Now that’s a title sure to sell books. Especially if said book promises to answer that question with “the latest scientific research” by “paint[ing] an unprecedented portrait of female lust.”
I’ve mostly overcome my old bad habit of feeling compelled, for the sake of my professional development, to read every article about sex that catches my eye—from Cosmo covers offering secret bedroom tricks that fulfill every man’s deepest desires to more serious journalism like Mary Roach’s Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex. Yet an enthusiastic review of Daniel Bergner’s What Do Women Want?: Adventures in the Science of Female Desire proved just too provocative, so I put my name of the hold list at my local library. Granted I was equally wary and amused that the mystery of female sexual desire was to be answered by a male author, but the “science” in the title promised at least a certain amount of objective reportage and possibly some useful up-to-date discoveries.
After finishing the book, I think I’ll go back on the wagon as far as “read this and you’ll understand sex” come-on’s are concerned.
Predictably, Bergner’s book left my raging intellectual curiosity about sex sadly unsatisfied. However, I did gain some valuable insights into issues of importance for erotica writers: namely, the constrictions on the way we’re allowed to write about sex in mainstream publishing and our endless human quest to seek a simple explanation for our very complex and powerful urge to merge (or the lack thereof in married women, which was Bergner’s unacknowledged focus, not to say obsession, in the book).
Let’s start with the writing style of What Do Women Want? Published writing about sex is generally divided into two comforting categories. First we have the “scientific” approach, which is deemed acceptable for review in the New York Times (indeed Bergner even nabbed a nonfiction spot in that venerable publication to promote his book). This is either a sex guide by a credentialed doctor or a journalist’s reportage of what’s going on in the underfunded labs of sexologists. The emphasis here is on the “facts” tastefully and maturely presented with the aim of helping us understand our biological drives. The tone may be humorous, like Roach’s, often pointing out the ridiculousness of sex, but there can never be any obvious intent to arouse lust. That goal is left to erotica and porn, where the author is at liberty to use every trick in the book—dirty words, loving descriptions of sex acts, vivid, taboo-breaking fantasies—to inflame the reader’s libido. The price for this freedom is that such works can’t be taken too seriously, even if some do prove wildly profitable.
I’d always wondered what would happen if someone tried combining these two forms, intellectual seriousness with vivid, evocative prose. Many erotica writers do so quite successfully in my opinion. Bergner makes a certain kind of attempt by juxtaposing reportage of scientific studies and the search for a “female Viagra” (which is apparently much harder since it requires a change in brain chemistry rather than just blood flow) with decidedly flowery accounts of women’s experiences and fantasies. The experiment derails because Bergner’s heavy-handed prose requires the reader to either submit equally to the reportage and the personal fancy or to doubt both. For me, What Do Women Want? has been falsely advertised as the kind of “scientific” book that we’re supposed to respect when there is a buried personal agenda at work throughout. Perhaps the book would be less of a con if it were advertised as memoir or creative nonfiction, but then again it would lose a good portion of an audience that craves “objective” answers to the mystery of sex.
Although an inquiry into what women want could result in a very long book indeed, Bergner’s main focus is stories of women who have lost desire for their sweet, loving partners, but feel excitement for men who treat them like, well, Christian Grey treats Anastasia Steele. Yet, rather than quoting the women in their own words, he freely indulges his own writerly impulses. In the following excerpt, he’s describing the experiences of a “real” woman named Isabel:
“Women who dressed with urgent, ungoverned need for the desire of men could set off, inside her, a flurry of disdain, like an instinctive aversion to a weakness or wound. Yet whenever she walked into a restaurant where Michael waited for her at the bar, his focus seem to pluck her from the air, midfall, and pull her forward. His eyes held a thoroughly different kind of constancy than Eric’s later would. Eric adored her. Michael admired her. She was a possession, the heels of the boots she picked for him taking her across crowded rooms toward her owner. The boots were like the frames and pedestals he chose for the photography and sculpture in his gallery. He had specific opinions about how she was best displayed.”
If the book were fiction, I might be more willing to allow myself to be carried along by the strongly flavored sensibility of Bergner’s prose. But in many cases I felt manipulated, as if he were imposing his voice on Isabel among others, making her into his character, for the mere sake of showing us he can write in a Best American Short Story style.
Now Bergner does describe some interesting results of studies—did you know that in speed dating whichever sex sits still is pickier about partners than the one forced to get up and rotate? But far too many studies he mentioned dealt with women’s boredom with nice guys. Basically Berger argues that traditional evolutionary biology got it wrong. It’s not the men who are the promiscuous sex, sowing their seed far and wide while women wait for a nurturing mate, but rather the women who are even hungrier for sex with strangers, thus explaining the much touted desire gap between married men and women. By the time he attributed Adriaan Tuiten’s search for a drug to restore female desire to a broken heart when his first girlfriend lost sexual interest in him, I suspected something else was at stake for the author as well. And indeed, turning back to the acknowledgements, Bergner rather wistfully thanks his ex-wife for the faith she offered for many years.
