What Do Women Want? –
In What Do Women Want? Adventures in the Science of Female Desire, critically acclaimed journalist Daniel Bergner looks at the evidence.
Recent research, he finds, dismantles the myths to reveal an unprecedented portrait of female lust: the triggers, the fantasies, the mind-body connection, the reasons behind the loss of libido and, most revelatory, that this loss is not inevitable.
Daniel bergna welcome to booktopia thanks so nicely talking with you why is female desire so elusive and so little understood well a few things one it wasn't until about 10 or 15 years ago that a kind of critical mass of women scientists began looking at desire and another is that I think we men perhaps prep society as a whole have lived under some very convenient and soothing myths among them that while men are programmed by evolution to be promiscuous women at least relatively speaking program genetically to seek out wonder man so to be relatively well suited to not me that's so comforting to me I think it's comforting to society because of course it turns women into kind of a stabilizing force but the size does not back that up and it's probably time to let go of those myths what's interesting that you mentioned myths night because I was thinking about your book and thinking about we seem to be in kind of uncharted territory but with a lot of paradoxes we live in this hyper sexualized world where sex is a commodity that's on every billboard and saturating our popular culture and our consciousness but at the same time women are living for longer and and their whole world has become much more complex and much more liberated and so maybe maybe lust is not meant to last a lifetime maybe our expectations are completely false and have been developed by media and by pop culture I think so many of our expectations turn out to be preconceptions that get in a way of understanding I think that's what this book is really all about a few things come to mind what got me started on the book was walking into the lab of a woman named Meredith chippers who was and I'll be brief about it he has a lot more fascinating detail in the book who was showing women a wide array of pornography and measuring their responses both physically very intimately and subjectively via keep had where they could rate their own state of being turned on or not well when they raided their own state of arousal their ratings were very limited to a certain type of preferred pornography and everything else was a no your bodies were responding very powerfully and immediately to a wide array of images and it was just one of many points in what's become a kind of eight-year conversation with a wide range of researchers now for me it was one of many points where there was this vast disparity that seemed to speak to either a kind of conscious denial on woman's part about their response to sexual imagery or something more subtle that's still powerful kind of filtering and it made the researchers and me begin to wonder about the forces of culture and how even though we seem to live in a very sexually liberated society and we should be naive about that we certainly do but that there's still something different for girls and for women a different level lesser level of permission that women have to be sexual what swear to demand that is one of the most fascinating things in your book I must say is that kind of disconnect between what's going on in the brain and what's going on in terms of where the blood is kind of collecting in the body it's it's extraordinary and fascinating that there are also some riveting chapters let's move away from women in terms of the sort of fun science and experiment and talk about what we can learn from monkeys and rats right so most of the book is about women it's really a combination of science and then threaded through that science the stories of individual women who I spent lots of time with I but yes I take a detour into the animal kingdom to see what we can learn they're monkeys okay um for so long we've been taught that males are the aggressors and monkey politics males the generals and monkey warfare and males the sort of stalkers the initiators in monkey sexuality absolutely not so it's as though because of what we expected to see and because perhaps what we wish to see we were blind to what was right in front of us so I went down and spent about a week at a the foremost primatology Center in the States and I got very attached to this one monkey who became a character in the book um she's the most reserved monkey in the compound she's also an extraordinarily strongly bonded mother so all the staff at that center was very enamored of her but the funny thing was is that when she had her eyes set on a particular male monkey nothing nothing was going to get the way she was the stalker she was very much the objective fire her babies once tend to do so carefully were out of the picture for her entirely and one more funny thing about it is that the primatology director had to cycle out male monkeys out of the compound every three years bring in new ones because the females who initiate all the sexual action group or males at about the three-year mark same thing happens in the wild it's a terrific indication of what we might want to think about when it comes to human beings it's just one other misconception I want to note here hearing that some people leap too well but the female monkeys just one appropriate this is about having babies this is not not how evolution works evolution does not tell the female monkey to think I want to have a baby so far as we know monkeys do not have that kind of complex cognition saying it's my time now let me procreate now they're programmed for pleasure this is very much about desire you mentioned the rats same thing there we can learn so much because as simple as the mechanism is it's still a mechanism about female pleasure and female desire that then drives rat sexuality to to be on the female side very aggressive quite initiative and again provides a kind of lesson begins to sort of take away the blinders a bit and allow us to see ourselves as human beings differently now one thing I'm really curious about Daniel it's fine when you're in a lab with monkeys and