alwaysanswerb’s #CBR5 Review 52: What Do Women Want?: Adventures in the Science of Female Desire by Daniel Bergner

Goodreads summary: “When it comes to sex, common wisdom holds that men roam while women crave closeness and commitment. But in this provocative, headline-making book, Daniel Bergner turns everything we thought we knew about women’s arousal and desire inside out. Drawing on extensive research and interviews with renowned behavioral scientists, sexologists, psychologists, and everyday women, he forces us to reconsider long-held notions about female sexuality.

This bold and captivating journey into the world of female desire explores answers to such thought-provoking questions as: Are women perhaps the less monogamous sex? What effect do intimacy and emotional connection really have on lust? What is the role of narcissism—the desire to be desired—in female sexuality? Are political gains for women (“No means no”) detrimental in the bedroom? And is the hunt for a “female Viagra” anything but a search for the cure for monogamy?

Bergner goes behind the scenes of some of the most groundbreaking experiments on sexuality today and confronts us with controversial, sometimes uncomfortable findings. Incendiary, profoundly insightful, and brilliantly illuminating, What Do Women Want? will change the conversation about women and sex, and is sure to spark dynamic discussion for years to come.”

This book blew my mind. When it was first published, it got some buzz in the feminist blogosphere (and on Pajiba, if I’m not mistaken.) The reason being: as the synopsis above alludes to, much of the evidence that Bergner collects from researchers in the field completely upends society’s traditional narrative about female sexuality. At the initial time of publication, the articles writing up What Do Women Want? mentioned this, so I wanted to pick up the book and read the interviews with scientists for myself, as well as take notes on their publications so I could go to the primary sources. I haven’t read through the complete collection of literature yet that I had intended to tackle, but so far Bergner’s conclusions, informed through the work of scientists studying sexual behavior in human and animal females, seem pretty sound to me.

I don’t want to necessarily “give away” more than what is hinted at in the synopsis and already covered in the articles online, but one of the things overall that really struck me is how sexual puritanism disadvantages women on two fronts. In the first place, on the sociological and psychological level, general sexist double standards (that we are all pretty aware of) restrict our sexual knowledge and activities both through social pressure and internalized misogyny. Secondly, it’s shocking how much resistance has been thrown at genuine biological exploration of female anatomy and arousal. It’s only been in the last 20 years that we’ve even learned of the full internal structure of the clitoris, and yet, it’s still not common knowledge; even some of the sex researchers Bergner interviewed weren’t aware of the internal modeling. (Also, Begner doesn’t discuss this at all, but people still think the hymen is a thing that has anything to do with virginity. Protip: it doesn’t.) Anyway, with the stigma against biological/evidence-based research into female sexuality, it has allowed our society to rely on, and indeed, default to, untestable theories about women and sex from the field of evolutionary psychology, which is rather famously patriarchal.

In summation: I, frankly, think this is a book that everyone, but especially women, could benefit from reading. Though Bergner’s narrative suggests, in many places, that the opposite of what we think we know about female sexuality may in fact be true, the book doesn’t come across as pushy. Given that such a narrow range of sexual behavior and preferences have been traditionally ascribed to women, What Do Women Want? is less about trying to change that narrow definition to another narrow definition than it is about broadening the scope of what is considered “normal” sexual behavior for women.

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