ColumnWhat do women really want? That is a question that has long been mired in confusion and even subterfuge.
You can blame the usual suspects: porn, patriarchy, and patent disregard for women’s voices through many centuries. But the truth is that “wanting to be wanted” may be sabotaging your relationships and sex life more than you realize.
I first came across the “wanting to be wanted” syndrome a few years ago when I read a book with exactly that phrase in the title. It was called “Women and Desire: Beyond Wanting to Be Wanted” by Polly Young-Eisendrath. This idea struck a deep chord with me, someone who’d always prided myself on knowing exactly what I wanted – and asking for it. At least I thought so.
I’d always taken my desires at face value — not just my sexual desires, but my desire to be successful, to be powerful, to take up space. Sure, as a feminist I already understood that there were many barriers to accessing such power thanks to patriarchy. But I didn’t quite understand how I was being played like a fiddle — and that I didn’t actually know what I wanted. What women really want, I realized over time, is not immediately accessible to us — we often have to work backwards to unmask our desires.
At that time, if you’d asked me, “What do women really want?” I would have struggled to give you an answer that was about me. I wanted to be good, to be desirable, I wanted people to want me — boyfriends, bosses, etc. But what I actually wanted was another matter — one that was still hidden in my unconscious.
“Wanting to be wanted” is a hidden disease far too many women have – it’s endemic, even among the most successful women – the ones that supposedly “have it all.” Dr. Eisendrath, a Jungian psychotherapist, writes about the archetype of the bitch-hag (a cousin of the Madonna-Whore complex). Bitch-hag is a label we desperately want to avoid as we negotiate our relationships, carefully hiding our true desires from our partners and family. Asking for anything is asking for too much – we are fearful of becoming the prototypical nag from hell. We don’t want to be cast in that role, because then we’d be cast out – rejected – no longer wanted.
I think about the scene in “Bridesmaids” where Kristen Wiig wakes up in bed with Jon Hamm, and runs to the bathroom to apply her makeup while he’s still asleep. Then she gets back into bed, arranges herself just so, with her arm falling over the pillow in a feminine arch, and yawns gently, waking him so he’ll see how gorgeous she is — “naturally”. Before “I woke up like this” became a meme, this scene revealed one uncomfortable truth about wanting to be wanted. The night before, they had terrible sex. But Wiig’s character doesn’t care – she just wants him to want her, even though he is basically the archetype of a douchebag. To be wanted, even by an archetypal douchebag, is enough.
When asked what they want, many women answer by telling stories about what other people around them want or need.
What do you want?
I want my children to be happy and safe.
What do you want?
I want my boyfriend to want to have more sex with me.
What do you want?
I want my boss to realize my worth and give me a raise.
Dr. Eisendrath says: “Wanting to be wanted is about finding our power in an image rather than a in our own actions.” It’s inextricably linked to male gaze: we do not see ourselves, or other women, as we are — we see ourselves through lens of men’s desires and expectations.
Wanting to be wanted isn’t a defining characteristic of womanhood as Lacan, a famous and infamously sexist psychotherapist posited – it’s just what happens to women in a world where we have never been allowed to be powerful. We are not expected to want pleasure — we are expected to be pleasing. That’s how we get our likes, that’s how we’re “favorited” when we’re offline. Then we go like hungry ghosts to Facebook to collect more, especially if we’re not getting enough from the people who are supposed to love us.
We sacrifice so much in order to be liked — to be good girlfriends, good wives, good mothers and friends. We do this so often it becomes normative, even though it’s a pathology. Then we are angry, resentful, out of touch with our bodies, dead inside. Our libido can wither away after years of not feeding it what it truly desires.
The good news is that you can get it back, even if you’ve spent a lifetime giving it away. What women really want can has no monolithic answer, as Freud or Mel Gibson might expect. What women really want, rather, must come from each of us taking an individual journey of discovery. Putting aside images, putting aside other people’s needs, putting aside “wanting to be wanted” finally and forever.
You can start by asking yourself the question: “What do I want?” and trying to answer honestly. If you feel yourself wondering or hedging, or coming up with answers that revolve around other people’s desires, reflect. How did you learn to be that way? Watching your parents relate? Watching too many rom-coms? Getting positive, albeit temporary feedback from partners past and present?
Reading books like Ms. Young-Eisendrath’s and the seminal “What Do Women Want: Adventures in the Science of Female Desire” by Daniel Bergner can offer a fresh start and intellectual immersion in your relationship to your desire.
Experimenting with masturbation, fantasy, sensuality, tantra and more can also help you get there at your own pace. Remember — it’s not a race, and the only way to win is to peel back the layers of what you really want, until you’re in absolute, authentic touch with what you need.
Got a question for Stefanie? Email stefanie at ecosalon dot com and she’ll answer it in the next Sexual Healing column.
Keep in touch with Stefanie on Twitter: @ecosexuality
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Image: Rowena Waack