Photo by Natalie Northup Bergner

When it comes to sex, the axiom goes that men are animals, their libidos subject to urgings of nature, while women in their pursuits of pleasure are far tamer. But why is it that female lust is not similarly regarded as a force to be contained? In one attempt to answer that question, psychologist Meredith Chivers sat her human subjects in a La-Z-Boy before various pornographic clips and monitored their reactions via plethysmographs connected to the genitals and capable of measuring blood flow and swelling. The participants were also given keyboards and asked to rate their arousal. Chivers’s findings showed that the men, by and large, responded in “category specific” ways—that is, straight men typically reacted to images of women and heterosexual sex, while gay men were moved oppositely. And across the board, the data from the plethysmographs was consistent with the men’s subjective claims.

For the women, the study yielded wildly different results. Irrespective of sexual orientation and reported levels of excitement, the women showed physical arousal when watching men with women, women with women, men with men, and even mating bonobo apes. The results suggest a discord between how women’s minds and bodies register desire, and represent a massive departure from our familiar social scripts.

Exploring this disconnect is the subject of Daniel Bergner’s recent book, What Do Women Want?: Adventures in the Science of Female Desire, which tracks the shifting fields of scientific inquiry into women’s sexuality. His reporting takes him into the laboratories of Chivers and other sexologists trying to make sense of the emerging reams of data that directly challenge the long-held assumption that female sexuality is something placidly meted out. Bergner also goes behind the scenes of the drug companies trying to develop a female equivalent to Viagra, and finds that women view lust as fundamental to themselves and are eager to preserve it.

Among the lessons Bergner says he gleaned from his research is that “women’s desire—its inherent range and innate power—is an underestimated and constrained force.” More controversially, he makes the case that “one of our most comforting assumptions, soothing perhaps above all to men but clung to by both sexes, that female eros is much better made for monogamy than the male libido, is scarcely more than a fairy tale.”

Bergner is a contributing writer for The New York Times Magazine and the author of three other books—the first, a series of stories from the West African country of Sierra Leone, ruined by a seemingly endless civil war, and the second, on the annual rodeo and convicts of Angola, Louisiana’s renowned maximum-security penitentiary. His most recent work follows The Other Side of Desire: Four Journeys into the Far Realms of Lust and Longing, an investigation of paraphilia, or erotic extremes, that offers in-depth portraits of a foot fetishist, an amputee devotee, a pedophile, and a dominatrix named the Baroness, who among acts roasts a willing man on a spit.

The quaint café in Carroll Gardens where we met for breakfast, with its sounds of romantic pop songs and clinking china, made for an amusing backdrop to our discussion of anarchic lust. But perhaps one that was well suited to a conversation about efforts to bring an uncomfortable, if not taboo, subject into the common fold.

Katherine Rowland for Guernica

Guernica: In the book, you reference a quote by the British gynecologist William Acton, who wrote in the Victorian era: “The majority of women, happily for society, are not very much troubled by sexual feeling of any kind.” The message there being that women’s sexuality, if unleashed, could upend civilization. Times have changed, but your book suggests that elements of that logic persist.

Daniel Bergner: If we cast back to Victorian times as they’re encapsulated in that Acton quotation, we see this really severe denial of women’s desire, and that denial is mixed in with a level of fear. That carries forward to our society. Women’s sexuality surrounds us, but right beneath that there’s this other standard for women’s desire that’s still informed by uneasiness. It’s linked, ultimately, to the comfort that we all get—men and society as a whole—from this idea that women are somehow less desiring than men. We can still lean on women a little bit to keep society stable. The dichotomy that’s set up is that men are animals and anarchic in their lust and women are civilized and civilizing in their sexuality.

Guernica: This assumption that women’s sexuality exerts a civilizing force seems to even carry over into the efforts to develop a female Viagra. You write about researchers concerned that the pills they’re developing might be too powerful.

Daniel Bergner: To be clear, the FDA isn’t going to talk to me and say, “We’re going to consider rejecting a drug because it had too strong an effect and would create a generation of nymphomaniacs.” But it was the drug companies themselves that were worried that if the effects were too strong, the FDA might reject them on those grounds. Was I surprised that those conversations were happening inside the drug companies? Yes, I was staggered.

