Review: 'What Do Women Want?'

This is probably the oddest possible review of a book about the science of women’s sexuality, coming, as it does, from someone who is currently writing a book about the science of women’s sexuality – coming, too, from a woman, and from a person trained as a sex researcher, counselor, and educator.

1. There’s just something indefinably distasteful about a man’s voice recounting women’s fantasies of submission, women’s experiences of not desiring their husbands, women’s insecurities about their bodies.

2. There’s something a little distateful, too, I found in reading Daniel Bergner’s book, about a man describing the physical appearance of sex researchers. Like Meredith Chivers’ boots (right there on page 1) and Marta Meana’s round face (p. 81), Rosemary Basson’s “feathery brown hair cropped above her ears” (p. 111). It’s a little creepy feeling. In fairness, we hear about Kim Wallen’s beard (p. 43) and Jim Pfaus’s beard, and indeed his earring (p. 52), and Adriaan Tuiten’s rumpled hair (p. 184), but still… it’s a little creepy feeling.

3. Beyond the distastefulness, and I think feeding into The Creepy, is the narrative Bergner constructed around the research. He utterly failed to depart the cultural narrative; he used cutting edge research to tell the same old story – culture battling the hurricane that is women’s unbridled sexual energy, culture insisting it’s nothing at all, until women themselves believe it – or say they believe it – though their bodies belie their words.

He saw in the research only what his culture has prepared him to see: women’s genitals respond to a wide array of stimuli, women report more sex partners when they believe they’re attached to a lie detector, women fantasize about sexual submission, women get bored with their husbands… therefore women’s self-involved and highly active sexual “natures” have been oppressed by culture. Women are liars, therefore. As we knew, didn’t we, all along. But oppressed liars.

(My sense that this is what a reader will conclude from reading the book is confirmed by the Amazon reviews and the various fawning reviews online.)

I find this both boring and frustrating.

4. Perhaps, though, what I really respond to in the book is a non-sex-researcher’s representation of what it is like to be a sex researcher. I know what it is like to be a sex researcher, know it from the inside – when I go back to visit Indiana and Kinsey, it feels like stepping into a cool shower on a hot summer day. To be surrounded by the world of sex research is to be surrounded by apples in flatland. At Kinsey, the sense of alienation I often feel when I talk about sex, disappears. It’s one of only a few places where I feel intellectually at home.

I think Bergner tried to write about what it feels like to step into the world of sex research, and if what he wrote accurately reflects a non-researchers experience in that community… it just feels tremendously depressing. It feels alientating. It reinforces my periodic despair over the hopelessness of trying to bridge the ever-growing gap between what sciences knows (and how it thinks) about sex and what the general public believes.

5. Okay pop quiz for long-time readers of the blog:

For many centuries, it was believed that female orgasm was necessary for conception. Is this because:

A. Women’s sexual pleasure was inherently valued;\ B. Orgasm actually IS necessary for conception, which is why no woman who didn’t have an orgasm with intercourse ever got pregnant; or\ C. Male scientists and physicians assumed that female reproductive functioning was, when healthy, pretty much just like male sexual functioning

HINT: Bergner makes the same faulty assumption, which goes unchallenged throughout the book.

All righty then.

Conclusion: The whole book feels tremendously depressing. If you’re a woman, I’m going to recommend that you read this book if you’re looking to get pissed off about stuff. And given recent events, I’m going to recommend that you find something more important to get pissed off about.

And if you’re someone who wants to learn the answer to the titular question, “What Do Women Want?”… well. Read the original research until next year, when my book comes out. Mine will not be boring, depressing, or indeed wrong.