Everything we know of female sexuality is changing — because women are finally leading the research
Much of what we assume is true about female sexuality stems from spurious research from the 1990s.
Daniel Bergner is a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine and the author of four books of nonfiction: What Do Women Want?, The Other Side of Desire, In the Land of Magic Soldiers, and God of the Rodeo. In the Land of Magic Soldiers received an Overseas Press Club Award for international reporting and a Lettre-Ulysses Award for the Art of Reportage and was named a Los Angeles Times Best Book of the Year. God of the Rodeo was a New York Times Notable Book of the Year. In addition to the New York Times Magazine, Daniel’s writing has appeared in the Atlantic, Granta, Harper’s, Mother Jones, Talk, and the New York Times Book Review, and on the op-ed page of the New York Times. His writing is included in The Norton Reader: An Anthology of Nonfiction.
Daniel Bergner: To talk about female desire, we need to start by talking about one major misconception, a seemingly scientific theory that most of us have bought into and that is the idea that while men are genetically programmed to spread their limitless seed and be promiscuous that women, by contrast, are genetically programmed, evolutionary scripted to seek out one good man, seek out one good provider, seek out closeness and constancy and so that at least, relatively speaking, by this theory, women are somewhat better suited to monogamy, have a sex drive that’s a bit less raw, a bit less animalistic than male libido.
That dates back to the early '90s. I went back and looked at those original academic papers that sort of put that into our consciousness, via the media that sort of grasped onto this theory in the '90s. Those papers have very, very little substance to them. They have a lot of circular reasoning. They have very little substantive proof. And I think we as a culture latched onto them because we’re eager to have simple theories to explain who we are, especially when it comes to gender. But we need to move on now because all the research and all the researchers that I’ve spent time with now over the last decade are really taking us in another direction, showing us something very different about female desire, something that’s much more driven, much more like we used to consider male desire to be. A force that’s full of agency and that’s not that old, relatively passive conception that we for the most part have been clinging to.
So let’s go into some labs. So Meredith Chivers, a Canadian researcher, who I spent a lot of time with, tries to look past what culture teaches us and look at something more immediate. So she puts women in front of pornographic scenes or has them listen to erotic scenarios and measures their response in two ways. One, she gives them a keypad. They can rate their own subjective response. Am I turned on? Am I not? To what degree am I turned on or not? Secondly she’s got a little device called a plethysmograph, which measures the body’s response. And what we’re talking about, just to get technical for a second, is a little sort of glassine tube that measures blood flow in the vagina. So interestingly, over and over again what women say they want via the keypad or what they say turns them on contrasts with what this little device called the plethysmograph says about bodily response. To give you one example: scenario with a super hunky, handsome close friend as the potential erotic partner versus scenario with the super hunky, handsome total stranger as the erotic partner. Consistently women say, "I’ll go with the close friend." Consistently women’s bodies say, "I’m getting very, very turned on." The plethysmograph readings are soaring in response to the stranger. What does this tell us? Can the little device called the plethysmograph say everything there is to be said about desire? Absolutely no; it cannot. There’s all kinds of complexity here. But at the very least, it tells us a story that stands in contrast to the story we’ve been told by evolutionary psychologists, which is what women really want sexually speaking is that one good man, the intimacy-driven relationship, et cetera. This stands in total contrast to that; it asks us to question those old stories and that’s what researchers are doing now over and over. And that’s partly because the field has become increasingly filled with female researchers and so they’re able to see in a different, more searching way into their subject.
So that brings us to the very complicated and loaded subject of monogamy. We as a culture have a ton invested in monogamy. It’s the kind of social glue. And I think we all, if we’re honest with ourselves, have some level of conscious or unconscious fear that if we really toss monogamy aside our society would kind of come apart, you know. It’s still, even though we’ve begun to question monogamy I think seriously as culture, it still defines our romantic dreams; it defines what we think we should be as parents. We should be part of a monogamous couple. It just defines an ideal for us. And it’s very convenient. It’s very soothing, calming that we’ve told ourselves this story that while men may be animalistic and anarchic when it comes to sexuality, women are, again by comparison, fairly well-suited to monogamy. They can serve as that coherent force. Nice for society. Nice, of course, for men. I get to think that my partner is all about me even though I might, in coming to, you know, speak today, have checked out any number of women as I made my way down the street. It’s so calming for me. But too calming, I would say, too convenient. Socially speaking, too convenient for men. Women are drawn to the novel and that makes monogamy just as much of a problem sexually speaking for women as it is for men.
So much of what we assume is true about female sexuality stems from spurious research from the 1990s that's slowly and surely being tossed out in favor of new findings. Critically acclaimed journalist Daniel Bergner has spent a great part of the past decade researching this topic for articles and other publications, including his 2013 book What Do Women Want? In this video, he dives through the common misconceptions and explains how female sexuality is not naturally predisposed to be restrained, monogamous, inactive, and dependent.
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