How Strong Is the Female Sex Drive After All?

Women may be more sexually omnivorous than men, but that doesn't necessarily mean they're as hungry.
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Daniel Bergner, a journalist and contributing editor to the New York Times Magazine, knows what women want--and it's not monogamy. His new book, which chronicles his "adventures in the science of female desire," has made quite a splash for apparently exploding the myth that female sexual desire is any less ravenous than male sexual desire. The book, What Do Women Want, is based on a 2009 article, which received a lot of buzz for detailing, among other things, that women get turned on when they watch monkeys having sex and gay men having sex, a pattern of arousal not seen in otherwise lusty heterosexual men.

That women can be turned on by such a variety of sexual scenes indicates, Bergner argues, how truly libidinous they are. This apparently puts the lie to our socially manufactured assumption that women are inherently more sexually restrained than men--and therefore better suited to monogamy.

But does it really?

Detailing the results of a study about sexual arousal, Bergner says: "No matter what their self-proclaimed sexual orientation, [women] showed, on the whole, strong and swift genital arousal when the screen offered men with men, women with women and women with men. They responded objectively much more to the exercising woman than to the strolling man, and their blood flow rose quickly--and markedly, though to a lesser degree than during all the human scenes except the footage of the ambling, strapping man--as they watched the apes."

Far from being more sexually modest and restrained than the male libido, the female sex drive is "omnivorous" and "at base, nothing if not animal" writes Bergner. He says: "One of our most comforting assumptions, soothing perhaps above all to men but clung to by both sexes, that female eros is much better made for monogamy than the male libido, is scarcely more than a fairy tale."

He goes on to write:

Monogamy is among our culture's most cherished and entrenched ideals. We may doubt the standard, wondering if it is misguided, and we may fail to uphold it, but still we look to it as to something reassuring and simply right. It defines who we aim to be romantically; it dictates the shape of our families, or at least it dictates our domestic dreams; it molds our beliefs about what it means to be a good parents. Monogamy is--or we feel that it is--part of the crucial stitching that keeps our society together, that prevents all from unraveling.

Women are supposed to be the standard's more natural allies, caretakers, defenders, their sexual beings more suited, biologically, to faithfulness. We hold tight to the fairy tale. We hold on with the help of evolutionary psychology, a discipline whose central sexual theory comparing women and men--a theory that is thinly supported--permeates our consciousness and calms our fears. And meanwhile, pharmaceutical companies search for a drug, a drug for women, that will serve as monogamy's cure.

Bergner thinks that monogamy is society's way of constraining female sexuality. He implies that this constraint is unjust and prudish. He is not alone. Salon's Tracy Clark-Flory hailed his book for revealing "how society's repression of female sexuality has reshaped women's desires and sex lives... Bergner, and the leading sex researchers he interviews, argue that women's sexuality is not the rational, civilized and balancing force it's so often made out to be--that it is base, animalistic and ravenous, everything we've told ourselves about male sexuality."

On its face, the flexible arousability of the female sex drive seems to be an indication of its strength, and that is what Bergner implies. But in truth, it is an indication of the very opposite, its weakness. Bergner's thesis that women are turned on by more stimuli than men does not mean that they are less monogamous than men. In fact, the very flexibility of the female sex drive implies that women are more willing to prioritize monogamy over their libido. For that to make sense, it's important to understand that the female sex drive can be simultaneously weak and "omnivorous."

That is the view of the highly cited psychological researcher Roy Baumeister, who this year won a major lifetime achievement award from the Association for Psychological Science. About a decade ago, he set out to determine if the female sex drive was indeed weaker than the male sex drive. He was inspired to do so when he noticed, in the course of his research, that the influence of "cultural and social factors on sexual behavior ... consistently turned out to be stronger on women than on men."

On measure after measure, Baumeister found, women were more sexually adaptable than men. Lesbians, for instance, are more likely to sleep with men than gay men are with women. Reports indicate that women's attitudes to sex change more readily than men's do. For instance, in one study, researchers compared the attitudes toward sex of people who came of age before and after the sexual revolution of the 1960s; they found that women's attitudes changed more than men's.

The sexual patterns of couples also indicate that women are sexually adaptable. The female libido fluctuates throughout the month, based on ovulation and the menstrual cycle. But couples do not appear to have sex more or less frequently based on what time of the month it is. Rather, couples have sex in weekly and daily patterns--in the evenings and/or on weekends. A 1991 survey looked at how the gap between how frequently men and women desire sex and how often they actually have sex; the gap is bigger for women, 82 percent of whom had sex when they did not desire it, compared to 60 percent of men.

What could explain this flexibility? Baumeister proposed that "Women might be more willing to adapt their sexuality to local norms and contexts and different situations, because they aren't quite so driven by strong urges and cravings as men are."

When Baumeister set out to compare the male and the female sex drive about a decade ago, the four leading psychology textbooks of the time either did not address the fact that the male and female sex drive were different, or they suggested that they were the same. When he presented his hypothesis--that the male sex drive is stronger than the female drive--to peers in his field, they were skeptical. They believed, as Baumeister puts it, that "the idea that men have a stronger sex drive than women was probably some obsolete, wrong, and possibly offensive stereotype."

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Emily Esfahani Smith is a writer based in New Haven, Connecticut. She is the Manners and Morals columnist at The New Criterion, managing editor of the Hoover Institution's Defining Ideas, and editor of Acculturated.

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