Dec 11, 2013
What Do Women Want?
Posted on Jun 27, 2013
By Liza Mundy
One reason these scientists can get funding is that pharmaceutical companies are looking for a “female Viagra,” in the wake of the financial bonanza the male variety turned out to be. In one of the more depressing sections of Bergner’s book, he points out one impediment, however: the fear that such a drug might work too well. Among corporate reps and FDA bureaucrats, there is some concern about “creating the sexually aggressive woman,” presumably out of fear that mayhem would result, a lot of unreasonable demands would be made, and the collapse of Western civilization would finally happen. “There’s this idea of societal breakdown,” one adviser tells Bergner.
Reading both books, one reflects on how difficult it is for anybody to get at the innate truth of women’s sexual response, given the environments that women—and men—are exposed to. In the buses of India and the villages of Afghanistan and the barracks of the U.S. military, controlling and violating women’s sexuality remains a horribly frequent way of controlling women’s behavior, depriving them of autonomy and making it clear how unwelcome their presence can be. No wonder scientists who want to study women’s desire lock themselves in cinderblock labs to try to get at the essence. The thing is, such an environment cannot duplicate real life, with all its complexities and mixed messages.
Martin’s book is concerned with more than sexuality. His goal is to enlighten us about how our reproductive systems developed, with excursions into how other species have adapted. Fish and amphibians, he points out, can simply “release eggs and sperms into the water around them, and fertilization takes place naturally.” During millions of years of evolution, the fertilization and nourishment systems developed by birds, reptiles and mammals—eggs, wombs, pouches—are all, in their own way, responses to having left the water. To reproduce, we have to find a way to recreate the ocean within ourselves.
Among the more intriguing sections is Martin’s discussion of such puzzles as morning sickness: As humans developed a varied, omnivorous diet, it may be that morning sickness developed to protect the fetus from toxins. There are other interesting factoids: 2 a.m. is the peak time for labor to commence. A great many mammal mothers swallow their babies’ waste. Human babies cannot cling the way other primate babies can, but they do crave close contact, which is why they love being carried.
Not necessarily on purpose, both books illuminate the problem with attempts to understand our current reproductive behavior by looking at our evolutionary past. As Martin points out, the main reason males and females come together to produce offspring—the reason we don’t replicate asexually, by cloning—is that sexual reproduction gives us a chance to reshuffle the genetic deck, to mix up our gene line in response to “new selection pressures” brought on by changing environments. Often, theorists of mating behavior invoke our prehistoric origins: Oh, if that’s how the hunters and gatherers lived—men hunting, women seeking hunters—then that’s how humans are innately designed. But the very fact that humans have sex is proof that we are a forward-looking species, equipped to adapt and change.
Martin’s book also reminds us that things could have been different: If we had taken to laying eggs, like birds, how much easier professional life would have been for women; external incubation and feeding make it so much easier for Dad to pitch in from the get-go.
And some things still could change. Martin points out that there’s no good reason women have borne the brunt of contraception. Over the years, women have been expected to inject and insert and ingest any number of substances and devices in the interest of controlling family size. Whereas men—well, Martin shows that quite a few experiments have proved that warming the testes is effective. And there are so many ways to do it! Submerging men in hot water up to their necks, fitting insulated underwear, 30 minutes of exposure to a 150-watt light bulb, slings worn over the crotch for an extended time period: All these methods have been shown to lower sperm counts. “Heating testes is safe, effective, and reversible,” Martin points out.
For some reason, there is no evidence that the FDA is looking into this.
Liza Mundy is a Washington Post staff writer on leave, a fellow at the New America Foundation and the author of “The Richer Sex: How the New Majority of Female Breadwinners Is Transforming Sex, Love, and Family.” She can be reached at email@example.com.
©2013, Washington Post Book World Service/Washington Post Writers Group
Next item: Unpacking Paula Deen
New and Improved Comments