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 Want—Amanda 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.
If Bergner is right, men's and women's libidos are far more similar than previously imagined. If he's right, and the formidable data he marshals suggests he is, then our sexual scripts need to shift to accommodate this new reality for everyone's sake. Both men and women need to overcome what Atik calls their "wishy-washiness," and be willing to deal with the discomfort that comes from stepping outside of prescribed gender roles. That's easier said than done; as Friedman notes in her article, the data suggests that even among the young, a significant majority of both men and women think it's the job of men to make the proverbial "first move."
When it comes to rethinking instigation, young heterosexuals could do well to learn from gays and lesbians. As Liza Mundy pointed out last month, same-sex couples have much to teach straights about how to have a happier marriage. "From sex to fighting, from child-rearing to chores, they must hammer out every last detail of domestic life without falling back on assumptions about who will do what." Bergner's considerable data suggests that when it comes to initiating sex, straight men and women will be a lot happier if they follow the lead of their gay and lesbian friends.
The research suggests that though both men and women struggle to extricate themselves from traditional gender roles, women are generally doing a much better job of it than are men. From the workplace to the university, women are far more willing to move into traditionally male spaces and adopt traditionally male behaviors than men are to do the reverse. Too many men are still stuck in the "provide, protect, and perform" model that requires women to be passive, focused more on pleasing than on their own pleasure. The "catch-22" in which women find themselves is largely a result of men's fear of being unable to perform up to women's expectations—and to satisfy desires that men have only just begun to realize are as intense and earthy as their own.
Freud's famous question, "What do women want?" has always invited another query in return: "Can you handle the answer if we tell you?" The widespread coverage of Bergner's book raises at least the possibility that some men are. And what is at the heart of that answer? Though some women surely still want to play at passivity while men protect, provide, and perform, plenty more women want another "p" word: partners. Flexible, unintimidated, and (as Bergner shows) playful partners in the bedroom, in the kitchen, and in public life.
"The sexual landscape (remains) ruled by male desires and insecurities," Amanda Hess writes in her Slate review of What Do Women Want. It is those insecurities (and the specter of the violence into which those insecurities sometimes erupt) that keep men from having their sexual desires fulfilled. As this new book shows, women's desires are fully equal to men's—and equally confined by men's maddening unwillingness to abandon the useless sexual scripts they themselves have written.