldn’t be relying on data from monkeys and other primates, which you do in the book, if you thought evolution was irrelevant to human sexuality…
I wouldn’t even begin to argue that evolution isn’t a crucial factor in our sexuality. Interestingly, to me, in its first forms, the [evolutionary] sexual strategy theory [that women seek quality and men quantity] was relatively straightforward…I would never say that evolutionary psychology said that women are totally monogamous, but they have made the argument that relatively speaking, women are better suited to monogamy and that has been picked up and magnified in the popular realm.
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However, most adults in America are in long-term monogamous relationships, and the majority do not appear to cheat, even though there is a lot of divorce.
I think we are clearly socially monogamous [meaning that we raise children with one partner, typically]. This is how many of us, me included, are driven to spend our lives. We want love and want commitment and want to know someone’s there — and again, me too.
I think the real question is what does that say about our sexuality. It doesn’t say that we are naturally made to be sexually monogamous at all, women as much as men. I strongly think that the evidence more and more supports this idea that women are no more naturally, when it comes to sex, made for monogamy than men are.
[And] what I think is really unfair [in the] prevailing vision that women are better suited to monogamy is that within monogamy, [there’s] a kind of self-blame [for women]. Why isn’t this working for me? It’s not working sexually perfectly because you’re no more designed for this than a man is, whose other desires we all forgive and assume that they’re the norm.
Another argument you make in the book is that much of women’s desire is “narcissistic,” about being wanted rather than having our own desire. What is the evidence for this?
Marta Meana, who introduced the idea of the desire to be desired and used the term “narcissistic” didn’t mean it in a condemnatory way. She meant it in a descriptive way and then she wrestled with it and I still wrestle with it.
…You have to wonder how did our culture get the way it is to the point where if you walk into a bar, you see men making the approaches primarily. What is that about? Somehow, societal forces have played a huge part in setting up our patterns and that would include that desire to be desired for women.
Well, we certainly have a large advertising industry devoted to promoting it. But I don’t think that means that women don’t seek sex for pleasure.
We have so relentlessly eroticized the female body that it is very hard to strip away societal views and forces. [But] by exploring the desire to be desired, I don’t mean at all to deflect or detract from primary desire. I recognize that these are at odds. It’s so complex a psychological terrain that I’d be foolish to presume I could sort it out perfectly.
What have been the reactions from men to this book?
One looked grim and said this is a cause of deep concern; another said, “This scared the bejesus out of me.” It says something that men may not want to think about and that men have a lot to worry about.