Monday, July 29, 2013

The New "What Do Women Want"?

I was annoyed to see this book shelved only under "Gender Studies." Why not "Health and Well-Being?"

I just finished reading the new book What Do Women Want, by Daniel Bergner.

1. My super-double-extra number one favorite thing in this book is the way it challenges the twin stereotypes of women-want-intimacy-and-love and women-are-naturally-monogamous. Bergner compiles an impressive array of empirical research suggesting a radically different picture: that women want novelty and variety; that desire in a long-term monogamous relationship often wanes; that desire wanes with boredom for women more than for men.

It's true that the book pushes its "naturally promiscuous" alternative without a lot of nuance or in-depth consideration of opposing views. But this didn't bother me, because the twin stereotypes have such a strange crazed grip on people.

2. Indeed, with respect to monogamy, Berger's arguments are particularly effective at challenging the evolutionary argument, you know, that women have to invest a ton of energy in offspring and so are naturally picky whereas men want to spread their seed. Bergner cites a ton of animal studies in which females are sexually aggressive, and sexually promiscuous, and mentions quite astonishing examples of cases where scientists of the past seem to have seen what they wanted to see rather than what was there.

Of course, taking what seems "obvious" to some science guys and cooking up a story to show how it's "adaptive" and thus an essential aspect of our biology instead of the result of social and cultural forces has always been the problematic strategy of evolutionary biology applied to things like sex. And the risk is always high when we're talking about things people want to be true. And a lot of people -- men and women -- seem to want the women-intimacy-monogamy thing to be true.

3.  One of the most interesting -- OK, to me frightening -- parts of the book was the description of how female desire drugs are being consciously interpreted as supports for monogamy, appropriate and approvable only if they don't make women just, you know, really want to have sex. Desire drugs for middle-aged married woman who love their husbands but compare the pleasure of sex with them to the pleasure of returning library books? We are on it! Girls just want to have fun? Not so much. Various people want the drugs to be "good but not too good." You can read more about this part of the story in Bergner's piece in the Times.

4.  Though I get why it had to be this way, I wish the title/argument didn't have to be expressed in terms of What Do Women Want -- in fact, I wish the word "want" wasn't here at all. In addition to the obvious invitation to stupid remarks like the one on the back cover from Gay Talese (it's "a subject that often exceeds our intelligence" -- women, so kooky, so strange, so Other!) it also invites misinterpretation because the word "want" is used in a "desire or interest, conscious or unconcious" sense, in a "this is what I ultimately want to do sense -- i. e., intend, always conscious and reflective, and in a "this is what will satisfy -- ultimately make happy" sense. All very different.

There are women in this book who describe fantasies, sometimes disturbing to themselves, of being forced to have sex, sometimes violently, sometimes with multiple strangers. While it's essential to recognize these as important and genuine parts of these women's sexual lives and desires, connected to "want" in the first sense, fantasies need not be connected to want in the second or third sense, of this being something these women ultimately want to do or have done to them in reality. It's complicated.

Also, saying "What Do Women Want?" makes it sound like women in some obvious way don't know themselves, but I don't think that's an apt description of what is going on.

5. While I admired, and was persuaded by, the frank discussion of the possibility that women are turned on by the desire and interest of others and thus have a sexuality that is to some extent "other-directed," I wish the word "narcissistic" didn't come into play in describing that. As I discussed a bit in this previous post 1) it would be better if both sexes had a mix of self-directed and other-directed desires and 2) other-directed isn't "narcissistic" - why not a nice word like "generous"?

6. Everyone should keep in mind the possibility that women are different. It's wrong to say women really want X or Y or Z -- people vary a lot. It's because the alternative intimacy-monogamy narrative has been so outrageous on this score that I think it's OK that this book does a bit of generalizing in opposition to that narrative.

But do remember, one woman's meat is another woman's poison.

No comments: