Sunday, June 15, 2014

#30 (2014/CBR6) "What Do Women Want?" by Daniel Bergner

Like many of the books I read, I think I first saw What Do Women Want? Adventures in the Science of Female Desire (2013) by Daniel Bergner on the Cannonball site. Immediately intrigued by the subject matter, I put it on my list.

The full title gives a pretty good idea of what to expect when you read this book, but I will try to sum up Bergner's main points. Evolutionary theory has been used to teach us that men are more aggressive and promiscuous when it comes to sex because women have to have the babies and men have to spread their seed. However, this may be based less in science and more on the desire of the patriarchy to control the troublesome libidos of the womenfolk. In fact, science has shown that many females of the species do better when paternity is unclear because the male will kill any offspring that is not his. Also, chimps have sex with tons of partners when they're in heat. Many of the studies that we've seen that show women being more choosy have different results when set up in a more realistic fashion. For example, studies of speed dating have shown that men are more likely to say "yes" to more partners than women. However, when the roles are switched, and women stand up and move from table to table while men sit still, the women actually say "yes" to more partners.

Bergner goes on to discuss that scientists have found that narcissism plays a huge role in desire. When women feel really wanted, they are more turned on. Also, in a somewhat more troubling chapter, he looks at control and rape fantasies. Other subjects include evidence that may argue against monogamy--that women lose desire with long-term partners, perhaps even more than men. Finally, Bergner discusses pharmaceutical companies and their attempts to create a "female viagra" to enhance desire.

On the whole, this book was interesting to read and brought up a number of fascinating questions. What struck me first was how much my desire might be formed by my culture. I've always thought of myself as relatively immune from society's expectations, but what would women be like in a society that was more open and accepting of sex? What if we were more like bonobos? Would I still be thinking, "No, I can only sleep with men that I love and want a relationship with? Or would I be more open to just feeling good?

I think I enjoyed the first couple of chapters of this book the most because they included a lot more specific, scientific studies that were pretty enlightening. As Bergner continued, I thought he still threw out many interesting ideas, but they were often not explored or defended fully. I realize that sexuality is a huge topic with a million different facets that no one fully understands. However, I got the impression that Bergner had an agenda to challenge conventional thinking about women and sex, and this wasn't always backed up by facts.

For example, Bergner brought up the fascinating topic that women will lose desire with the same partner over time. Apparently these women often think they've simply lost their sex drive, but what often helps is the excitement of a new partner. Bergner takes this and runs with it, calling the later attempts at a "female viagra" pill, a "cure for monogamy" pill. I thought this was a little presumptuous. Apparently I am a fan, of at least the idea, of monogamy. There are plenty of women who lose their sex drive for reasons besides a long-term partner, and there are many long-term partners that are still very satisfied sexually. I think we need to look deeper to figure out what is really going on.

I was also fascinated by the idea of the plethysomograph--"the two-inch-long glassine tube" that "beams light against the vaginal walls and reads the illumination that bounces back. In this way, it measures blood flow to the vagina" and indirectly, arousal. This tool was used to show that women are turned on by a lot more things than they admit to, and that they are, in general, turned on by more things than men. I find this completely believable but also kind of frustrating. Bergner later rejects a theory that the plethysomograph might not be an accurate indicator of arousal. Since rape has been an omnipresent threat since there were women, it's possible our bodies naturally increase blood flow when there is any hint of sexual activity regardless of our own arousal. For me, as far as I can tell, I can say that the two don't always seem to go together. And it's kind of irritating for someone to tell you you're wrong when you say you're not aroused.

Although this book probably just brought up more questions than answers for me, it was quick, interesting read that made me think outside the box.

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