And We Needed a Book To Tell Us This?
Perhaps you missed the mid-90’s rallying call for women across the globe to unabashedly declare what they really want. I mean, what they really, really want. (Note: The Spice Girls never officially defined ziggazig- ahh, though some sources believe its intended meaning was “to enjoy oneself.”)
Lucky for us ladies — and for men folk concerned either with pleasing their opposite sex partners or understanding them better — journalist Daniel Bergner has an answer.
Well, kind of. Work your way through the 197 pages that fill Bergner’s latest book, What Do Women Want?, and come away certain that the jury’s still out on what turns women on. The one thing we’re sure of: Most of us are (still) afraid of exploring this ominous territory. And within the first chapter, Bergner outlines some historical, political, cultural, and even psychological origins of such coyness.
The reluctance to place women’s sex drives on a comparable level to that of a male’s may date back to the post-Enlightenment eureka moment where we all learned a gal’s orgasm isn’t crucial to conception. (Though some scientists believe orgasmic cervical contractions do help guide sperm towards their ovum-shaped goal.) “The ever-haunting female libido became less and less of a necessity,” writes Bergner. “It could be purged without price.”
Cue Protestant ethics on sex and marriage, Victorian-era social norms, an Industrial Revolution that prioritized productivity over promiscuity, Freud’s notion that sublimation entailed channeling the sex drive to more laudable activities, and the early 20th century assumption that women’s sex drives are indeed inferior to men’s and there you have it: Female desire, suppressed.
Even feminism seems to have played a role in subjugating women’s carnal cravings. (See: Emma Willard’s and Eliza Farnham’s proclamations that women should remain pure as a means of delineating themselves from men.)
Then cut to today’s traditional sexual script — the man initiating; the woman, ever the keeper of gates, occasionally acquiescing. And the fallacy the entire field of evolutionary psychology has promoted: That because women possess a finite number of eggs, they’re programmed to be much less horny than men.
“Wrong!” Says science. According to the studies of Meredith Chivers, Marta Meana, Kim Wallen, and Jim Pfaus (to name only a few of Bergner’s many sources) women, if allowed to express their true desires, seem to be just as randy as their Y-chromosomed counterparts.
And for readers who prefer anecdotal illustrations, Bergner includes plenty. One particularly engrossing chapter, “The Alley,” takes a peek into the no-holes-barred sexual fantasies of over thirty gay, straight, and bisexual women. (I’ll let that one speak for itself.)
Amusing illustrations of rhesus-macaque and lab rat seduction strategies also hit home Bergner’s main point: The oft-assumed gender divide in the sex drive may be as much of a myth as the elusive G-spot orgasm. (Which Bergner also dissects towards the end of the book.) In fact, from what the animal kingdom tells us, females may just be designed to take the upper, and more persistent, hand in eliciting sex. Not just from one but many male partners.
What Do Women Want? does more than imply that women might act a bit more like rodents, monkeys, and, well, human men were they not subject to a (still) pervasive pressure to be feminine. (Whatever that’s come to mean in today’s vernacular.) Add to this the libido-killing side effects of (some) birth control pills, (some) antidepressants, and, well, (some) interminably exclusive relationships, and we’re right back to the silencing of vagina-possessors’ sexuality we started at circa the supposed Enlightenment.
Bergner’s prose is eloquent, supple, titillating, and highly engaging. Try wanting to put this book down. (It’s hard.) Moreover, it’s informative. And it may just make sexlessly married women request a bit more, erm, force, from their husbands.
Or their psychiatrists. In addition to underscoring how women’s sexual satisfaction appears to decline more from exclusive partnerships than men’s, Bergner shines light on the pharmaceutical industry’s perilous search for a female-version of Viagra.
But perhaps the book’s main point is best put by animal sexuality researcher and neuroendocrinologist Kim Wallen: “When you look at the sexual interaction,” Wallen explains to Bergner in a chapter titled “Monkeys and Rats,” “it’s easy to see what the male is doing; he’s thrusting. It takes really focusing on the entire interaction to see all that the female is doing — and once you truly see it, you can never overlook it again.”
Can I get a ziggazig-ahh?