What Do Women Want? By DANIEL BERGNER
Published: January 22, 2009 (Page 7 of 8)
“Female desire,” Meana said, speaking broadly and not only about her dyspareunic patients, “is not governed by the relational factors that, we like to think, rule women’s sexuality as opposed to men’s.” She finished a small qualitative study last year consisting of long interviews with 20 women in marriages that were sexually troubled. Although bad relationships often kill desire, she argued, good ones don’t guarantee it. She quoted from one participant’s representative response: “We kiss. We hug. I tell him, ‘I don’t know what it is.’ We have a great relationship. It’s just that one area” — the area of her bed, the place desolated by her loss of lust.
The generally accepted therapeutic notion that, for women, incubating intimacy leads to better sex is, Meana told me, often misguided. “Really,” she said, “women’s desire is not relational, it’s narcissistic” — it is dominated by the yearnings of “self-love,” by the wish to be the object of erotic admiration and sexual need. Still on the subject of narcissism, she talked about research indicating that, in comparison with men, women’s erotic fantasies center less on giving pleasure and more on getting it. “When it comes to desire,” she added, “women may be far less relational than men.”
Like Chivers, Meana thinks of female sexuality as divided into two systems. But Meana conceives of those systems in a different way than her colleague. On the one hand, as Meana constructs things, there is the drive of sheer lust, and on the other the impetus of value. For evolutionary and cultural reasons, she said, women might set a high value on the closeness and longevity of relationships: “But it’s wrong to think that because relationships are what women choose they’re the primary source of women’s desire.”
Meana spoke about two elements that contribute to her thinking: first, a great deal of data showing that, as measured by the frequency of fantasy, masturbation and sexual activity, women have a lower sex drive than men, and second, research suggesting that within long-term relationships, women are more likely than men to lose interest in sex. Meana posits that it takes a greater jolt, a more significant stimulus, to switch on a woman’s libido than a man’s. “If I don’t love cake as much as you,” she told me, “my cake better be kick-butt to get me excited to eat it.” And within a committed relationship, the crucial stimulus of being desired decreases considerably, not only because the woman’s partner loses a degree of interest but also, more important, because the woman feels that her partner is trapped, that a choice — the choosing of her — is no longer being carried out.
A symbolic scene ran through Meana’s talk of female lust: a woman pinned against an alley wall, being ravished. Here, in Meana’s vision, was an emblem of female heat. The ravisher is so overcome by a craving focused on this particular woman that he cannot contain himself; he transgresses societal codes in order to seize her, and she, feeling herself to be the unique object of his desire, is electrified by her own reactive charge and surrenders. Meana apologized for the regressive, anti-feminist sound of the scene.
Yet while Meana minimized the role of relationships in stoking desire, she didn’t dispense with the sexual relevance, for women, of being cared for and protected. “What women want is a real dilemma,” she said. Earlier, she showed me, as a joke, a photograph of two control panels, one representing the workings of male desire, the second, female, the first with only a simple on-off switch, the second with countless knobs. “Women want to be thrown up against a wall but not truly endangered. Women want a caveman and caring. If I had to pick an actor who embodies all the qualities, all the contradictions, it would be Denzel Washington. He communicates that kind of power and that he is a good man.”
After our discussion of the alley encounter, we talked about erotic — as opposed to aversive — fantasies of rape. According to an analysis of relevant studies published last year in The Journal of Sex Research, an analysis that defines rape as involving “the use of physical force, threat of force, or incapacitation through, for example, sleep or intoxication, to coerce a woman into sexual activity against her will,” between one-third and more than one-half of women have entertained such fantasies, often during intercourse, with at least 1 in 10 women fantasizing about sexual assault at least once per month in a pleasurable way.
The appeal is, above all, paradoxical, Meana pointed out: rape means having no control, while fantasy is a domain manipulated by the self. She stressed the vast difference between the pleasures of the imagined and the terrors of the real. “I hate the term ‘rape fantasies,’ ” she went on. “They’re really fantasies of submission.” She spoke about the thrill of being wanted so much that the aggressor is willing to overpower, to take. “But ‘aggression,’ ‘dominance,’ I have to find better words. ‘Submission’ isn’t even a good word” — it didn’t reflect the woman’s imagining of an ultimately willing surrender. [...]
“So many cultures have quite strict codes governing female sexuality,” Chivers said. “If that sexuality is relatively passive, then why so many rules to control it? Why is it so frightening?” There was the implication, in her words, that she might never illuminate her subject because she could not even see it, that the data she and her colleagues collect might be deceptive, might represent only the creations of culture, and that her interpretations might be leading away from underlying truth.
There was the intimation that, at its core, women’s sexuality might not be passive at all. There was the chance that the long history of fear might have buried the nature of women’s lust too deeply to unearth, to view. « Previous Page 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 Next Page » Daniel Bergner is a contributing writer for the magazine. His new book, “The Other Side of Desire: Four Journeys Into the Far Realms of Lust and Longing,” will be published this month. More Articles in Magazine » A version of this article appeared in print on January 25, 2009, on page MM26 of the New York edition.