Daniel Bergner’s What Do Women Want? is at once an exploration of female desire and a powerful commentary on how society minimizes and distorts it.
Review by Unmana Datta
I was a little wary of this book – a treatise on female sexuality, written by a man? A title that reflects so many jokes on how a woman is the Inscrutable Other, not a person (also, a very bad movie)? Would it be another voice adding to the noise, telling women how they are supposed to feel?
But this book isn’t any of these things (except for the first, of course). It is a frank exploration of female (mostly heterosexual) sexuality and desire, a discussion of various new studies in the field that reveal hitherto ignored dimensions of lust for women.
In fact, the book posits that female sexuality has been largely minimized and ignored because society is uncomfortable with it. So studies in female sexuality have tried to bolster up existing prejudices rather than explore the facts. Bergner touches upon the role of religious leaders in moulding such thoughts, leading to hilarious lines in the book such as: “England’s early Protestant clergy prescribed conjugal relations exactly three times per month, with a week off for menstruation.”
Bergner also questions the role of society’s expectations and prejudices on human behaviour. He points out that social conditioning may have much to do with why “judging by appearances – men are the more lustful gender.” He asks: “If promiscuity were considered normal in teenage girls and not in teenage boys, if it were lauded in girls and condemned as slutty and distasteful in boys, if young women instead of young men were encouraged to collect notches on their belts, how might the lives of females and males be different?”
In the studies Bergner cites, the effect of social conditioning becomes apparent in the difference between when women responded anonymously and when they didn’t. Many speed-dating studies discovered a difference between the genders in how selective they are in accepting dates; one study made the women take the more assertive position of moving across the tables to talk to men seated at them, and found the differences disappeared.
What Bergner posits, from his exploration of many studies in the field, is not just that women are as lustful as men, but something even more radical: that they are not suited to monogamy, that they are bored by being with the same partner. That women crave newness and variety, and the dwindling desire that is often considered “inevitable” and a symptom of a woman’s lack of interest in sex as opposed to her interest in emotional connection, actually seems a symptom of a woman’s desire to mate with more partners.
Much as I liked this book, I have a few reservations about it. A book that claims to explain “what women really want” seems to be prescribing what women should want (or at least, what “normal” women want), even though it is a new prescription. It doesn’t hurt to point out that every woman is different, and the author seems to spend too little time exploring women who don’t fit the norm. My other gripe is that the book is focused on heterosexuality: all the stories are about women who are in long-term heterosexual relationships.
Yet, this is a book that explodes stereotypes. A book that explains very powerfully that all the policing of women’s sexuality has had an effect – in getting women to hide what they really feel.
Publishers: Ecco Press
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Unmana is interested in gender, literature and relationships, and writes about everything she's interested
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