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What Do Women Want?

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Posted on Jun 27, 2013

By Liza Mundy

“What Do Women Want?: Adventures in the Science of Female Desire”
A book by Daniel Bergner

“How We Do It: The Evolution and Future of Human Reproduction”
A book by Robert Martin

Some 35 years ago, psychologists devised an experiment to gauge which gender is more interested in having casual sex. They sent a bunch of students, male and female, around the campus of Florida State and instructed them to ask strangers, “Would you go to bed with me tonight?” To this abrupt invitation, men who were approached usually said yes; women invariably said no.

Of course women said no! From a young age, females learn that a stranger who tells you he’s been noticing you lately and finds you attractive (this was also part of the script) is likely to be odd and scary, possibly dangerous, and the best response is to get away as fast as you can.

Astonishingly, this study still gets trotted out as evidence that women are less sexually driven than men; it is harnessed, even now, by proponents of evolutionary psychology and other theories holding that men are promiscuous animals whose reproductive strategy is to impregnate as many women as possible, while women are clinging creatures who want to enforce monogamy on men. Refuting this line of argument can put advocates of women’s sexual freedom in a bit of a bind, however: If you argue that women are in fact naturally promiscuous, or that women do crave random sex with strangers, or that women chafe at monogamy as much as men, is that really much of a feminist triumph?

Questions such as these have been engaged by a number of recent books, such as “Sex at Dawn” and “Mating in Captivity,” which explore the mystery of human sexuality, the problem of monogamy and the related distinctions—if there are any—between the genders. We seem to be at a cultural moment when our ever-lengthening life spans have illuminated the challenges of long-term pair-bonding, and newer technologies have enabled researchers to develop more sophisticated methods of measuring desire as well as its waning.

To the ranks of such books, add “How We Do It” by Robert Martin, a curator of biological anthropology at the Field Museum in Chicago, and “What Do Women Want?” by journalist Daniel Bergner. The first is a tour of the evolution of reproduction in humans and other primates; the second is an inquiry into female desire, which Bergner describes as an “underestimated and constrained force” that makes women far more attracted to strangers, and far less suited to a life of staid fidelity, than the evolutionary psychologists would like us to think.

Martin, who has spent his career among owl monkeys, bush babies, mouse lemurs and other primates, including college students, approaches the “Are humans monogamous?” mystery by considering anatomy. On the probably-not side of the equation, he points out that humans are sexually dimorphous; there tend to be significant differences in size between males and females. Dimorphism is also found in gorillas, which live in harems, and orangutans, which tend to be solitary and are not pair-bonding. Among those few primates, such as gibbons, that do monogamously pair-bond, males and females tend to be similar in size. Then again, male and female chimps are also close in size but shockingly wanton, so there is no clear rule of thumb.

Complicating the picture further, Martin points out that in human females, the oviduct—the passage where egg and sperm usually meet—is short, and, relatively speaking, human male testes are small. Both suggest that we are not designed for competitive copulation, in which the sperm of different males must race to reach the egg. So the design of our reproductive systems suggests that we are not built for promiscuity.

In short, here is what comparative primate anatomy tells us about whether humans are monogamous: nothing!

To see long excerpts from “What Do Women Want?” at Google Books, click here.

In Bergner’s book, some of the same questions are being explored by a growing number of female scientists, who, like those brave three female justices on the Supreme Court and the female members of the congressional Armed Services committees, are venturing into a historically male-dominated field. In this case, that would be the field of female sexual desire. Illustrating how monogamy can be a problem for women, Bergner profiles researchers, patients and other interview subjects whose mate dissatisfaction and elaborate fantasies belie the comment, made long ago by British gynecologist William Acton and quoted by Bergner, that “the majority of women, happily for society, are not very much troubled by sexual feeling of any kind.”

Countering the idea that men are far more open to sex with strangers, Bergner spends time with a number of scientists who are connecting women to devices, exposing them to pornography and other photos, monitoring their physical response and finding—lo and behold—that women are indeed turned on by images of men they don’t regularly have breakfast with. But this does not feel like much of a victory, since the female subjects we meet in passing talk mostly about what is wrong with their relationships and feelings and partners. Surely women could have been found who were not so bored and miserable, and if they had been, the book—which is making a valuable point—would have felt more balanced.


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