Book Review: What Do Women Want? by Daniel Bergner

This book has been getting a lot of buzz lately, mainly because the ideas go against the conventional norms of what society dictates.

Not my image

The ideas Bergner presents suggest that if we take away the cultural and societal veneer, we are left with the raw biology of how women act and react sexually. So what tests are being done, and how do women act naturally (meaning without the social conditioning)?

I: Plethysmograph Tests

This test is mainly done through a plethysmograph: a tube that is inserted in the vagina to measure blood flow, moisture, and wetness. The idea is that the more blood, moisture, and wet the vagina is, the more it is prepared for sex. The test is to have this pleythsmograph inserted while women watch various things to measure blood flow and wetness. Images varied between porn (both soft and hard), a naked man, a naked woman, lesbian porn, gay porn, masturbation (of both men and women), and a pair of bonobos having sex. In all cases, the women—both straight and lesbian—measured an increase blood flow and wetness. The presuposition is that they were all turned on by it.  In fact, comparing the images of a man with an erection or a man without an erection, the test suggested that they were more turned if the man had an erection.  In other words, for men (both straight and gay), their bodies and their psychological, subjective expressions of desire were the same.  They said they were turned on, and they had more blood flow in their penis.  In other instances where they reported not being turned on, they had less blood flow in their penis.  With women, if you ask them whether they were turned on or not, they will straight away say that there were some where they were not turned on.  Yet, the plethysmograph showed that their body was always flowing blood around the vaginal walls, suggesting that their body was turned on.  So what’s going on here? Why were women’s bodies saying “yes”, but their minds were saying “no”? Were they secretly turned on, but they were taught to keep a psychic distance from themselves?  Bergner suggests that this was “objective evidence that women were categorical after all.”  The women’s body was turned on, even if she was psychologically not.  Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jethá suggest that some women are lying to themselves about what they secretly desire in their latest book, Sex at Dawn.  However, there is one portion of desire that is tricky to explain: rape fantasies.

How do evolutionary biologists account for some women who have rape fantasies?  Why do some women have them?  One theory is that since sexuality has been associated with guilt (especially for women), the fantasy was a way to remove the guilt and the shame associated with sex.  Another theory is that it’s breaking a taboo.  Another plethysmograph was used.  Women listed to rape scenes in a lab.  Genital blood flow spiked tremendously.  Again, the body was turned on, but the mind was not.  So why was body turned on with the male having the erection (even if the woman herself reports that she is not turned on)?  Bergner gives an insightful answer from sexologist Meredith Chivers: because the woman’s body—through years of evolution and cultural patriarchy—has geared itself to get ready for sex.  Women had constantly been sexually attacked in the past, and the ability to get ready for sex, even if the women didn’t want to, had an evolutionary advantage to protect the vagina against tearing, infection, infertility, or even death.  This, however, does not mean that the woman desires sex.  Rather, the body seems to get ready for sex as part of a reflexive system that had nothing to do with the desire for love or sex.  Indeed, there have been numerous cases where rape victims have felt their body getting ready for sex.  Some women have even reported experiencing orgasm during their rape.  But we can’t conclude that just because the body is ready for sex, the woman herself desires sex.  In other words, arousal does not equal consent.  Otherwise, we get to the weird and grotesque conclusion that women secretly want to be raped.

II: Monogamy

In another scenario, women seem to have their desires waned after being in long-term relationship. Even after marriage and kids, the women didn’t have the passion or the same level of desire as the men. The conclusion that Bergner reaches is that women’s desire—despite the narrative that they are natural caretakers and faithful to their spouses—has evolved women to be nonmonogamous.

First test: there is a famous example by evolutionary psychologists to suggest how women are more selective than men when it comes to sexuality.  The test was to have a male approach an unknown female and ask her if she would have sex with him.  The results suggested that a huge of majority of women said “no.”  Switching the sexes where the female approached the male and ask him if he would have sex with her, the males most likely said “yes.”  Therefore, according to these evolutionary psychologists, males were more lusty, promiscuous, and naturally nonmonogamous whereas females were more reserved, monogamous, and sexually conservative.  But Bergner rightfully shows that there’s a bias in these results.  If a random male approached a female, she would say “no” because of cultural or social dictations: he could harm her or her reputation could be ruined.  However, change the scenario where one would imagine Johnny Depp, Donald Trump, or Brad Pitt.  No one would know, and these strangers are more well-known.  More women would then say “yes” (more to Johnny Depp and Brad Pitt).  This suggested that if one takes away the social expectations, you have pure fantasy which leaves open for a better view of what one desires.  This bias suggests that evolutionary psychology has been reinforcing Victorian morality toward women’s sexuality.  Throughout history and even through science, women are told how they should feel.

Bergner converses with women (both gay and straight) about how they had a lusty appetite toward their partners at the beginning of the relationship, but then the lust had waned over time.  But why is that?  Some women mentioned that over time, the respected partner had grown comfortable with them, meaning that the woman slowly got to know her partner better.  Thus, there was no need to constantly express desire for the woman; rather, the relationship was more about admiration, compassionate love, and respect.  The lusty appetite had waned, so much so that simply being naked in front of each other didn’t spark up desire; rather, nakedness just spoke to their comfortability toward each other.  And yet, one woman had said that “the male without an erection is announcing a lack of arousal.”  It is as if to say that the heart of women’s desire is to be desired.  Indeed, women may choose to be in a relationship, but don’t conclude that this is the heart of their desire.

