It’s been roughly a century since the Victorians concluded that women don’t like sex. Today we’ve progressed to the point where we admit that women do indeed enjoy sex. But when it comes to understanding female sexual desire, our scientific community is stuck in the 20th century. In his new book, “What Do Women Want?: Adventures in the Science of Female Desire,” journalist Daniel Bergner makes a shocking declaration about female desire: It’s base, animalistic, and ravenous:
“Despite the notions our culture continues to imbue, this force is not, for the most part, sparked or sustained by emotional intimacy and safety … 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.”
And Bergner isn’t talking about the Hollywood vamps of the 1930s or Sharon Stone’s character in Basic Instinct; he’s talking about women as a group — Your mother, your grandmother, Mother Theresa — being highly sexual and aggressive. How can this be? For centuries, Western-Judeo/Christian culture backed by “science” has assured us that men are the aggressors, women the prey. That women are both the targets of and barricades against uncontrollable male sexual advances.
Bergner uses groundbreaking sex research in his book to suggest what a handful of behavioral psychologists are beginning to; that women are highly sexual beings. That it is society that has convinced us that they are not by suppressing, ignoring, and outright lying about female sexuality and sex drive. From its earliest days, Western-Judeo/Christian society has been absolutely fixated on female sexuality yet it has done little to truly understand it. It has concocted a smorgasbord of ridiculous theories about the female libido; from the afore mentioned Victorian idea that women don’t like sex, to the Puritan belief that in order for a woman to get pregnant, she must have an orgasm (unfortunately leading to the persecution and prosecution of many impregnated rape victims.) And let’s not forget that the Romans believed “hysteria” to be an insanity caused by wandering, sex-starved womb women. Freud thought he had woman figured out as did Charles Darwin who theorized that natural selection had encouraged man’s “more inventive genius” while nurturing woman’s “greater tenderness.”
Speaking of tenderness, it is men who have historically found comfort in the idea that women are emotionally-dependent, nurturing sexual lacklusters — women mewing kittens, men roaring lions waiting to pounce and mount their unwilling/disinterested prey. Even our language has been structured to position men as the subjects and women as the objects: e.g., “He fucked her.”
It is this systemic deeply-ingrained ideology that causes Bergner to warn that his book might spur some male anxiety. In an interview with Salon, he admitted:
“I just had two funny conversations — one with a male writer, a friend of mine, who said that reading the book had inspired deep concern, and another from an editor who said that it had scared the bejesus out of him.”
If men are scared, it is women who should be empowered. Men have been speaking on our behalf for centuries now; diagnosing our sexual desires and dictating what we do about them. (Remember when they famously “discovered” our clitoris?) Telling us we are crazy, emotional, A-sexual, etc. And though we no longer subscribe to the now ridiculous seeming Victorian ideas about female sexuality, we have our own equally archaic theory: That woman need to feel emotionally secure and attached to want sex. That we only mate when it feels safe to procreate. The problem is that women have self-induced these patriarchal ideas. We have been told, over and over, that sex it for men, not for us. That our bodies are the objects of pleasure but not necessarily the recipients of it. Growing up, I remember my mother insisting that “women just don’t enjoy sex as much as men” and feeling angry and dismissed as a quite sexual young woman.
The historically male-dominated fields of science and media are just beginning to reflect what we women have known forever: That we are highly sexual beings – raw and aggressive. Many of us enjoy sex purely for the act of sex itself, no backrub or bed-in-breakfast required (but in case you’re offering, I like my bacon crispy and my eggs over-easy).
When Sex and the City debuted on HBO in 1998, many Americans were shocked and taken aback by the character Samantha Jones played by Kim Cattrall. Samantha thoroughly enjoyed sex and was unapologetic about it. Since the 90s, there has been a steady rise in casual sex and “hook-up” culture among young women. While parents, preachers, and moral gatekeepers are shaking their fists and furrowing their brows in disapproval, women are having a great time. The increase in unwed (and even wed) female sexual activity is a direct result of society’s changing attitudes and education about female sexuality and desire. In part, we have shows like Sex and the City to thank (and birth control, of course).
The point is, sexual agency for all human beings is empowering. As society come to terms with the reality that women are actors in their own stories, not just furniture in the room, the idea that it’s a “man’s world” will slowly fade into the history books where it belongs, next to Freud’s and Darwin’s oh-so enlightened essays on female sexuality.