What Do Women Want? An extract from Daniel Bergner’s compelling and comprehensive exploration of the complexities of female sexual desire.
Its not very often that you sit down and read a work of non-fiction from cover to cover in a single sitting, but I consumed Daniel Bergner’s book within six hours of my press copy arriving. It is a must-read for anyone who is interested in understanding what makes women tick. The book is, essentially, a digested guide to the multiple strands of scientific research currently exploring female sexual desire, but it also raises interesting questions about the paradoxical relationship between monogamy and declining sexual desire. It doesn’t have solutions to that particular problem – no one does – but it gently challenges long-held assumptions about women in general, and female sexuality in particular.
Meana was a psychology professor at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas, and just before I flew out to meet her, she said that we should start by going together to a Cirque du Soleil show at one of the casinos. So, soon after my plane landed, we sat in a darkened U-shaped theater and began our conversation while a pair of topless, dark-haired women in G-strings dove backward into a giant water-filled champagne glass on stage. The women plunged in from opposite sides of the pool, swam toward each other, and entangled with each other, eel-like. They slid up the walls, arching their spines and dragging their breasts along the glass.
Next, a wispy blonde came skipping like a schoolgirl out on stage. wearing a tiny pleated skirt, she swirled her hips and kept a set of hula hoops spinning around her waist. Suddenly a cable snatched her up above the audience, hoisting her high. It was her act’s climactic moment, a symbolic ravishing. The nymphet opened her legs wide above our eyes, splitting them wider than seemed humanly possible; the splitting was almost violent.
Then a sinewy black woman wearing only beads thrust and pumped her gleaming body to a tribal beat. The soft-porn performances followed each other in fast succession, the stage dominated by arresting women. The audience was divided equally between the sexes. Finally the platinum-wigged MC cried out, “Where’s the beef?” and a long-haired man in a cowboy’s vest and chaps climbed through a trap door. He strutted and swiveled and bared his abdominal ladder of muscle. He shed the chaps, kept only his groin covered, and stood in his cowboy boots, flexing his ass. Yet even as male nudity had its minutes, a dozen female bodies surrounded him.
In her early fifties, Meana, wearing a shirtdress and tights that evening and wearing her bronze-colored hair in bangs, didn’t doubt the usual explanations for the fact that women far outnumbered men among the performers, though she didn’t believe they were terribly illuminating. Those explanations went like this: The men in the audience would have been made too uneasy by more male nudity on stage. For them—for the heterosexuals among them, anyway—the cowboy needed to be obscured by breasts. And for the women in the crowd, the female nakedness fed an addiction-judging their own looks against iconic beauty. So the ticket buyers were gratified, given a live version of what they were used to from a million images on bill-boards, in magazines, on television: for the men, an opportunity to lust; for the women, a chance to compare.
Meana saw more in the imbalance on stage. She began simply, with something that fit with what Chivers had found through her plethysmograph, as the flaccid Adonis tossed stones on the beach. “The female body looks the same whether aroused or not. The male without an erection,” Meana said, “is announcing a lack of arousal. The female body always holds the promise, the suggestion, of sex.” The suggestion sent a charge through both genders.
And then, the imbalance served women in a further way, an essential way-a way that formed the crux of Meana’s thinking. To be desired was at the heart of women’s desiring. Narcissism, she stressed-and she used the word not in damning judgment but in plain description-was at the core of women’s sexual psyches. The females in the audience gazed, erotically excited, at the women on stage, imagining that their own bodies were as searingly wanted as those in front of them.
Daniel Bergner is a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine and the author of four books of nonfiction: What Do Women Want?, The Other Side of Desire, In the Land of Magic Soldiers, and God of the Rodeo. In the Land of Magic Soldiers received an Overseas Press Club Award for international reporting and a Lettre-Ulysses Award for the Art of Reportage and was named a Los Angeles Times Best Book of the Year. God of the Rodeo was a New York Times Notable Book of the Year. In addition to appearing in the New York Times Magazine, Mr. Bergner’s writing has appeared in Granta, Harper’s, Mother Jones, Talk, and the New York Times Book Review, and on the op-ed page of the New York Times. His writing is included in The Norton Reader: An Anthology of Nonfiction.