What women really want
The controversial new book on female sexuality by a MALE 'New York Times' writer
The standard view of human sexuality goes something like this. Men are programmed by evolution to want to sleep with as many women as possible, because that way offers the best chance of passing on their genes. Women, on the other hand, are more suited to closeness, emotional intimacy, safety, monogamy.
The premise of this new book, based on hundreds of interviews with psychologists, sexologists and ordinary women dissatisfied with their love lives, is that this is "scarcely more than a fairytale".
In fact, the comforting notion that civilisation has been about getting men to tame their libidos in order to make relationships and family life possible at all might, Daniel Bergner argues, be ripe for turning on its head. Maybe it's really women's sexual urges that are wild and anarchic, and civilisation that tamed them lest their "primal and essential selves" blow the world apart.
Enter the Plethysmograph. It sounds like some device from a James Bond movie. In fact, it's a light sensor, which, when placed inside a woman, gives researchers a way of measuring arousal.
Once inserted, subjects are played a series of short pornographic films, showing men and women, women and women, men and men, sisters (and brothers) doing it for themselves, energetic groups of various combinations, even of apes getting it on. They're also asked to press a button when they feel aroused.
The results showed that women were aroused by everything, the whole kit and caboodle – even the apes (Fifty Shades Of Grey, eat your heart out) – though they admitted, when pressing the button, only to being aroused by what their stated sexual orientation told them they should find arousing. Men, especially gay men, were simpler creatures. They knew what they liked and admitted it. (And it wasn't the monkeys either).
It could be, the author argues, that this is because the mechanics of male arousal are much simpler, so boys learn at a young age what their bodies respond to, whereas with girls it's all more subtle and hidden.
Or it could be that women are conditioned by nurture and culture not to admit to their deepest desires. Either way, it seems clear that there's a gaping disconnect between what women think and say they want – nice, respectable monogamous sex – and what their bodies really do want – which is danger and excitement and variety, both of experiences and partners.
In short, they don't want that fabled "emotional intimacy" and, when they do get it, their sexual desire decreases, as equally frustrated husbands the world over can attest.
Now, as a way of rethinking sexual relationships, this is all fascinating. The problem is that it can be summed up in a few paragraphs. It certainly doesn't need a 224-page book to do it.
What Do Women Want is zippily written, but that much empty space can only be filled with an awful lot of repetition, not to mention lots of transcriptions of rape fantasies, which can be wearying after a while. Read the first and last chapters and you've basically got the whole book. In fact, the first would do, and that's downloadable for free as a sample on Kindle. Which is probably not what the publishers want to hear, but that's their problem.
Admittedly, there's some interesting background material on the troubled history of sexology and its efforts to escape the deadening influence of our old friend Freud.
More still on the neglect under which the study of female sexuality languished until recent years. As it gathers pace, it seems certain that the idea of women as the "preordained if imperfect guardians of monogamy" will be seriously challenged, if not abandoned altogether.
But did Bergner, a staff writer with the New York Times Magazine, really have to approach his subject with such straight-faced earnestness? In chapter six, he even tells the story of a woman who suddenly discovers that she can no longer achieve satisfaction with her husband, so takes to sleeping with multiple male partners every night and watching videos of women having sex with animals. As you do. (Not.)
Then she visits a sexologist and finds out that her insomnia medication has boosted her serotonin levels, which in turns affects her arousal. So she changes the medication and all is well. I'm sorry, but that's funny.
Yet here it's related with so much solicitous sincerity that you'd swear the woman had a terminal illness. After a while it's like being trapped in a lift with the sort of people who go to therapy twice a week and think snow is always a metaphor for problems being buried deep. Sometimes, you know, it's just snow.
Some of the issues that the publicity for this book promises it will explore, such as whether political advances won by feminism have actually harmed women in the bedroom, also barely have their surfaces scratched.
Or is Bergner's already planning a sequel to fill the gaps? If, like this one, it's ultimately as unsatisfying as these women's sex lives, readers may well wish to fake a headache and seek satisfaction between different covers.