Women’s sexuality — to men and sometimes to women themselves — is a variegated, powerful, and often mysterious force. Society has sought to contain it, scientists seek to explain it, and no one has yet teased out all the links between biology, emotion, social mores, and female sexual response.
Neither Daniel Bergner nor Katherine Angel manages that feat either. Bergner does, however, offer useful glimpses of the current laboratory science of female sexuality, along with a misleading caricature of evolutionary psychology and a titillating collection of fantasies. And Angel presents a meditation on desire that combines the intellectual and the confessional.
The findings highlighted by Bergner in “What Do Women Want?” — an expanded version of his well-received 2009 New York Times Magazine cover story — bear a close resemblance to classic male fantasies about female insatiability, sexual fluidity, and desire. If Bergner and the scientists he interviews are correct, the ever-ready-to-be-ravished women of porn films are truer to life than the typical romantic heroine, saving herself for the right man and remaining true to him for eternity.
“[W]omen’s desire — its inherent range and innate power — is an underestimated and constrained force,” Bergner writes. What’s more, he says, “this force is not, for the most part, sparked or sustained by emotional intimacy and safety.” And, finally, there is this explosive conclusion: “[O]ne of our most comforting assumptions, soothing perhaps above all to men but clung to by both sexes, that female eros is much better made for monogamy than male libido, is scarcely more than a fairy tale.”
Bergner draws support for these assertions from both the frontiers of experimental sexology, which relies on techniques such as the measurement of genital blood flow, and the fantasies of anonymous women.
With evident relish, Bergner details the explicit imaginings of women who dream of being overcome by force by men who are themselves overcome by desire. Bergner presents these rape fantasies as though they are both revelatory and revolutionary.
In fact, though inappropriate for newspaper quotation, they won’t shock anyone familiar with the pioneering work of Nancy Friday, who first cataloged female sexual fantasies in the 1970s and later theorized that feminism had transformed women’s inner lives. Bergner argues instead that feminism has only added a layer of guilt, a fear of political incorrectness that plagues even women scientists.
Those scientists, he says, are primarily essentialists who tend to minimize the impact of culture. They seem to extrapolate rather freely from the aggressive sexual tactics seen in female rats and monkeys and don’t fret unduly about differences between the laboratory environment and more emotionally complex real-life settings.
Those distinctions may elude scientific inquiry. But it seems fair to say that physical inclinations are one thing, actions another. And that female desire exists in the space between the two — a way of clarifying, for instance, that being turned on by images of rape is not the same as desiring rape.
Bergner dismisses evolutionary psychology for purveying what he claims is a crude view of male and female differences. In fact, the latest research suggests female sexual strategies are complicated — that women may gravitate toward both the security and resources of a long-term partner and the “good genes” offered by highly attractive, roguish men.
Among Bergner’s informants is sexologist Meredith Chivers, who sets female subjects to work watching pornography while she measures blood flow to the vagina and, by extension, arousal. Her conclusion is that “the female libido looked omnivorous,” responding excitedly to lesbian, gay, heterosexual, and even bonobo couplings. Yet women’s self-reports of their response, using a keypad, were more selective, conforming more closely to social expectations and their professed orientations.
Bergner writes of Chivers, a psychology professor at Queen’s University, in Kingston, Ontario: “She saw the culture’s relentless sculpting of women’s sexuality, but her mission was always to look past that, to seek and examine what lay beyond society’s reach.”
In questioning the allure and efficacy of monogamy, Bergner presents anecdotes about the challenges faced by couples in long-term marriages, as well as experiments suggesting that, while women value familiarity, they also need some distance to fuel desire. But accounting for declining lust in marriage is a complicated endeavor. How can Bergner discuss the “wan realities of many women’s bedrooms” without assessing the role played by men — as skilled or unskilled lovers, as generous or selfish romantic mates?
Bergner does well to problematize stereotypical views about female sexuality. But his jaunty book doesn’t nail down any conclusions, as he admits. His sexual scientists are “acutely aware of the layers of unknowns,” he writes, and, in this poorly funded field, “of the impediments to getting beneath.”
Katherine Angel’s “Unmastered,” whose title is borrowed from Virginia Woolf, is a different sort of book entirely. Although Angel is a research fellow at the University of London her volume is highly personal — an intimate prose poem that probes the mysteries of female desire.
Angel’s confessions of her own ravenous, almost unhinged desire and need to submit to her lover could constitute an appendix to Bergner’s account. “Misogynistic, coercive, tacky porn isn’t necessarily unerotic ,” Angel writes. In fact, “these trysts, these dead-eyed unions . . . irritate me, if rather joylessly, into action. The lubricious body has run ahead, has jumped through the hoops, and got what it wanted.”
Despite her best efforts, Angel cannot separate nature from nurture: “I was weaned on this — the . . . brutal man; the yielding, deferring woman . . . So, by the way, were you.” Yet at times gender constraints recede, and she feels “hungry, and excited . . . like a man.”
For Angel, feminism is both consoling and limiting. It “contained my sexuality, the danger it posed to myself and others, by cloaking it with ambivalence.” Yet she also acknowledges that “fantasies — of submission, abandon, extremity — stand hand on hip daring the feminism of my youthful politics to stifle them.”
Both Bergner and Angel fancy themselves voyagers in the realm of female sexuality. But while Bergner seems most comfortable reducing the drive to biological basics, Angel embraces its contradictions, grappling with the impossibility of extricating fact from feeling.
A Book on Desire, Most Difficult to Tell
By Katherine Angel
Farrar, Straus and Giroux,
349 pp., $26
Julia M. Klein is a cultural reporter and critic in Philadelphia and a contributing editor at Columbia Journalism Review. E-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on Twitter at @JuliaMKlein.