Guernica: On the one hand you have a drug that’s potentially quite powerful in igniting desire in women. And on the other, your book lays the groundwork for the idea that a lustful state is organic to women, and that a drug like this might be a palliative for monogamy.

Daniel Bergner: That was one of the ironies to me. We think of a drug like that as revolutionary, as radical, but I think in fact it’s quite conservative. The primary market for this drug will be women in long-term relationships, women in marriages who have lost their desire. It’s a status-quo-preserving drug for better or worse. Women going out with someone they’re thrilled about are maybe not going to need Lybrido or Lybridos or any of its rivals.

I think what I’ve written in that section of the book has been misinterpreted as an endorsement, and it’s just not an opposition. Some people are really opposed to that area of drug research. They feel it’s a manipulation of women, it’s the pharmaceutical industry setting standards of desire, and I think that’s arguable, but not enough to say women shouldn’t have the choice to have this drug available to them. It will have a marriage-preserving aspect to it, and fundamentally it’s a conservative drug. But women want desire for themselves.

Guernica: In much of the research that aims to understand women’s desire, the neurochemistry at work, the psychology behind it, it seems that men are held as the barometer. We talk about women being more or less like men, rather than addressing women’s sexuality as a category unto itself.

Daniel Bergner: I find that really troubling and I don’t know how to get past it. Part of my goal in the book was to think past our preconceptions, past the paradigms that we’re so set in. For instance, in the book I talk about scientists who for decades could not see the patterns of monkey sexuality, despite honest attempts to see it in an objective way. They couldn’t see past the paradigm. It worries me that, as you say, we’re stuck with this male barometer, that it’s a difficult paradigm to break free of.

Guernica: That example of researchers who continued to interpret primate behavior as playing out our social constructions of gender underscores the idea that runs through your book that the prevailing culture affects science. As progressive as this new suite of findings may be, to what degree might they still reflect the influence of culture?

Daniel Bergner: That’s a great point. What is it about the culture now that might be leading to, or in a sense creating, these findings, these new levels of insight? I’m part of that culture, I’m writing from that culture. It’s sort of an impossible subjective bind to see beyond. There’s something intriguing about the set of experiments that some of these researchers, particularly women researchers, are setting up to look at physical response as an indicator of psychological and emotional engagement. Like Meredith Chivers with her plethysmograph or Teri Fisher with her fake polygraph. And, of course, people criticize that. People are uneasy with looking at the physical; it seems to be a subversion of the complex psychology that we all have. I hope that’s not the case. I recognize the danger. But what Chivers is doing is challenging us to see the complex psychology in a new way. She is trying to upend things so that we have a new way of illuminating desire.

There were two psychologists, one physicist, and me the writer standing with my notepad on one side of a glass panel, and a woman under a sheet masturbating in an fMRI tube.

Guernica: Part of what emerges from this research is a big difference between physiological response and psychological response. These experiments registered signs of desire in the body, while the mind has a different reaction.

Daniel Bergner: Right, and the question is why. There are lots of good theories, but proving one is extremely difficult. It’s really that question that got me hooked. Why was Meredith Chivers consistently finding this difference between physical response and psychological response?

At the time that I first met her she was very focused on evolutionary interpretations of women’s desire. Over the years, I think that there was a real reckoning of just how crucial societal scripts are in shaping desire. I think more and more we’re confronting the cultural forces that are involved in shaping us psychologically. It’s fascinating because you would think that of all our emotions, desire is so primal it would be the least influenced by culture, but I don’t think that proves to be so at all.

Guernica: The idea being that if desire is at the core of ourselves, it’s going to be preserved from the influences of culture?

Daniel Bergner: If you think about the crude map of the brain, the area where we have our executive functions is what you think of as the place for learning and where culture might […] be in dialogue with our brains. But in the so-called lizard brain, where the libido is supposed to be localized, it’s just going to do what it’s going to do. Well, I think that’s a myth, maybe even that lizard within us is very much learning desire. In these times when evolutionary psychology informs our popular assumptions, it is a radical way of looking at our psychology.

