ColumnDo you know what women want?
I’m just one woman, so I can truly only speak for myself. But the ancient question of what women want has obsessed us ever since Eve was cast out of the garden for being too libidinous, and too curious. Since that moment women’s sexuality has been feared, reviled, and made into the subject of epic poems. We have been called sirens, burned at the stake for our supposed witchery, and eventually trained to be virginal, marriageable maidens. Apparently, we can’t win — we either want it too much or not enough.
Our sexuality was so repressed, so underground, that the very idea of women’s pleasure wasn’t even a thing for American and European men until the 20th century. Women were thought to be receptacles for sperm, baby-makers, and raisers of progeny only.
In the 19th century, tightly corseted and managed by our husband-owners, huge numbers of women were diagnosed with “hysteria” (which was also explored in a 2011 Maggie Gyllenhaal movie). This was what happened when a housebound woman, often a mother, exhibited what amounted to symptoms of chronic depression, brought on by the complete repression of her sexual urges.
Her doctor’s prescription was the release of a good orgasm — however it wasn’t called an orgasm, because remember, women didn’t experience pleasure — they called it a “paroxysm.” But still, it was progress: tacit acknowledgment, at least in doctor’s offices, that clitoral stimulation was healthy and necessary.
Doctors did this by hand for years, but then the vibrator was invented in 1880 (thank you, electricity!). Vibrators were advertised as “personal massagers” and women began buying them in droves, but once the word got out about what they were really used for, they went underground again, at least until the seventies (thank you feminism!). Such is the way with women’s pleasure — once our culture realizes that it’s unceasing and liberating, it’s quickly silenced by the Shame Industrial Complex.
In the past few years a number of books exploring what women want and specifically, women’s sexuality, have emerged. There was Sex at Dawn: The Prehistoric Origins of Modern Sexuality, which set the whole concept of monogamy on its head in 2010, and then Naomi Wolf’s Vagina last year. I was already heady with excitement about a new sexual paradigm. A Sexual Revolution 2.0, so to speak. And then I got my review copy of Daniel Bergner’s What Do Women Want? Adventures in the Science of Female Desire in early June. I inhaled it in a matter of hours, while sitting by the pool. It’s one of the most important books I’ve read in years. I found myself nodding as I read, and even said “YES!” out loud, alarming the man on the lounge chair next to me.
Finally, scientific proof of what I’ve known in my body since I’ve known anything — that women are deep, endless wells of sexual desire. That it is not by any means what society tells us it is. That it is animalistic, and at times base. That it is not polite. That it is not always about receptivity. That relationships and intimacy are great, but they don’t always trump casual sex. That being with the same partner for years can get boring. That it’s okay to desire others. That it’s, in fact, biologically likely that one will want to stray.
All of these things, and more, are explained in this seminal text. From rat studies to masturbation studies, Bergner presents evidence that what many women want is essentially exactly the OPPOSITE of what we’ve been told it is. Female sexuality researchers are in these pages, and the great myths of evolutionary psychology are exploded, once and finally, for the utter bunk they’ve always been.
Women have been sold a bill of goods about what we want. It’s bad enough that our body image issues are so entrenched, and that little girls begin to develop them at earlier and earlier ages. (Seven-year-olds with anorexia exist.) It’s bad enough that our relationship to the clothes we wear, the makeup we use, the way we present ourselves in public is so fraught. Male gaze continues to suck. It has us so twisted and distorted that we have to spend our lifetimes righting it. But now that we have this other layer of evidence about what’s been taken from us, we can begin to put ourselves back together again.
Our culture still tells us that sexual women are sluts, witches and bitches. Our carnal nature isn’t getting us burned at the stake anymore, but it is getting us so thoroughly slut-shamed that we bury it. Women I know, even the smartest of the lot, are so confused about what they want that they don’t even give themselves a chance to figure it out. They marry (and stay married to) men they never desired in the first place. They think that the man they’re attracted to now is the man they’ll still be attracted to in ten, twenty years. They fully buy into the the idea that men cheat because they’re horny animals, and that long-suffering women always lose, because menopause will eventually kill our sex drives. That we’re on a slow sexual decline, while our male partners are always the ones with the wandering eyes — just because they’re built that way. Others buy into the directives of Mating In Captivity — that making “dates” with your long-term partner is the way to keep the spark alive. The science in “What Do Women Want?” suggests that the spark may remain elusive, no matter how hard we work at it.
Just a week ago, the New York Times ran a piece about the poor little coeds at the University of Pennsylvania, and how “hookup” culture was ruining their chances for marriage. There is still a stigma, even for millenials out there doing their thing, experimenting, and getting off.
I hope that the publication of this book will spur a conversation about what women REALLY want. This may completely upend everything we know — our relationships, our expectations, our long-term plans.You need to start talking with your girlfriends, your lovers, your boyfriend, your husband. I’ve talked to some guys who are a bit threatened by the concept of women wanting sex as much as, or even more, than men. But hey, they’ll get over it.
Next on my reading list is UNMASTERED: A Book on Desire, Most Difficult To Tell by Katherine Angel. Won’t you join my book club, and together we can change the world?