Science of Sex

What Women Want: A Primer

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You may have noticed the recent ruckus caused by What Do Women Want? by Daniel Bergner. The author isn’t a woman, but he’s a hell of a writer, and he’s not afraid to muck about in sacred areas of monogamy and women’s sexuality. We thought we’d bring you some of the good bits, before you actually buy yourself a copy (which you should).

1. It’s Complicated

The short answer: Who the &*%$ knows. Science-wise, the study of women’s sexuality is still at the baking soda and vinegar volcano stage. The field is underfunded and plagued by the idea that it’s a little pervy. It’s politically volatile and upsetting findings are assailed by both the right and left, and, not to rat out the sisters, but women are confusing. Our sexuality is a confusing morass of still-poorly understood biological reactions, psychology and societal expectations. Only recently scientists have discovered and mapped the extensive internal parts of the clitoris, there’s no agreement on whether or not the G-spot even exists, and some women can just think their way to orgasm. However…


2. Women are way more visual than they let on—or even realize.

Researchers hooked men and women up to genital arousal monitoring devices and showed them a variety of porn—a man masturbating, a man and woman having sex, even a pair of bonobo apes getting it on. The heterosexual men reported being most turned on by scenes of women with women, women alone, and men with women. (Homosexual men, same deal but with the orientations reversed.) Women, however, were actually turned on by it all, even the monkey sex. Did the women really not know what was going on with their bodies, or where they just embarrassed to admit that they were more turned on by bonobo hard-ons than a strolling naked man? Keep in mind that the women in this study were liberated enough to watch porn in a lab with wires hooked up to their groins.


3. Monogamy turns women off.

After one to four years of monogamy, a woman’s desire for her partner drops far more dramatically than a man’s. (This effect is markedly reduced if the couple lives apart.) The once white-hot passion of early love often turns into muted, dutiful sex or trying to avoid sex altogether. One woman in the book described marital sex thus: “My body would respond, but the pleasure was like the pleasure of returning library books.”


4. Women want to be sexually dominated, perhaps even violently—oh, calm down—in their fantasies.

Fantasies of being forced into sex are pretty damn common among women, even feminists. Some theories:  that neural circuits in the brain for terror and sexual arousal are interwoven; that being dominated absolves women of responsibility for doing “dirty” things; or most intriguingly, that women are most turned on by being hotly desired. Yes: Being desired is what turns a woman on. A man so overcome with passion that he forces himself on a woman is the epitome of this. In fantasy, remember.


5. A woman’s desire is stoked by sex with strangers, not a devoted soul mate.

Women like novelty. They like it in pornography, in their sexual encounters and in lovers. A sexually sated female scorpion (smoking her tiny scorpion cigarette) will not want to have sex with the same scorpion until 48 hours later. But give her a sexy new scorpion lover and she’s ready to go in an hour and half.  The matriarchal Mosuo tribe accommodates this desire by providing females with a flower room where they can privately receive their lovers. See also: Five Things We Know About Societies Run By Women. In other words, that book Porn for Women featuring pictures of men doing housework is not only a tired one-joke premise, but crap biologically as well.


6. “Unexcited? There may be a pill for that.”

Drug companies are desperately working on a pill to make women want to have sex with their husbands. Bergner’s recent New York Times Magazine article saying just that is already stirring up controversy from people who think we’re already too drugged, that we are treating women’s natural sexual tendencies as a “problem” and so forth.  However, that fight is probably already over. Women are desperate for the thing and developing a pill is a lot easier than accommodating women’s true variety-seeking, porn-liking, non-monogamous nature.


7. Clitoris-Brusher Wanted

This is kind of off-topic, but there is actually a job in which the duties include arousing female rats by stroking their clitorises with a tiny brush. If you are feeling bad about your life today in any way, I offer you that, by way of comparison.



Jill Hamilton writes In Bed With Married Women, a blog about sex. Her work has appeared in Jezebel, Rolling Stone, and the Los Angeles Times. Follow @Jill_Hamilton.

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