Guernica: It seems that despite these insights in the field of sexology and related sex research, it remains this taboo subject. You made the point at the end of your book that you weren’t calling up researchers at Harvard or Princeton because most scientists don’t want to touch the subject.

Daniel Bergner: People are uneasy about it. The researchers I spent time with are in a way themselves uneasy about it. It feels second-class. It feels a little squeamish, voyeuristic maybe. As one of the researchers said, there’s something so much more dignified about dealing with depression or suicide, about dealing with the helping side of psychological research, rather than what is a pure insight journey into what I think of as the core of ourselves. But to me, that’s fascinating. I find it much more compelling to call these researchers who are trying to see inside the self, who aren’t so burdened by helping. That sounds a little callous, but I’ll stand by it.

Guernica: You mentioned that there is this potentially voyeuristic quality in conducting this research. Did you as a male writer feel that you ran that risk?

Daniel Bergner: Maybe I did in the back of my mind. Equally voyeuristic was my spending time in a West African war zone or inside a maximum-security prison. These are all attempts, through looking at extremes of human experience, or the intensity of human experience in the case of desire, to get at what it means to be human, and I suppose built into that quest is a voyeuristic element. I’m given permission through what I do to ask and ask and ask, and that’s what I like to do. After beginning to immerse myself with these researchers and getting into very deep intellectual conversations with the everyday women whose stories run through the book, there’s definitely a level of psychological intimacy, but it doesn’t feel particularly voyeuristic.

Guernica: You document a lot of intimate extremes, like watching a Tantra teacher masturbate. How do you maintain your composure and keep your intellectual gears turning as a journalist?

Daniel Bergner: The Tantra teacher we’re talking about could seem like the ultimate in voyeurism, and in a sense of course it was. There were two psychologists, one physicist, and me the writer standing with my notepad on one side of a glass panel, and a woman under a sheet masturbating in an fMRI tube. That was not a particularly erotic experience—the fMRI cylinder is not a sexy place. And then it’s just comical. The three scientists are mostly just enraptured by what’s happening on this monitor watching the brain, they’re yelling about this constellation of dots—that’s the scientific orgasmic experience for them. It is just a comical level of the quest to see inside the brain. It encapsulates in a funny way what I found so compelling about the question that I was asking in the book and what the researchers were asking, which is, Can you pull apart nature and nurture to get at some deeper level of the self? The answer may ultimately be no, but it’s that unanswerable aspect that makes the question so compelling to begin with.

Maybe the safest thing to say is that voyeurism is essential to good writing.

Guernica: In your prior book on paraphilia, extreme expressions of desire, you write of very intense, if troubling, erotic moments, like a man being roasted over a fire on a spit.

Daniel Bergner: In some ways in that book I was on a very autobiographical quest to think about the relationship of lust and love. Those four [narratives] are about the sexual lives of people who really are out at edges and that is not my sexual life, but I always felt like I was looking at myself when I was looking at what was going on around me. That could have been the Baroness who was doing her quite severe dominatrix thing. That could have been the foot fetishist really suffering. That could have been the fiancée of the amputee devotee wondering what attraction was all about, and feeling both thrilled and grateful that she had found this love after losing both her legs, but also pained that she felt she could no longer have a normal sort of love. These are questions that are about all of us, and really are questions that I was looking at for myself. Again, is it voyeuristic to ask questions about people’s private lives? By one definition, yes. But on the other hand, if I didn’t, I wouldn’t be able to do what I do. Maybe the safest thing to say is that voyeurism is essential to good writing.

Guernica: Running through both books is the notion that love and lust are inextricable. And yet the research seems to hone in on the idea that what makes for a solid relationship isn’t necessarily the same formula as what makes for a satisfying bedroom life.

Daniel Bergner: I would frame it a little differently. I wouldn’t say that what makes for a solid relationship makes for a problematic life in the bedroom. I would say that some of things we seek and believe we really want in our romantic relationships—those things being unconditional love and promises of forever—may lead us away from our desire. In fact, I think the effort and, to whatever degree we may achieve it, the success in keeping things erotically powerful may well lead to a really good relationship. There probably are rare people who are able to make unconditional love work with erotic electricity, and I am so envious of that. That seems to me to be a state of nirvana.

