Monday, June 17, 2013
I'll Have What She's Having --- By ELAINE BLAIR
Review of the book: ‘What Do Women Want?’ by Daniel Bergner
By ELAINE BLAIR
Published: June 13, 2013 in the New York Times
Galen of Pergamum, the great physician and medical researcher of antiquity, was one of many learned men of his time who believed that women had to have an orgasm during sexual intercourse for conception to occur. For 1,500 years this was the scientific consensus. How could we have continued to believe in the necessity of female orgasm when there must have been all kinds of evidence to the contrary? No one is sure, according to Daniel Bergner. When it comes to the study of female sexuality, scientists have tended to see what they expect, or want, to see, and there are fewer established facts than you would think. “Despite all the powers of contemporary science,” Bergner writes, “the seemingly straightforward anatomical question, is there a G spot? remains unanswered.”
So what are scientists seeing now? Bergner’s previous book, “The Other Side of Desire,” is a thoughtful study of unusual sexual inclinations — fetishism, sadism, attraction to children or amputees. In his new book, “What Do Women Want?,” which appears to have grown out of his earlier research, Bergner turns to what you might say is the largest group of sexual deviants: women, whose strange sexual parts and desires never seem quite as mainstream as men’s. Squeezed into these 200 pages are interviews with psychologists, psychiatrists and primatologists who have been “puzzling out the ways of eros in women”; a capsule history of ideas about female sexuality from biblical times to the present; the story of the so-far elusive hunt for a Viagra-type aphrodisiac for women; a discussion of the different types of female orgasm; and the personal accounts of a dozen or so ordinary women who talk about their sex lives and fantasies. The experiments and data Bergner writes about vary widely and don’t all point in the same direction, but he sets this tour of contemporary sex research against one particular shibboleth: the notion that women are naturally less libidinous than men, “hard-wired” to want babies and emotional connection but not necessarily sex itself. Bergner, a contributing writer for The New York Times Magazine, blames evolutionary psychologists for spreading a contemporary version of this old idea. He assembles a group of scientists from different fields who talk about how earlier sexist bias has obscured the existence, strength and significance of female sex drive in animal reproduction.
Here is one example, with monkeys: In the 1970s, a psychologist and neuroendocrinologist named Kim Wallen noticed that the sexual behavior of rhesus monkeys was affected by the size of their cages. In close quarters the monkeys went at it like mad, and the male seemed to initiate sexual activity, which in turn seemed to confirm the prevailing idea that female monkeys were entirely sexually passive. But in larger cages, as in the wild, the females were the ones who chose their partners and initiated sex by following the males around and touching them demonstratively. The small cages, with their forced proximity, reduced monkey sex life to intercourse, obviating all the mating rituals in which female lust was the essential factor that set sex in motion. After Wallen’s observations, primatologists started seeing evidence that many kinds of female primates initiated sex, while their male counterparts pretty much sat around waiting for the ladies to take an interest in their erections.
Are we that kind of primate? Human arousal and sexual behavior are difficult to study in a lab. Scientists don’t so much have answers as some intriguing findings, ongoing projects and their own theories to share. The theory most often mentioned across disciplines is that women, like men, are inclined to promiscuity. This notion is so far supported by animal studies and long-range surveys of women, which have found that low levels of sex drive are correlated with the number of years they’ve been in a monogamous relationship; women’s sexual interest in steady partners may plummet even more quickly than men’s. This view is corroborated in the book by couples therapists who specialize in trying to help women regain sexual interest in their partners through thought experiments and mandatory date nights. They are notably pessimistic about how much heat all this homework can be expected to generate. The crucial point, Bergner writes, is that flagging sex drive is not just an inevitability for women — it is specifically the result of long-term monogamy. Even the hormonal decrease of menopause can be entirely overridden by the appearance of a new sexual partner. According to Bergner, Kim Wallen, the psychologist who discovered the role of cages in monkey sex, “thought that monogamy was, for women, a cultural cage — one of many cultural cages — distorting libido.”
