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Admittedly, I was a little put off just by the title of this book, well, not the title but the author, Daniel Bergner. My first thought was, how dare a man write a book on what women want. How dare anyone write a book on what half the population wants, sexually.
That was an unfair and prejudiced assessment.
In What Do Women Want? Bergner allows the case studies of real women guide his quest for the scientific makeup of the sexuality of a woman. He is ultimately faced with the reality that sexual repression has not only stunted the sexual health of women, but also of the study of women’s sexuality.
In Chapter 1, Bergner opens in the lab of Meredith Chivers, a researcher at Queen’s University in Ontario, Canada. Chivers has been one of the sole researchers exclusively studying women’s sexual arousal in order to treat women’s sexual and psychological conditions.
Her studies involve an instrument called a photo-plethysmograph, an object inserted in womens’ vaginas to measure sexual arousal. In men she used a version designed to encase the penis, which also measures arousal.
Chivers then has her subjects relax in a recliner and watch a variety of pornography, interspersed with panning majestic landscapes as palette cleansers. One notable scene is of two bonobos having sex.
What she found is fascinating but not surprising: men are aroused by sexuality-specific stimuli, as in gay men were turned on by men and straight men were turned on by women. Women, on the other hand, were turned on by everything.
Bergner compares this research to a study by Terri Fisher, a psychologist at Ohio State University, where a sample of 200 college students were asked about masturbation and porn. What she found was evident of the sexual paradigm most women everywhere exist in today:
“…It left no doubt as to the constraints most women feel about acknowledging the intensity of their libidos… Fisher, meanwhile, was emphatic about the contortions imposted, the compressions enforced. ‘Being a human who is sexual, who is allowed to be sexual, is a freedom accorded by society much more readily to males than to females.’ Her lie detector [used in the study] was unequivocal.” (Chapter 2: Bodies and Minds)
Bergner goes on to try to dissect the anomaly that women are inherently more sexual than men but less likely to admit it, even to themselves. He uses religion as an explanation by citing biblical references towards possession and ownership of a woman, and most important, a woman’s womb.
He shows how the evolution towards today’s sexual repression is still so pervasive in today’s society– from pharmaceutical labs spending billions to develop boner pills while legitimate researchers such as Chivers have been laughed off as sex-obsessed vixens.
He also looks at the pervasiveness of the rape fantasy. Unfortunately, it must be defined that just because so many women fantasize about rape, does not mean they want to be raped. By definition, no one wants to be raped. He delves into the psychology behind the fantasy through interviews with women who have them:
“I started masturbating when I was around ten or eleven– the most common one back then was a middle-aged bald man while I was chemically paralyzed. Receiving pleasure wasn’t my fault it I was being raped; I didn’t have to explain to myself to Jesus or my parents. The, when I started having sex with my husband, it turned out the orgasm was kind of a lot of work. It was very important to him that I have one whenever we have sex, and sex with him was nice, but orgasm required that I fantasize. Reenter the bald man.” (Chapter 6: The Alley)
The research into women’s sexuality is still in its infancy, but what is known is that women have more animal desire for sex than men and religions and governments throughout time have institutionalized the repression of women, forced them to be ashamed of their sexuality rather than embrace it the way a man would.
Bergner paints the spectrum of female sexuality brilliantly, and not at all in a way that feels uncomfortable coming from a man. He presents womens’ own stories, and in doing so evidences the necessary role of sex in the lives of all humans.
Women in the lab don’t just have a lot of catching up to do, but so do we all as a society. It’s time to look at the sexual health of all genders as part of overall wellness, and Bergner declared this point with precision.
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