“The investigation of women’s sexual psyches is, with the exception of pharmaceutical quests, dismally funded, supported in strangely inverse proportion to its importance. Eros lies at the heart of who we are as human beings, yet we shun the study of our essential core, shun it perhaps most of all where it is least understood, in women. Where there should be an abundance of exploration, there is, instead, common assumption, unproven theory, political constraint, varieties of blindness.”
In What Do Women Want? Daniel Bergner looks to the science to see if it justifies the commonly held belief that women “crave closeness and commitment” in their relationships and are therefore better suited to monogamy than men. To answer this question, he examines the available studies on female sexuality and sexual desire. The length of this volume is tellingly slim; the study of female sexuality is still underfunded and taboo. However, many of the available studies suggest that our conventional wisdom is tied up in old-fashioned beliefs and taboos about the role of women.
As Bergner points out, so few of the leading scientists in this field come from prestigious institutions or have received significant funding. Meredith Chivers, one of the main researchers featured in the book, returned to Canada after completing her undergraduate degree in the United States, partly because her area of study was less taboo. One exception to the funding drought is the search for a female equivalent to Viagra. But even in this area, research bends to a twisted double standard. The search has largely been elusive, although there have been some promising trials. In one case, while the company was very hopeful that the human trials would prove their drug worked, they were also highly concerned that the drug not be too effective, lest it seem like it was turning mothers and daughters into sex-crazed nymphomaniacs.
Bergner’s descriptions of the studies are short and accessible, although his attempts to evoke the eroticism of the pornographic clips or photos used in the studies fall short and come across as somewhat awkward. He also has a tendency to interweave his narration, starting a story, abandoning it a key juncture, then moving off on a related subject, before returning to the story, by which time you’ve forgotten where you started. Although Bergner criticizes relying on “common assumption” and “unproven theory,” rather than scientific data, he speculates freely himself (see page 81, for example) and draws conclusions based on the anecdotes of the women he interviewed, which is hardly sound scientific practice. The book concludes abruptly with a sense of incompletion, perhaps because the research is incomplete, and there are still far more questions than answers, but also because Bergner has failed to situate his argument on squarely on solid ground.
Already read What Do Women Want? I recommend Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex by Mary Roach.