We asked Natasha Mhatre, a biologist currently based in the UK to review thc new, buzzy, highly excerptable book What Do Women Want? Adventures in the Science of Female Desire. Mhatre responded with two letters. One to us, the potential readers. And one to the author. Read on, Macduff.
How could I say this more plainly? Read Daniel Bergner’s, What do Women Want? You’ll like it. You’ll like his sensibilities, the insights he draws from the science, his politics too. There is nuance here. You’ll be amused at his gentle berating of polyamory as “feminist approved” sexuality. You’ll like his stories of unhappy, tragic-comic men and women, stories that could be told with more bite, but I’m sure you’ll gladly provide that on your own. Actually, that might be my one complaint about the book. A book about sex should be, well, droller, less self-serious. That title is needlessly coy; these are adventures in the science of female lust not desire. But this is perhaps my increasingly British view of Americans and besides it is nitpicking. Finding the precisely right locus between slapstick raunchiness and a dry academic deposition, a locus that pleases everyone, is an impossible exercise. I can’t really demand it of anyone, especially someone writing about something as fraught as women’s desire for sex.
So on to the science part: Bergner does a convincing romp through a swathe of newly emerging science. The field is new and a bit raw still, but he admits as much. The researchers he interviews and writes about, much more so. I think the need for this fresh territory outweighs any complaint I may of about the book being premature. The word we use in our grant applications is ‘timely’. To use a direct quote, Bergner says, “Where there should be an abundance of exploration, there is, instead, common assumption, unproven theory, political constraint, varieties of blindness.” He sets about uncovering said assumptions and weak theories using science. He pauses to describing the methods and experiments of the researchers before telling you the results and this is always great stuff, even if you can only sketch the data in words. It makes it easier for the reader to decide for themselves if the proffered conclusions are warranted and to follow up on the original research if they feel the need. It’s all on the better side of science writing tradition.
So what will you learn about, you ask? This is the best part. As I read the book a second time, it delaminated into two layers. The first layer was, of course, the science. Bergner does a good job covering the work that shows that women’s sexual preferences are often quite fluid. Women are turned on by watching sex between men and women, men and men, women and men, multi-partner sex, almost any permutation and combination of men amd women having sex. They even get a bit turned on when watching Bonobos. Why they’re so non-specific is harder question, but he does a game job of explaining the theories. After a brief tour of historical and literary ideas of women’s carnal appetites, he takes a tour through the animal kingdom. He covers, somewhat selectively, the two main medical beasties, rats and monkeys and explores what they might teach us about the sexual behavior of human women.
However it’s in the darker corners that he really shines. I enjoyed the forthright exploration of how soon and how often women get bored of their long term monogamous partners. Marta Meana, one of the researcher he interviews, puts it best, “It’s wrong to think that because relationships are what women choose, they’re the primary source of women’s desire.” But his absolute best bit is the chapter called ‘The Alley’. Researchers have discovered that many women find the thought of rape arousing and use it as a way to get themselves off. The whole thing is on very shaky political ground, these are fantasies of rape, not the thing itself. But why would they find something fundamentally violent arousing? Bergner covers the different hypothesis offered as explanation with intelligence, if I were him, I would be most smugly pleased with myself.
The rough message of the book is we’ve always been offered a certain view of female sexuality, even by such hoary sources as the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, the bible for psychiatrists. The view suggests that women are naturally prone to being a bit tepid and hence easily monogamous. When you meet real women and collect unbiased data this view cannot be borne out. If you’ve felt otherwise, Bergner peoples your world and introduces you all the different orgasms out there.
This is already reason enough to read the book, yet there is still, the second layer, a meta sort of take. Bergner has managed to cover larger issues while talking about sex. For instance, his chapter on finding a cure for monogamy, without really intending to, introduces you to the idea of rational drug design. It tells you about this incredibly complex algorithm they have developed to try and disentangle the hormonal physiology of sex. It uses no less than eleven variables! Drugs have never before been designed quite this way. When you read about how little thought went into using testosterone in an attempt to raise women’s libido, you get a clearer picture of the more usual was drugs are used. However, it’s the deftly revealed politics of science that’s the most important. The politics of how we scientists have ended up ranking the different fields of enquiry. Bergner laments the second-class status of female sexology and heaps his scorn on the shifty theoretical ground the much more fashionable evolutionary psychology community stands on. He also makes it exceedingly clear, just how hard doing science is when you hold political beliefs and we all hold political beliefs. Much as we might like to think so, this reality-based problem is not encountered by right wingers alone. ‘The Alley’ and its description of many women’s predilections for rape fantasies shows that the left may also encounter its bugbears as they chop through this jungle.