No one here is claiming that women’s experience of desire, arousal and orgasm is exactly like men’s. Bergner refers to the possibility of “a new, unvarnished norm” for female sex drive, but the scientists he interviews aren’t simply arguing that women have a stronger sex drive than commonly thought; some of them are rethinking the significance of female sexuality in reproduction. Female orgasm lost its essential status when scientists in the 1600s began to figure out how the ovum worked. Since then scientific scrutiny has focused overwhelmingly on women’s reproductive rather than sexual function; at times the existence of female desire and arousal and orgasm has been outright denied. A stubborn sense of uncertainty surrounds female sexual anatomy. The G spot was identified (avant la lettre) by a Dutch physician in the 1600s. It was described again (as “an erotic zone . . . on the anterior wall of the vagina along the course of the urethra”) by the German gynecologist Ernst Gräfenberg in 1950. It was reported yet again in the 1982 best seller “The G Spot: And Other Discoveries About Human Sexuality,” by Alice Kahn Ladas, Beverly Whipple and John D. Perry. That book was met with surprise and scientific skepticism; the latter still lingers. Female ejaculation has a similar history of discovery, denial, incredulous rediscovery, lingering unknowns.
Now, researchers who work with animals argue that female anatomy in fact might be specifically adapted to sex with multiple partners — not just over a lifetime, but in the course of a single sexual episode. The different pace at which men and women build to climax might have the purpose of facilitating sex with multiple men in short succession, which would increase the odds of getting pregnant. Paraphrasing a theory put forward by the primatologist and anthropologist Sarah Blaffer Hrdy, Bergner writes that the characteristics of female orgasm “could well be thoroughly relevant among our ancestors. Its delay, its need of protracted sensation . . . was evolution’s method of making sure that females are libertines, that they move efficiently from one round of sex to the next and frequently from one partner to the next, that they transfer the turn-on of one encounter to the stimulation of the next, building toward climax.”
If this is true, then female orgasm has played a crucial role in successful human reproduction — even though it is not necessary to conception itself.
So where does that leave us? Should we join swingers’ clubs? Have threesomes? Cheat with the piano tuner?
Only at our own risk. Bergner acknowledges that people agree to monogamy not because it’s the sexiest possible arrangement but because it seems the best way to have things like emotional stability and trust and therefore long-term companionship, which appears to be something both human males and females want — even if they also want to sleep around. One could imagine a more drawn-out examination of whether monogamy is indeed the best foundation for long-term relationships, given that both men and women (studies now show) sometimes find the strictures stifling to sexual happiness. In reading this book, I was reminded of the columnist Dan Savage’s long-running contention that heterosexual couples would have more stable relationships if they had a less rigid devotion to the ideal of monogamy. But Bergner doesn’t linger on the puzzles of long-term couplehood. The human tendency to become intensely attached to particular sex partners doesn’t figure in here. Instead, the book’s disparate parts are held together by Bergner’s general insistence on the very existence and force of female lust.
Our author sometimes seems to get lost in the sexiness of it all. In laboratories, vaginal blood vessels “throb” with arousal. Women are shown pornography that “stoked them — stoked them instantly — toward lust.” A “raw portrait of female lust . . . was emerging” from the work of one researcher, who found that for heterosexual women, the sight of “an isolated, rigid phallus filled vaginal blood vessels and sent the red line of the plethysmograph high, niceties vanished, conventions cracked; female desire was, at base, nothing if not animal.”
Bergner proceeds as if the value of being called “animal,” of being considered highly libidinous, were self-evident — as if such charges had never been used against women. The fact that scientific and medical study of women’s reproductive systems has over the last three centuries been a fun house of ethically questionable experiments and misogynistic pronouncements doesn’t weigh as heavily on this book as you might expect. It is with apparently innocent enthusiasm that Bergner describes scenes of women masturbating while hooked up to M.R.I. scanners and having their vaginal blood flow measured by machines.
There is something drastically undertheorized about what all these tentative findings and speculations are doing in the same volume and what they might mean taken together. Why is female lust getting such a big dose of scientific legitimacy at this moment? Are these theories influenced by women’s and men’s evolving social roles? By women’s increasing economic and political power? By feminism itself? Many of the scientists are, after all, women, a novel situation. The history of the study of women’s sexuality tells us that when many scientists are finding the same sorts of things at the same time, it is because they have gone looking for them; a cultural shift has already taken place. For some reason — maybe for many reasons — the story of the libidinous male and sexually indifferent female doesn’t make sense to us anymore.
We shouldn’t mourn its passing. As long as we continue to think (in the back of our minds, to some degree) that men are hard-wired for sex and women for intimacy and babies, then we are stuck with the logic that only men really want to have sex; women want to trade it for something else. This makes straight couples into hagglers: self-interested, ungenerous, wary of being played. Better for men and women to approach each other as more or less equal partners in lust, and work out the rest in the morning.