It’s long been clear that men don’t understand women. But could it be possible that even women don’t understand women? Daniel Bergner tackles just that question in his new book What Do Women Want. And what he’s found might surprise you. Think the female body is hard-wired for long-term monogamous relationships, intimacy, and babies? Think again. Bergner dished on all of our burning questions.
SHAPE: What led you to explore the female sex drive?
Daniel Bergner (DB): It's always hard for a writer to sort out what took him or her down a certain path. Eight years ago, I stumbled into the lab of Meredith Chivers, who was, as she says, "shaking the foundations of the way we think about women's sexuality." In putting it this way, she isn't being egotistical. Just accurate. As a journalist, it was impossible to turn away from that kind of endeavor. I wanted to learn more. And then I sensed that we, as a culture, might be lying to ourselves about certain things, like women being better hard-wired than men for monogamy. So I started spending my time with a range of scientists, most of them women. And meanwhile I interviewed women every day about their sexual lives so that I could tell their stories in the book.
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SHAPE: It used to be universally accepted that women need to orgasm for conception to occur. What are a few other big historical misconceptions about women's sexual longings?
DB: Where to begin? One is so basic it's almost funny—almost. Until quite recently, scientists managed to ignore the reach of the clitoris, the nerve-rich extensions that run just beneath the surface of the skin that are primed for pleasure, that rival the size of the penis, and that can be stimulated through the vaginal wall. Helen O'Connell, the urologist who finally called attention to the clitoris's sprawl, said this about the averted eyes of science: "It boils down to the idea that one sex is sexual and the other is reproductive." Thus we made ourselves blind to simple anatomy.
SHAPE: How have your findings changed the old notion that women are hard-wired for intimacy and babies? Do you think the findings will ever merge their way into society?
DB: My book questions these old assumptions partly by looking at a series of provocative experiments and partly just by listening to women. And I've been happy that the book seems to have sparked an important and searching discussion. But whether we'll ever fully accept a new paradigm, I don't know. For so long we—men and women—have been comforted by the idea of emotional closeness as the key spark for women's desire—it's so soothing to believe that women serve as a kind of social glue. And of course the idea that the female libido is somehow less raw than the male version, that's really comforting for men.
SHAPE: Is there a way a woman can keep up her libido if she's in a monogamous relationship?
DB: Men bring home all the sexual energy of the day, all the brief glances and thoughts that they've been encouraged to entertain since they were nearing puberty. Women haven't been raised with the same permission and I think this is part of the issue. There probably isn't a perfect solution, but fantasy belongs high on the list of suggestions.
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SHAPE: Is a long-term monogamous relationship to blame for lower female libido or is it something else? Are we so hard-wired to need passion and excitement with multiple people that trying to keep things spicy in the bedroom won’t cut it?
DB: It can be jarring to look at what few studies we have of desire within long-term relationships. Some of the samples include a lot of couples—the results don't seem to be a fluke, and they show female desire, on average, plummeting within committed pairs. So women who feel this are well within the norm.
SHAPE: Do you agree that there are social confines that lead women to believe they want one thing when really their bodies want something else? How do you suggest women work around that to figure out what they really want and to embrace it?
DB: No question there's a consistent gap between what women say turns them on and what their bodies say—this comes up over and over again in Chivers' lab. And no question that, even in our seemingly unrestrained society, constraints are placed on women's sexuality. It's important to point out that the body isn't the only "truth" of desire. For that matter, science can't tell us everything about our psyches. But this gap between body and mind is a wake-up call to pay closer attention, to be willing to explore desire more candidly.
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SHAPE: What has the male reaction to your book been compared to the female reaction?
DB: A little bit of trepidation. Maybe more than a little bit. But I hope that when people, men and women, finish the book, the main aftereffect will be some electric conversation and a new perspective on who we are as human beings.