with rats but as you say the book is full of conversations that you've had very candid conversations that you've had very revealing conversations with women how did you find that these women accepted you and trusted you given that you're a man I would have thought that being a man in this field would be a disadvantage I think we should acknowledge it is a disadvantage in one way I can't finally completely cross this subjective divide between genders but what i can do is bring absolute ignorance to bear um and a real sincerity of questioning like i want to know and i think that the women the way I work is that you know with all my books is to speak with lots and lots of people and then sort of narrow thing down and in this case spend time you know as much as every week we would meet for a couple of hours you know throughout a year or longer to then be able to tell the stories of these individual women's erotic laws and I think there was something about my honest wish to know and their wish to be understood that allowed for those conversations to become so intimate you know just for one example there's the story of Isabelle I did I changed nothing except the names I wanted to just protect their privacy in that way um the story of is know who's very much in love with her boyfriend who thinks of him as sort of perfect he's handsome he's smart he's sensitive he's very good in bed she loves waking up to him ins with him and staring into his eyes very closely but somewhere along the line she's lost her desire for him very much lost and awaits his marriage proposal with a measure of dread and so as we were talking it became sort of okay what's gonna happen you know and eventually he does propose and anywhere let readers find out the outcome but so what what have you learned from all of this about the problem of familiarity breeding contempt and about the whole structure of monogamy that the structure of monogamy is really problematic I think we all know that to some degree I think what we fail to focus on is that it is at least equally problematic in some ways more so for women than for men I think again it's very nice for men to feel that they're the ones burdened with monogamy but that women are somehow okay with it half the population thus becomes the kind of calming entity um so there's a I think there's a threat within the book in a sense or an unsettling sort of current within the bunk and that is that we probably need to have a much more candid conversation about what monogamy means I think we're torn as people I can often hear myself sounding very unromantic and I think people some polyamorous expect me to carry the banner of polyamory that's not really me but what I do want to explore is this paradox between our wish for love our wish for even unconditional love I wish for forever and on the other hand our wish for lust and our wished for ecstasy our wish to be outside ourselves to be all those things we long for in sex with eros and it's that tension i think that the book explores absolutely and and just when you think it can't get any more fascinating the final chapter on speed dating is an absolute revelation so what do you discover from the speed dating experiment the speeding experiment is just to me a little gem that is an emblem of what the rest of the book explores more deeply so in actual speed dating almost always the women sit at little tables or a long a bank cat and the men come along approach sit down have their three or five or eight min a day whatever it is the end of the evening the women in the men check off whether they want a second date a real day and researchers have replicated this I and used it to confirm that men are more promiscuous they check off for more second dates and women much more choosy well it's like one of these things that's fascinating to me that I think happens all the time in science in really high quality sites where researchers no matter how good fail to see past the convention it took two researchers who find civil wait a sec and why are we replicating the conventional scenario by which men approach they flipped around at the men along the banquette the women approached and sure enough it completely changes the dynamic suddenly women are checking off as many second dates as men and the researchers at a desire measure and the women are expressing suddenly as much desire as men do so it just really emphasizes how social scripts so expectations affect something even so primal that's the way we experience desire so now the whole quest for female desire has become big business for Big Pharma I mean we talk about pink viagra do you think that we will ever be able to put the magic formula for women's desire into a pill well the very quick answer is to some degree yes I do within the next couple of years or so but there's a huge qualification to that the market for this drug will be women in long-term relationships no one likes to talk about this but all the pharmaceutical companies will acknowledge it off the record why because let's face it if you're fairly attracted to your date and you're going out with him for the third or fourth or fifth time you're probably going to feel some or a lot of desire the desire tales often and they're really striking almost alarming studies that show how it tails off in long-term relationships the desire tails off long-term and so the drugs the market which in America has made about four billion dollars a year will be consists of women in long-term relationships women who are who are married so the answer is yes but what was striking to me is that it's actually I think a more conservative drug a much more conservative drug drug about preserving status quo rather than a kind of revolutionary drunk I can't help but notice Daniel that I do not see a ring on your on your finger are you not married because this research is pretty well here's what this research is done I mean a semi long-term monogamous relationship of about five years and at this point I expect my partner's desire for me to tail off at any moment so I always look across the bed and just wondering how much longer I have left Daniel business thank you for sharing some of the time you have left with us thank you it's been great stock with you you