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When I first heard about Daniel Bergner’s book “What Do Women Want?” I wasn’t really impressed. I knew the premise from hearing an interview between Bergner and Dan Savage, and to be honest it sounded like several books I’ve read about the changing view of sexuality, love, and romantic relationships. While I was skeptical in the beginning that I would encounter anything new I am really glad I read it. In fact, I highly recommend it to everyone interested in the subject of a woman’s sexuality, particularly if they are unsatisfied with the Victorian-era narrative that women are made for monogamy and must act as gate-keepers to keep men’s uncontrollable lust in check.
Bergner (a journalist by profession) skillfully weaves the most cutting-edge scientific research with personal tales of love, lust, and loss. Each chapter introduces new information and characters to convince the reader that the modern view that a women’s sexuality has evolved to be the more monogamous sex is little more than a societally enforced fairy tale. Women, in fact, may have evolved to actually crave more variety and more sex than men and it is centuries worth of social control by churches and governments (which historically have been male-dominated) that have created a puritanical ideal. An ideal that pressures women to fear, hate, and neglect their own passions and feel shame when they desire pleasure.
The research Bergner showcases in his book takes several approaches to remove nature and nurture to find out what women really want. Experiment’s include everything from Meredith Chivers’ measuring women’s arousal while watching a sexual and non-sexual movies (and comparing it to the women’s subjective rating of their arousal) to studies of the sexual practices of other animals like rats and rhesus monkeys.
The scientists Bergner interviews see evidence for women’s sexual drives in biology. Multiple orgasms, quicker orgasms for men, and sexual arousal from observing many situations point to a drive for many sexual partners. Add that to the common decrease in arousal for their partner after a few years and the standard narrative for female sexuality starts to crumble. For generations we have been told that real love means a lifelong sexual attraction to your partner and if that attraction stops there is something wrong that needs to be fixed, usually through a psychologist or medication. To treat lifelong lust and sexual monogamy as the norm is to invite disappointment, causing harm to individuals and relationships.
With scientific research confronting (and often defeating) established social norms we all become more free. Increased knowledge allows for more opportunities, greater happiness, and more healthy relationships than in the past. What we do with this information is a choice each individual must make, but at least it is a more educated choice. As a person who is primarily attracted to women I hope this information will help me be an understanding, supportive, and responsible partner when the woman I love eventually feels more lust for another. I hope women will read this and realize desire and fantasies are natural and they should not feel shame. These sexual desires and fantasies should not be translated as lacking love. Love and sex have become unnecessarily intertwined in modern cultures, and many of the interviews highlight how much the women love their partners even if they do not lust for them anymore.
Bergner has helped open a door for people to gain knowledge about their bodies and minds. This can revolutionize society. To free women from socially (and often politically) enforced mythological views of sexuality is to encourage self-actualization that is inevitably unique to each individual, and we all benefit when individuals are free to pursue their passions, desires, and dreams. Science is helping us approach a new revolution of individuality but it is all still in it’s infancy, as Bergner states in his closing chapter:
The science and thinking I have brought together in this book are a beginning, only that. None of the researchers I have learned from… would claim to have definitive, fully formed answers about female desire… Eros lies at the heart of who we are as human beings, yet we shun the study of our essential core, shun it perhaps most of all where it is least understood, in women.
Peter is a nomadic hippie libertarian who currently lives with his partner in Los Angeles. As a military veteran and former DC-based non-profit worker he has a passion for keeping the government out of our bodies and wallets. You can find his thoughts on polyamory, body-positivity, MDMA based treatment for PTSD, anarchy, and all things Burning Man over at www.wanderingoak.wordpress.com.