A new book by the American author Daniel Bergner has attracted plenty of press attention thanks to its tales of randy female monkeys and women in reclining armchairs watching porn with sensors nestled in their vaginas, all in the name of science.
As has been widely reported, What Do Women Want? Adventures in the Science of Female Desire challenges the common assumption that women crave intimacy, safety and monogamy with the clinical findings that their lust is aroused by the idea of sex with strangers, dangerous sex and sex between women, men and animals: in short, pretty much any kind except sex with husbands. It also argues that women are mostly unaware of this, and lie detectors and blind experiments are cited to prove it.
Freud famously wrote in 1926 that the “sexual life of adult women is a ‘dark continent’ for psychology”. For all the scientific bells and whistles, What Do Women Want? does not move the discussion on much further, ending with the observation that “a primary mystery clouds everything” about women’s desire. Surely we know rather more than that. Just look at one realm in which women have long been in touch with their wayward urges: fantasy, that personal interior cinema in which anything goes.
One of the best insights into this world is through what is often called “escapist reading”. “Women’s romance”, for example, which feminist scholar Ann Snitow dubbed “pornography for women”, has always been a cover for transgressive sex, from Wuthering Heights – which hints at incest and necrophilia – to Harlequin romances, which offer sadomasochism sugar-coated with a marriage plot. In the era of the flapper and the suffragette, one of the most popular novels in Britain was E. M. Hull’s The Sheik, which tells the tale of a liberated, unmarried woman who travels to the Sahara and is kidnapped by a cruel but sexy sheik, who forces himself – along with fancy jewellery and dresses – upon her.
And scoff if you will at Fifty Shades of Grey, but there’s a reason why this sadism-laden trilogy has been so successful: again, it articulates fantasies of emotionally and physically risky sex that incite women’s desire. One of Bergner’s scientists sums up the novel’s effect as “dopamine, dopamine, dopamine”. But how much further does the identification of sexual arousal with the neurotransmitter responsible for feelings of pleasure actually get us?
The real mystery here, and the mystery that the scientists dance around, is not how women orgasm, but how fantasy works: why does it thrive on tension and contradiction, so often belying a woman’s politics and what she would actually want to live out?
All this was articulated quite clearly more than 40 years ago. In the 1970s – proclaimed by the United Nations to be the “Women’s Decade” – women’s omnivorous, complicated sexuality was at the top of the agenda. Witness The Joy of Sex, Our Bodies Ourselves, Rita Mae Brown’s lesbian coming-of-age novel Rubyfruit Jungle and Erica Jong’s Fear of Flying, with its quest for no-strings-attached sex, which she called “the zipless fuck”. Women’s sexual pleasure was under intense scrutiny, from The Hite Report on Female Sexuality to the porn film Deep Throat.
One of the most remarkable documents from the decade is Nancy Friday’s My Secret Garden, an investigation of women’s erotic fantasies through first-person accounts that anticipate many of the scientific findings included in What Do Women Want? Friday’s informants tell vivid, highly detailed daydreams of exhibitionism, even rape, bestiality, masochism, sadism and much more. One informant notes: “It seems that the more liberated I become…the more I fantasize about the spanking and the bondage.”
But this paradox apparently remains difficult to grasp. Bergner reports that sexologist Meredith Chivers, after elaborate tests of women’s “vaginal pulse amplitude” as they watched porn, eventually “settled on what had perhaps, she told me, been obvious all along, that it was possible to be stirred by all sorts of things one didn’t, in fact, want” and that “arousal is not consent”. Uh, yeah. As if we didn’t know.
My point is not to squelch the research the book cites, but to urge a more culturally comprehensive approach. Clinical experiments and biological speculation need to be supplemented by the immense body of fantasy literature that already gives voice to women’s desire, as well as the work of scholars such as the late Columbia University psychiatrist Ethel Person, whose Force of Fantasy offers a nuanced reading of both male and female sexual desire, and psychologist Esther Perel, whose Mating in Captivity argues that there will always be a tension between the erotic and the domestic for both sexes.
Since sexuality is such a multifaceted experience, encompassing the body, the mind and social norms, science needs to open its eyes to culture rather than just confirm what is obvious. At the end of his 1933 essay “Femininity”, Freud writes: “If you want to know more about femininity, enquire from your own experiences of life, or turn to the poets, or wait until science can give you deeper and more coherent information.” We are still waiting.