There is even a disorder about this problem: “hypoactive sexual desire disorder” or HSDD.  Is it that women really have a lower libido than normal, or is it that they are just bored with the relationship?  What’s interesting is that women who are usually diagnosed with HSDD report about the longevity of their relationships.  But this disorder didn’t seem to fit with other type of disorders.  The condition was not psychiatric, “but created by our most common domestic arrangement.”  The women were happy with the relationship, and they never stopped desiring, they just had trouble wanting their partners.  Investigating other primates, there is a possibility that monogamy may actually be cultural cages for women.  Indeed, women swiftly feel a wane of desire in their committed relationships.  Why is this?  One theory is that within fidelity, the passion and the feeling of being desired grew more remote.  But this isn’t because the partner lost interest; rather, it was because the woman felt that her partner was trapped, that the partner did not choose her, but was impelled upon the partner because the partner was in the relationship.

So what’s the solution?  There is the pharmaceutical answer.  And with money pouring into it, there is a race to find a drug to cure monogamy.  But what’s astonishing is the fact that monogamy needed a cure in the first place?  Bergner is making too much of a leap here.  Sure, the libido has lessened, but why tie this up with monogamy?  The stories that Bergner mentions come from women who already have their libido down.  This is probably why they were test subjects in the first place.  The sample is skewed then: it seems that Bergner only talked to women who have already low libidos within their relationship.  So what’s the solution?  Curing monogamy?  That doesn’t follow.  The solution, presuming everything else is valid, is to increase libido.  Indeed, that’s what the pharmaceutical companies have been trying to do.  To say that it’s curing monogamy is a stretch.  Through these test subjects, Bergner wonders why some women were affected, but others weren’t?  Why are some women affected by different oral contraceptives, but others aren’t?  It never really occurs to Bergner that it is perhaps because different women have different chemicals and different drugs affect them differently.  Bergner is treating all women like an essence by reifying them.  Indeed, he even suggests that different women have different testosterone levels and that these levels play a key to women’s desire.

III: Sexual Fluidity

Women seem to have a much more flexible sexuality. While growing up, boys will gain information through their environment and what they gain will fully inform their sexual development. Thus, men’s fetishes and sexual quirks are more or less permanent. Women’s sexuality, however, doesn’t have this permanent streak. This is why most women don’t have fetishes, but their sexual orientation seems to be flexible too.  In fact, through the work of Lisa Diamond, female desire was more about the emotional involvement.  In fact, it’s so powerful that female desire could override sexual orientation.  Thus, female desire has a sexually strong emotional component, strong enough to the point that the gender of the other person may not matter.  Diamond’s subjects didn’t stay close to the same person, their orientation changed, and their sexual fantasies were not constant.

Why are women more fluid?  Perhaps a better question is why are males not fluid?  Males have typically defined female sexuality in a way that is favorable to themselves.

So what to think from this book?  I admire Bergner for tackling the scientific studies of women’s sexuality and trying to explain them in a readable book for a general audience.  Women’s sexuality has not been researched well enough.  On the other hand, Bergner’s conclusions based on the articles are astoundingly invalid.  He reaches conclusions that do not follow from the data (especially his take on monogamy).  Moreover, the reading does make a few connections.  There were nice anecdotes to grab my interest.  Other times, however, I felt like I was reading a bunch of magazine articles.  It follows through a string of hypotheses that Bergner somehow tries to tie it all together, but it isn’t great.  It is as if he tries to capture a simple formula of what women desire.  Indeed, at one point of of the book, he mentions a scientist using the data he’s collected about women’s sexuality and reducing it down to an 11-point equation.  Imagine that.  Taking all of women’s experience and history and it can all be explained through an equation.  Yet at the same time, Bergner also mentions that women’s sexuality is so complex.  The complexity, it seems, cannot be really be captured to something neat and simple.

Tristan Taormino has interviewed Bergner in a critical, but fair way.  Her questions were really smart, and she gave some great critiques of Bergner’s insight, which has stumped Bergner in some of the questions.  But both of them shrugged it off with some good humor.  (As a side note, I asked a question on Taormino’s Facebook page so that she could ask Bergner.  Toward the end, she mentioned that I had a great question, but she ran out of time before she could ask it.  Somehow, I need my question asked toward Bergner.)

Would I recommend this book?  Maybe.  I guess you could read it for the interesting research of investigating women’s sexuality, but I’d quickly leave as soon as Bergner makes conclusions about this research.  I would suggest reading Meredith Chivers or Lisa Diamond to get the gritty details of their work, and perhaps better conclusions than Bergner does.

So then, what do women want?  Probably not to be reduced to a single homogenous category where some guy tells them what they want.

About shaunmiller

I am a Ph. D student at Marquette University. The primary purpose of this blog is to get my ideas out there, and then have other people scrutinize, critique, build upon, and systematize beliefs. This blog will sometimes pertain to what I'm learning in my classes, but it will occasionally deal with non-classroom issues that I'm thinking about as well.
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One Response to Book Review: What Do Women Want? by Daniel Bergner

  1. thekillerj says:

    Good post. I’ll have to add my thoughts when I have more time. The link you posted to the article on orgasm during rape should help me show clients some facts to back up what I’ve been telling them.

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