“What Do Women Want?”: On Female Sexual Research and the Difficulty of Claiming Desire

Botsa Katara //

Sigmund Freud once famously claimed that “The great question that has never been answered … and which I have not yet been able to answer, despite my thirty years of research into the feminine soul, is, What does a woman want?” (Bergner 15). The answer to this question shall ever be elusive, since any answer pointing to a specific “this” or “that” would be too narrow. The difficulty of answering such a question definitively can be established by delving into the erotic lives of the female sex. Daniel Bergner’s 2013 landmark book What do Women Want? Adventures in the Science of Female Desire, for instance, concludes that a woman’s sexual fantasies and erotic urges are not only non-monogamous but also perpetually evanescent.

The anti-dogmatic findings of Bergner’s investigation subvert traditionally and culturally held assumptions that women are more predisposed toward creating emotional attachment before having sex, and are the stalwart guardians of sexual fidelity and restraint. These stereotypes are in part attributable to the severe underfunding of research around the female libido, exclusive focus on reproduction/fertility, and societal codes around morality. I contend that the lack of motivation in medical science to study the female libido and dogmatic sexual norms inflicted on women have created a deep chasm of misinformation or, in some domains, no information whatsoever. Hence the absence of a potent female Viagra is hardly a surprise.

Bergner leaves no qualms in asserting that women do not experience as strong a mind-body connection when it comes to their sexual urges as men do by virtue of the sexual freedom they enjoy. In an experiment conducted by Dr. Meredith Chivers, a renowned Canadian sexologist, men and women, both heterosexual and homosexual were asked to report their arousal while  watching erotic clips. A plethysmograph was attached to each subject that recorded pulse and blood pressure variation as each clip was played. This ensured that the data gathered would be an amalgamation of both the objective and subjective recordings. The content of the pornographic videos extended from:

Women with women, men with men, men with women, lone men or women masturbating– Chivers’s objective numbers, tracking what’s technically called vaginal pulse amplitude, soared no matter who was on the screen and regardless of what they were doing to each other, to themselves. (16)

The perplexing results of the experiment showed that with male subjects, the scoring on the plethysmograph accurately matched with their subjective account of arousal. Their mind-body connect was in sync. On the other hand, contrasting data were accumulated from female subjects where recordings on the plethysmograph countered their subjective logging of arousal. In this case, “minds denied bodies (17).”

Even more astonishing is that, for all women, both straight and gay, “the chiseled man ambling alone on the beach … lost out to the fornication apes” (16).  But this was not reported by most women; the personal accounts suggested little sexual stimulation at “perverse” sexual content, but the plethysmograph starkly disproved it. A significant breakthrough of the experiment is that the dogmatic claim of male sexuality being animal-like and primitive proves to be a fallacy since most male subjects were turned on by “predictable patterns”:

The straight men did swell slightly as they watched men masturbating and slightly more as they stared at men together, but this was dwarfed by their physiological arousal when the films featured women alone, women with men, and, above all, women with women (17).

And as far as the  male arousal for the bonobos is concerned, “ the genitals of both gay and straight men reacted to these primates the same way they did to the landscapes, to the pannings of mountains and plateaus (18).” Thus, it is the female libido that is raw and primate, though excessively repressed to appear civilized.

The insidious effect of centuries of sexual suppression of women is their dwindling correspondence with their sexuality, and the biological conduits that are responsible for it. Research is extremely limited on the orgasmic centers of female genitalia, and often the information around it is enmeshed in inaccuracies, ignorance, misgivings, and unfruitful revisions. The aftermath of this is the lack of hormonal birth control for women that does not lower libido, and lower rates of female orgasm.  I think all this still leaves us with a big question mark on the subject of what women really want. But beyond that, it leaves us with a bigger question – Are women really allowed to want?

Citations:

  • Bergner, Daniel. What do Women Want? Adventures in the Science of Female Desire. Canongate Books. 2013.

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