Whether or not Bergner’s ex-wife left him because her sexual desire for her tender mate faded, his choice of highly personal writing style and a notable focus on one slim aspect of female sexuality demands that he be honest with his readers about where he comes from on the issue of marriage and the loss of desire. Yet he maintains the opacity of the traditional journalist throughout, in spite of his revealingly biased choices in language.
Now is the perfect time for me to be honest. While I am all for revising the rigid story of a natural male promiscuity and the female preference for monogamy, in my personal experience, I have always had better sex when I know and care for my partner and he cares for me. Thus, I did not in any way feel that the book illuminated the mysteries of my desire. Which leads me to the second lesson of my reading. Bergner insists we have to replace the old story with an equally simple one—it’s not men who have insatiable appetites, it’s women (which is actually the view of earlier Christian philosophers, so it’s not exactly new). But what if we human beings, male and female, all have our own ever-evolving stories about pleasure and sexual desire? Might not we all have different reasons, genetic and cultural, for behaving and desiring as we do, narratives that might also change within a single person’s life course as well as varying among different people? What if there are no rock-solid eternal truths to comfort us about what is natural in sex (or any other human behavior)?
For inherent in these “scientific” studies is the assumption that there is a normal or correct sexuality. Yet I’ve never seen a real-life example offered of this envied normal state. (Therapist Marty Klein maintains in his book, Sexual Intelligence, that the only true normal is that most adults have sex when they're tired.) Bergner does not interview a promiscuous woman who has found happiness indulging her natural urges like the rhesus monkeys in the lab. Even one of the few sexually frisky married women Bergner mentions is not a poster child for happy monogamy by his definition:
“The abruptly, she mentioned something hidden. She was a baseball fan, and when she had trouble reaching orgasm, or wanted to make love with Paul but felt that arousal was remote and needed beckoning, she tended to think about the Yankee’s shortstop Derek Jeter. She smiled at the comedy of this confession. It was only sometimes that this extra help was required, she explained. ‘Jeter is the ultimate Yankee. Tall, all-American, everyone loves him—he’s it. He comes home to me after winning the World Series. He’s still in his uniform, and he throws me onto the bed and kisses me in a frenzy all over and thrusts right into me without me being really prepared for it. He just ravages me.’”
Yes, the secret is out, the wife “sometimes” has to cheat in her fantasies to feel lust for her husband! Both Bergner and the wife seem to find such fantasies embarrassing and comic, but more to the author’s point, the fantasy is described as “hidden” (But from whom exactly? She told him about it, should she advertise it on a tattoo on her face?) and conforms to the rape-by-a-stranger fantasy that several of the scientists he interviewed claim arouses women more than any other fantasy. Bergner does not really explore the wisdom of taking fantasies literally. He allows that these women probably don’t actually want to be raped, but he does seem to assume that a mere fantasy about another man is a form of infidelity and proves his case about women “wanting” lots of sex with buff, selfish strangers in alleyways.
Okay, I’m going to get personal again, but at least I’m being transparent about my point of view. I’ve never fantasized for more than two seconds about a specific person or celebrity, nor does rape, which we'll define as nonconsensual sex, ever play a role in my rich and varied married-woman fantasies, although the partner usually takes the lead because, damn it, I get tired doing everything out there in the real world. Still my preferred fantasy partner is a faceless drone, used and discarded for his sexual value alone. I like it that way. Does my fantasy prove anything more than that my imagination does not follow society’s rules for proper female focus on the man’s personhood? And how is it that Bergner’s list of women’s sexual fantasies, told with a sort of breathless titillation, can be seen as news decades after Nancy Friday’s My Secret Garden shocked the world? Alas, the book is mired in not-very-unprecedented assumptions and judgments Bergner claims to be challenging. In the end he does admit it is “just a beginning,” in spite of the promotional copy's promise to a potential reader that he or she will get some interesting answers to the title question.
So, yes, the book is mostly a waste of time if you are expecting to find out what all women want. Yet even its failures remind us that there is plenty of room for a nuanced, clear-eyed inquiry into the stories we tell ourselves about sexuality and desire. Daniel Bergner has unwittingly made his own contribution, though not quite as he intended. His book does give us a coded look into the interests and passions of one particular man, but undoubtedly a more honest What Do Women Want?: I Don’t Really Know Either would not sell nearly as many copies.
Donna George Storey is the author of Amorous Woman (recently released as an ebook) and a new collection of short stories, Mammoth Presents the Best of Donna George Storey. Learn more about her work at www.DonnaGeorgeStorey.com or http://www.facebook.com/DGSauthor