Daniel Bergner’s New Book, “What Do Women Want?”

My friend Dan Bergner has a book out covering recent and in some ways possibly startling research on women’s sexuality, specifically libido. Dan is a journalist, with previous books on the civil war in Sierra Leone and life inside Angola State Penitentiary; in this one, he interviews and depicts a number of women reporting various kinds of sexual dissatisfaction and distress, as well as a number of research scientists developing new theories of the true nature of female desire. Dan is discussing these issues tonight at 7:00 PM at BookCourt in Brooklyn.

The book ranges through a wide variety of experience and science, so I won’t try to summarize it or hype it. (A review is here.) What interested me especially in this book are what I see as some of its more radical psychological and social ramifications. It won’t come as news to a lot of readers, male and female alike, I hope, that femaleness involves sexual intensity, or that a woman can possess a sex drive at least as strong as a man’s. What the book really gets into and makes a case for debunking is the widespread idea — which has been advanced partly by conclusions of “evolutionary psychology” — that female sexual drive and intensity are linked, ineluctably, and supposedly in contrast to male libido, with closeness, intimacy, and monogamy.

Some of the research Dan covers suggests that female drive is if anything less discriminating and more promiscuous than male drive. From which I draw the tentative conclusion that if women weren’t restrained by punitive social norms, they’d stop all the “nesting,” and the getting men to nest, and they’d be out relentlessly seeking as much sex as they could possibly get from as many different partners.

And of course, unlike men, when women go out looking for sex, they’re pretty much sure to find it. So we can imagine that without those punitive social norms, families, and thus society, would collapse in a spree of sexual immediacy. When men yield to their libidinous imperatives and go on a spree, there are some self-limiting qualities in play — and anyway, their “good” women are meanwhile keeping the home fires burning and feeling betrayed, hurt, abandoned, and morally superior, as we all (i.e., men and women) evidently think they’re supposed to; sooner or later, the lowlife slinks home. Or doesn’t. Either way, life goes on.

But if women yielded to urges that might, the book suggests, be at least as strong, all hell would break loose. We’ve long harbored various versions of the notion that women’s sexual connection to monogamy stands as a bulwark against male-induced chaos. But we’ve long wanted to believe that the connection to monogamy is innate to women. This book suggests the opposite: women’s sexual self-restraint in maintaining civilization is far greater than men’s. Because a) the stakes are higher and b) the promiscuity of her libido is greater. [UPDATE: Which goes some way to explaining the roots of patriarchy.]

And the particular kind of discontent demanded of women by civilization is something worse than discontent. It’s dissociation. [UPDATE: I.e., patriarchy is predicated not only on outright suppression but also on an insidious process of female dissociation? OK, maybe we did know this. But I think few have forthrightly connected that idea to the existence of a promiscuous female libido. Once you start thinking of it that way, you realize you may have known it all along — I only now realize I’ve known it since high school (!) — and that’s what makes for an exciting book.] Men are allowed and indeed encouraged to feel the pain of restraining a promiscuous libido often described as naturally almost insurmountable. Men can stay faithful and pat themselves on the back for having inner strength and/or fall off the wagon and feel bad; either way, they know how they feel. But women — according to some of the conclusions I draw from Dan’s book — are not supposed to know they’re restraining a massive force. They have to deny it. Because it’s not only that if they gave in to it, civilization would crumble — it’s that even feeling it would have that effect.

And that’s a kind of oppression men don’t know about. That’s punitive on a whole other level.

Now, I’m sure many, many women are fully, consciously engaged with the elemental promiscuity of their own sexual drive. (In fact it even seems to me that back in the early 1970’s, that engagement was alive and well, on the table, within and outside of relationships, and so was its relationship to patriarchy, at least among youngsters counterculturally inclined.) And those women are no doubt channeling their desire as best they can, to their own best purposes. Channeling it into love and work. Even into nesting. Even into sexual promiscuity, which takes channeling too, since for adults, everything does. That’s life. Under those circumstances, society does not crumble; it thrives. But Dan’s reporting reveals a lot of female sexual distress, a lot of stuff not alive and well, and once you’ve started thinking about these issues this way, you can start to see examples of the problem everywhere. We’re not thriving.

Read Sam Tanenhaus’s recent review of Amanda Knox’s memoir. You don’t have to be a defender of the youth party scene in Perugia to note the reviewer’s revulsion not, most saliently, at casual sex but at female initiation of casual sex — reflexively termed “aggression” — with the foregone conclusion that such behavior, especially as then boasted about by the woman (adding insult to injury), damns her a priori

What gives with the prude-prurience, all these years into the 21st century? I think Dan’s book starts getting at some answers that are not, shall we say, pretty.


5 thoughts on “Daniel Bergner’s New Book, “What Do Women Want?”

  1. This sounds a little like the conclusions of Christopher Ryan’s excellent book, ‘Sex at Dawn’. I would be convinced if it were not for the fact that I hear Lynn Saxon’s book ‘Sex at Dusk’ is just as good with the opposite conclusions 🙂

  2. I sure get tired of that “what do women want” question. We want what men want – respect, freedom, sex, affection. There is no mystery whatsoever about it. We want to be treated as well as men want to be treated.

  3. The rich maintain their power with a system of deception that is largely implemented by organized religion. It takes much experience to shed the unreasonable expectations of the opposite sex which religion lays upon the young with the purpose of weakening poorer families by fostering animus between men and women.

  4. Daniel Bergner does an excellent job giving credence to the notion that women are perhaps more sexually inclined than societal constructs may suggest. In our work specializing in female sexual dysfunction at the Medical Center for Female Sexuality, we constantly see the shame that many women feel in taking ownership of their sexuality. Fortunately, with increased discussion around female sexual functioning, the stigma will decrease and women can feel more comfortable not only being sexual beings, but in seeking sexual satisfaction.

    Rachel Hercman, LCSW

  5. What has restrained women before the 20th century was fear of pregnancy by an unworthy partner. Marriage was seen as insurance that the woman and child would be provided for at least until the child was launched.

    Birth control removed that fear. Social norms followed practical considerations, not the reverse, according to me.

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