Daniel Bergner’s What Do Women Want? offers the science behind the conjecture that women actually like sex. The conventional wisdom, of course, maintains that we don’t really, or maybe we kind of do but mostly we power through for the cuddle at the end. Conventional wisdom is hard to shake, even when it contradicts your experience and your screechingest urges, and can lead you to second-guess your most obvious realities. I remember being told as a child that sex didn’t feel good for women, and taking this on face value even while grabbing my privates at every opportunity. I don’t need a medical consensus to prove that my G-Spot exists (though you can call it whatever you want), but then maybe the anterior wall of my vagina is the portal to Toontown, where the lived experience of fucking is actually permitted by natural law.
This divided consciousness can cause strange symptoms; maybe, somehow, it explains why women get wet watching bonobos go at it. You might have heard about Meredith Chivers, the Queen’s University professor who, in one famous experiment, fitted her subjects with a plethysmograph, which measures genital arousal, and showed them pornography—straight porn, gay porn, primate porn. Her female subjects ignited at everything except a clip of a hot, naked (but flaccid) man walking on a beach, even while they self-reported responses within the bounds of their stated orientations. The men’s physical responses were more selective, and matched up with their reports.
The results suggest a difference between subjective and objective arousal (the arousal we register and accept, versus the arousal our bodies indicate)—but the nature of this difference is still uncertain. Chivers theorized that quick, involuntary lubrication served an evolutionary function, since it offers some protection in the event of sexual assault. “Genital arousal might not represent desire,” Bergner writes, “but might, rather, be part of a purely reflexive, erotically neutral system, a system that was somehow intertwined with but separate from the wiring of women’s libidos.” Which seems like an elaborate dance around the fact that we’re perverts.
When I was little, I got a weird kick out of the scene in Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory where the girl turns into a blueberry; somehow that kick snowballed into a fantasy involving Oompa Loompas and a water tower. It took years to summon the courage to admit this to a friend, who nearly blacked out laughing. I have never recreated this fantasy; weird kicks tend to inspire my sex life in the abstract rather than directly. But they’re far from erotically neutral. I’m turned on even if I hate myself for it, even if I pretend I’m not and try to distract myself by wondering when the burrito shack closes and whether I should just make a sandwich. “Gradually Chivers settled on what had perhaps, she told me, been obvious all along,” Bergner writes, “that it was possible to be stirred by all sorts of things one didn’t, in fact, want.”
Chief among these things are rape fantasies, which are more frequent, or as frequent, as you might expect. Bergner mentions a study of nine previous studies finding that 30 to 60 percent of women enjoyed these sorts of thoughts (although the authors think the number is probably higher). His sources speak openly about their own—one imagined, as a girl, being “chemically paralyzed” by a “middle-aged bald man” who later popped up in her married life to help her to orgasm—and the researchers he interviews acknowledge their frequency with frankness but some discomfort, adding, gravely, that “arousal is not consent.”
Marta Meana, a psychology professor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, believes that women’s desire is sparked by being desired—the fantasy of rape, safely removed from the horror of its reality, is a fantasy of inciting rabid lust. I don’t totally relate—for me, the appeal of being overpowered or humiliated or transformed into a blueberry stems primarily from how repulsive these thoughts are to my rational brain. They are disturbances repurposed as jollies. I was more interested in a theory from Paul Federoff of the University of Ottawa’s Institute of Mental Health Research, who wonders if violent, humiliating, and otherwise extreme notions might help some of us get from arousal to orgasm, a process that requires a switch from the parasympathetic to the sympathetic nervous functions. This makes intuitive sense, to me and to anyone who has reached a climax on a geyser of awful thoughts.
There are unwanted things that turn you on, and there are wanted things that don’t. One of Bergner’s most significant targets is the misconception that female desire is somehow stoked by the security of a long-term relationship, or that desire is a means to this end. He mentions a German study, which, if we’re thinking of the same one, found that while 65 percent of female respondents wanted sex “often” at the beginning of their relationships, only 34 percent felt the same after more than three years; their male partners were still good to go. Last year, researchers at the University of Guelph found a similar pattern among female undergraduates.
Bergner talks to women whose desire for their long-term partners has tapered off to nil, who lament the fact that sex with the person they love has become as pleasurable as “returning library books.” I’ve been through it, and so have plenty of female friends (I wrote about this, as well as the studies mentioned above, in Flare last December); it’s become a given that ranges from frustrating to heartbreaking, when you adore someone but recoil from their busy hands. The notion that women prefer to cuddle has a grain of truth to it: we prefer to cuddle with those we have no erotic attachment to. “There is an element of sadness,” Bergner quotes Lori Brotto, a psychologist and professor at the University of British Columbia, “when I think about the women I see, when I think about the couples I know, when I think about myself personally.” Preferring to cuddle is not an optimal state.
We want to close the distance between ourselves and our beloveds, Bergner writes, but without that distance we become kissing cousins, and for whatever reason—the research is ongoing—this seems to affect women more than it does men. The good man/bad boy dichotomy (as in, “Why do chicks always go for assholes?”) and the more cruelly phrased virgin/whore chestnut are versions of the same problem, which is that sex and love are two separate and, in large part, competing ambitions. It would be easier if men were content to accept our natures, let us do our thing, and nurture us when we got home.
These studies don’t totally negate the conventional wisdom: women do want cuddles, and relationships with partners we love, and good co-parents for our kids if we have them. But this is just one set of wants, the want of a fulfilling emotional life, which is altogether different from the want of a good fuck, and the two are equally human. If women tend to prioritize the first over the second, by some inborn pragmatism or by social conditioning, it only speaks to our fortitude. We’re better masters of our domains, but it’s easier to control your impulses when the wide world makes that your responsibility. I’m skeptical of the notion that men’s urges are stronger than ours; men just learn, from an early age, that their urges are paramount.
The research Bergner leads us through is still in progress. There are no hard answers here, only challenges to going assumptions. But that’s good enough—if these findings inform our armchair musings and idle talk, we’ll all be better off. Hopefully, Bergner’s thesis will adjust what we take for granted about human sexuality, which is a uniquely odd form of social research because, like bathroom etiquette, it’s universal but scarcely documented. Sexuality is deeply informed by culture, but sex usually happens outside of it, and our preferences are just as visceral as our taste in food. So our pastimes might differ wildly, even though they’re as natural to each of us as our breakfast routines—Jane has her rape fantasies while Susan wants to be tickled with rosebuds—and the opposite is also true: we could have much more in common than we think. We are all perverts, men and women alike.