Guernica: Along with that tension, I feel like part of the splash this book has made in the public stems from the idea that no one is really cut out to be monogamous.

Daniel Bergner: Right. While we as a culture assume that about men, we’ve always managed to assume that women are, at least relatively, better cut out to be monogamous. We’re not in a William Acton era when the prevailing assumption was that women had desire for one man, her husband, and otherwise no man. We’re at a completely different place, and yet we seem to reflexively still believe that women are cut out for monogamy. We so rarely see things through the lens of women’s desire. So I hope the book starts a more candid conversation about that.

Guernica: I’d like to parse that out for a moment. Culturally, as you note, we’re inundated with women’s sexuality, but it’s often presented with women being the objects of desire, rather than the desirers.

Daniel Bergner: That section of the book was the most difficult for me to write; it was the part I wrestled with the most. I couldn’t sort this out more completely because of the fundamental paradox that all this research on women points to a far more aggressive, far more anarchic, far more immediate sexuality than we as a culture in general acknowledge. And yet, there’s this old paradigm of desire being sparked by being desired, desired so intensely by the male that he loses control and is aggressive. And how do you reconcile these two things? How do you reconcile that with what you’re seeing with Meredith Chivers’s research? And I don’t think we can. It raises the question, Is this an acculturated set of longings, the longing to be desired, and acculturated so deeply that it feels embedded in our lizard brains?

I think at some point a writer dealing with these things just has to say, “I don’t know.” I don’t know that we’re going to be past this. I think it will be really interesting to see where we are fifty years from now. People ask me a lot if we are on the brink of some breakthrough, and as a writer, I’m really wary of trends and brinks and breakthroughs. We’re human beings, it’s been somewhat like this for a long, long time.

After all, desire is wanting something you don’t have.

Guernica: Nancy Friday, working decades ago, compiled men’s and women’s sexual fantasies and published volumes that showcased a whole spectrum of desires. People at that point responded to her work as an indicator that we were on the brink: ”Look, sexuality in its many expressions has come out from behind the locked bedroom door!”

Daniel Bergner: Nancy Friday is on my shelf above my desk, and it’s striking that we’re always on the brink. In fairness, evolutionary psychologists will say that’s because we’re right where we belong in evolutionary terms. The idea that there is some other way that’s right through a veil is a social construction. But I’ve yet to see the evidence in their writing that should really put this discussion to rest. There’s scarcely any evidence offered by evolutionary psychology that when it comes to lust our patterns of behavior are fully embedded in our genes. That’s not to say that there’s no evolutionary component, but we have bought into a biological determinism that’s also comforting to us in so many ways. It provides easy answers, it allows us to stop questioning. But I’d much rather keep questioning. Since the 1970s, evolutionary psychology has staked out a few areas, like intelligence. That quickly got squashed because everyone felt really uncomfortable about the social implications. It’s fascinating to me that our culture is unwilling to entertain an evolutionary psychology that touches on race, but avidly willing to entertain it based on the same minimum of evidence when it comes to gender.

Guernica: Evolutionary psychology and so much of popular culture reinforce the idea that women’s sexuality and desire are wrapped up in longing for togetherness, with the ideal being the merger of two partners’ souls. But the research presented in your book suggests that desire might be more closely related to difference, distance, and individuation.

Daniel Bergner: I’m so torn by that personally because I want to believe in the merger of souls. Deep down, I’m a romantic, and that’s why I said earlier, I do believe there are people who manage to make their relationship the source and nexus of desire. But I wonder if for the rest of us mortals that merging diminishes desire. After all, desire is wanting something you don’t have. It’s the distance you need to cross. And when you’re merged and gazing blurrily into each others’ eyes, there’s only a distance of six inches. It hurts me to even say that because it’s the elimination of a dream that we hold so dear.

Katherine Rowland

Katherine Rowland is the former publisher of Guernica. A writer and social sector strategist, her work has appeared in Nature, the Financial Times, Aeon, Psychology Today, and elsewhere. Her book, The Pleasure Gap: American Women and the Unfinished Sexual Revolution will be published by Seal Press in January of 2020.

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