Now without giving too much away, I can say, it’s a good book, read it!
I got asked to review your book, What Do Women Want? recently. It’s a great book, congratulations, and very timely. Good on you for dragging into the bright light of day the lusts and wants, (or lacks thereof), we’ve all been secreting away. I enjoyed your writing also. It’s particularly masterful in some of the harder to write chapters. You must tell me how you manage it someday.
I did have a few niggles though and I thought I would write directly to you. My niggles are mainly scholarly. They stem from the fact that I am as much a scientist as I am a sexual person. (I am also a woman but that doesn’t seem relevant; both sexes seem to be your intended audience). I think it might be unfair to level my scholarly criticisms at you in a review, so I wrote you instead. I realize that a writer walks a fine line when writing science for a lay audience. There are necessary compromises. By and large, I agree with the ones you choose to make.
For instance, I see your impatience with the reserve shown by the scientists you interview, in some of their interpretations. You think they are being too cautious when refusing to accept easily that the physiological and the unconscious is the inherent and the conscious and verbally expressed is the learned. I think they are right, and there are dimensions still left to be examined. Philosophical niceties prevent a full-blown acceptance. But I do accept the compromise you strike in the book. So I’ll leave the minor niggles alone and accept that much comes down to judgment.
It leaves me with two things I’d still like to ask you about. The first is parental investment theory. I share your general assessment of evolutionary psychology. (As some wit put it, the lessons of evolutionary psychology line up a little too neatly with 1950s mores. As if all evolution lead straight up to a pinnacle for mankind; a pinnacle that just incidentally happened to occur when today’s scientific leaders were growing up).
I would, however, go softer on parental investment theory. The theory was plucked from a pretty solid body of work, from the study of life history tactics. This is one of the few quantitative theories in biology, a theory that has surprising predictive power. And here’s the problem with theories. No matter how sound they are, if you misapply them, or don’t test their assumptions, or have variables that aren’t accounted for, well, then your conclusions are going to be dead wrong. As we call it GIGO: garbage in, garbage out. Evolutionary psychologists are scrawling stick figures in their papers, where the rest of the field looks at something like the Vitruvian Man. Sarah Hrdy, the primatologist you talk about, appreciates her da Vinci better. Call me biased, but field biologists that study truly wild animals tend to be much more sensible.
Which brings me to the next point: Buss seems to tell you that the human wild animal in cultures across the globe fits a uniform pattern of female demureness. But did he, or for that matter anyone you spoke to, tell you about Margaret Mead and her studies of some very undemure Pacific islanders? Mead is extraordinary, a lynchpin in the modern popular opinion about women and sexuality. Her books were written for the wider public and were scandalous in her time. She was among the first to look at non-WEIRD people, a very strong criticism leveled at much scientific work in human behavior, especially now. (As you know, WEIRD stands for white, educated, industrialized, rich and democratic, and hence unrepresentative of a lot of the world). She should really have had at least some part in your book. Actually, even Mead alone would not do it for me. I would have loved to see some cultural and evolutionary anthropology as well. These fields represent great ways to dissect nature from nurture, and by now, have a long tradition. I am sad to say, I know not nearly enough about Mead or her scientific descendants. I had wished you would tell me about them!
Now if you’re going to tell me you didn’t want to wade into the controversy that surrounds her work, then I’m going to tut at you very disapprovingly. Yes, Freeman claimed she was hoaxed by the Samoans, but it’s now long been the consensus that it was Freeman that hoaxed everyone and that she, in fact, had known what she was doing all along. Besides, surely this is grist for a writer’s mill? And you bring that old Viennese canard up so much that you can hardly argue this position. Do include the one authoritarian woman scientist there is and the field she brought into the public eye, into the so-called ‘canon’. Surely, sexology’s roots in scientific history are as important as they are in religious and literary history!
Well, that’s all, I’m glad I got it off my chest. Lovely book – ta.
Natasha Mhatre is currently studying how insects sing and hear.