Turns Out Women Have Really, Really Strong Sex Drives: Can Men Handle It?

A new book questions the conventional wisdom about female desire. What now?
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"Naked Young Woman in Front of the Mirror" by Giovanni Bellini

Women want sex far more than we've been allowed to believe. So suggests a new book that shatters many of our most cherished myths about desire, including the widespread assumption that women's lust is inextricably bound up with emotional connection. Are men ready to cope with the reality of heterosexual women's horniness? The evidence suggests we aren't, at least not yet.

In his just-released What Do Women Want? Adventures in the Science of Female Desire journalist Daniel Bergner suggests that when it comes to acknowledging just how much women lust, we've passed the point of no return. Bergner profiles the work of a series of sexologists, all of whom have, after a series of fascinating studies with animal and human subjects, come to what is essentially the same conclusion. Women want sex just as much as men do, and this drive is "not, for the most part, sparked or sustained by emotional intimacy and safety." When it comes to the craving for sexual variety, the research Bergner assembles suggests that women may be "even less well-suited for monogamy than men."

Bergner's work puts what may be the last nail in the coffin of the old consensus that women use sex as a means to get something else they really want, such as enduring monogamous emotional intimacy and the goods and safety that come in marriage with a protector and provider. In her review, Salon's normally hyperbole-averse Tracy Clark-Flory was beside herself: "This book should be read by every woman on earth," she writes; "the implications are huge."

It's not, of course, as if feminism, or Internet porn, or any other feature of modernity has suddenly created desires that never previously existed. Rather, as Bergner and his researchers show, science is finally asking the right questions about what women want, perhaps because enough of us are ready to hear the answer. The broad and enthusiastic coverage of What Do Women WantAmanda Hess at Slate and Ann Friedman at The Cut are nearly as swept away as Clark-Flory—suggests a collective cry of relief: At last, irrefutable evidence that women are so much more like men, and so much more full of erotic potential, than we had ever admitted.

Yet acknowledging that women are as horny as men (if not hornier) isn't enough to guarantee equality, just as the recognition that women are increasingly adept at breadwinning doesn't ensure pay equity. Even as we see more and more evidence that women want what men want, antiquated sexual scripts mean that women are caught, as Friedman puts it, in a "catch-22" with "few options." But is that dilemma one for which both sexes are equally responsible?

Some say yes. Friedman quotes dating expert Chiara Atik:

Everyone's being kind of wishy-washy... Women want sex, but they don't want to be seen as forward (or worse, desperate). Men want sex but are intimidated, unconfident, or don't want to be seen as domineering. We're not sure who should be the sexual instigators, and then no one really steps up to the plate.

That explanation appeals, but it also rests on a false assumption that the risks of playing "instigator" are equal for both sexes. To continue Atik's baseball imagery, it's only very recently that women have even begun to be allowed to compete as equals on the sexual playing field; the rules of the game are still written largely for the benefit of men. To say that women want sex and are afraid of being slut-shamed while men want sex but are afraid of being rejected falsely posits that these are equally consequential experiences. "Slut-shaming" serves as both a precursor and an excuse for sexual violence. "She was asking for it," the classic defense of the rapist, is based on the assumption that a woman who instigates a sexual encounter, "deserves" whatever ill treatment she gets. As real as men's anxiety about being "shot down" might be, it's hardly comparable to women's equally justifiable fear of rape. Margaret Atwood's famous remark that "men are afraid that women will laugh at them; women are afraid that men will kill them" clarifies that distinction nicely.

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Hugo Schwyzer teaches history and gender studies at Pasadena City College.  He is co-author of Beauty, Disrupted: A Memoir.

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