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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A recent study gives new meaning to the saying "fake it 'til you make it."
- The study involves four experiments that measured individuals' socioeconomic status, overconfidence and actual performance.
- Results consistently showed that high-class people tend to overestimate their abilities.
- However, this overconfidence was misinterpreted as genuine competence in one study, suggesting overestimating your abilities can have social advantages.
Is this proof of a dramatic shift?
- Map details dramatic shift from CNN to Fox News over 10-year period
- Does it show the triumph of "fake news" — or, rather, its defeat?
- A closer look at the map's legend allows for more complex analyses
Dramatic and misleading
Image: Reddit / SICResearch
The situation today: CNN pushed back to the edges of the country.
Over the course of no more than a decade, America has radically switched favorites when it comes to cable news networks. As this sequence of maps showing TMAs (Television Market Areas) suggests, CNN is out, Fox News is in.
The maps are certainly dramatic, but also a bit misleading. They nevertheless provide some insight into the state of journalism and the public's attitudes toward the press in the US.
Let's zoom in:
- It's 2008, on the eve of the Obama Era. CNN (blue) dominates the cable news landscape across America. Fox News (red) is an upstart (°1996) with a few regional bastions in the South.
- By 2010, Fox News has broken out of its southern heartland, colonizing markets in the Midwest and the Northwest — and even northern Maine and southern Alaska.
- Two years later, Fox News has lost those two outliers, but has filled up in the middle: it now boasts two large, contiguous blocks in the southeast and northwest, almost touching.
- In 2014, Fox News seems past its prime. The northwestern block has shrunk, the southeastern one has fragmented.
- Energised by Trump's 2016 presidential campaign, Fox News is back with a vengeance. Not only have Maine and Alaska gone from entirely blue to entirely red, so has most of the rest of the U.S. Fox News has plugged the Nebraska Gap: it's no longer possible to walk from coast to coast across CNN territory.
- By 2018, the fortunes from a decade earlier have almost reversed. Fox News rules the roost. CNN clings on to the Pacific Coast, New Mexico, Minnesota and parts of the Northeast — plus a smattering of metropolitan areas in the South and Midwest.
Image source: Reddit / SICResearch
This sequence of maps, showing America turning from blue to red, elicited strong reactions on the Reddit forum where it was published last week. For some, the takeover by Fox News illustrates the demise of all that's good and fair about news journalism. Among the comments?
- "The end is near."
- "The idiocracy grows."
- "(It's) like a spreading disease."
- "One of the more frightening maps I've seen."
- "LOL that's what happens when you're fake news!"
- "CNN went down the toilet on quality."
- "A Minecraft YouTuber could beat CNN's numbers."
- "CNN has become more like a high-school production of a news show."
Not a few find fault with both channels, even if not always to the same degree:
- "That anybody considers either of those networks good news sources is troubling."
- "Both leave you understanding less rather than more."
- "This is what happens when you spout bullsh-- for two years straight. People find an alternative — even if it's just different bullsh--."
- "CNN is sh-- but it's nowhere close to the outright bullsh-- and baseless propaganda Fox News spews."
"Old people learning to Google"
Image: Google Trends
CNN vs. Fox News search terms (200!-2018)
But what do the maps actually show? Created by SICResearch, they do show a huge evolution, but not of both cable news networks' audience size (i.e. Nielsen ratings). The dramatic shift is one in Google search trends. In other words, it shows how often people type in "CNN" or "Fox News" when surfing the web. And that does not necessarily reflect the relative popularity of both networks. As some commenters suggest:
- "I can't remember the last time that I've searched for a news channel on Google. Is it really that difficult for people to type 'cnn.com'?"
- "More than anything else, these maps show smart phone proliferation (among older people) more than anything else."
- "This is a map of how old people and rural areas have learned to use Google in the last decade."
- "This is basically a map of people who don't understand how the internet works, and it's no surprise that it leans conservative."
A visual image as strong as this map sequence looks designed to elicit a vehement response — and its lack of context offers viewers little new information to challenge their preconceptions. Like the news itself, cartography pretends to be objective, but always has an agenda of its own, even if just by the selection of its topics.
The trick is not to despair of maps (or news) but to get a good sense of the parameters that are in play. And, as is often the case (with both maps and news), what's left out is at least as significant as what's actually shown.
One important point: while Fox News is the sole major purveyor of news and opinion with a conservative/right-wing slant, CNN has more competition in the center/left part of the spectrum, notably from MSNBC.
Another: the average age of cable news viewers — whether they watch CNN or Fox News — is in the mid-60s. As a result of a shift in generational habits, TV viewing is down across the board. Younger people are more comfortable with a "cafeteria" approach to their news menu, selecting alternative and online sources for their information.
It should also be noted, however, that Fox News, according to Harvard's Nieman Lab, dominates Facebook when it comes to engagement among news outlets.
CNN, Fox and MSNBC
Image: Google Trends
CNN vs. Fox (without the 'News'; may include searches for actual foxes). See MSNBC (in yellow) for comparison
For the record, here are the Nielsen ratings for average daily viewer total for the three main cable news networks, for 2018 (compared to 2017):
- Fox News: 1,425,000 (-5%)
- MSNBC: 994,000 (+12%)
- CNN: 706,000 (-9%)
And according to this recent overview, the top 50 of the most popular websites in the U.S. includes cnn.com in 28th place, and foxnews.com in... 27th place.The top 5, in descending order, consists of google.com, youtube.com, facebook.com, amazon.com and yahoo.com — the latter being the highest-placed website in the News and Media category.
If you thought your mother was pushy in her pursuit of grandchildren, wait until you learn about bonobo mothers.
- Mother bonobos have been observed to help their sons find and copulate with mates.
- The mothers accomplish this by leading sons to mates, interfering with other males trying to copulate with females, and helping sons rise in the social hierarchy of the group.
- Why do mother bonobos do this? The "grandmother hypothesis" might hold part of the answer.
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