What Do Women Want?

Elizabeth's picture

We won't find out by trying to separate biology from culture.
NYT Mag Cover Female Desire
The cover asks "What is Female Desire?" and the story title, "What do Women Want?" seems to promise that scientists are getting closer to figuring out one of life's great mysteries. Daniel Bergner, in fact, does not attempt to answer those two questions (and the small subtitles make it clear that he isn't going to try) but rather he profiles the work of several scientists who are researching women's sexual response, their subjective sense of arousal, and the ways those do or don't line up.

It is a well-written article and a very interesting read. It takes on complex questions and, within its scope, attempts to address them without oversimplifying or sensationalizing (except for the first sentence of the article, in extra large and colorful print that reads "Meredith Chivers is a creator of bonobo pornography."). I would encourage anybody to take a look. But prepare to be frustrated as well as intrigued. Some readers will be frustrated, as was Meredith Chivers (a psychology professor at Queens University, and one of the scientists whose work is the focus of the article) because the answers are not clear and meticulous research takes so long and is so difficult to do, and because, as she is quoted as saying early in the piece, "The horrible reality of psychological research is that you can't pull apart the cultural from the biological."

Click here for my frustration.


My frustration comes from the fact that researchers like Chivers insist on trying to pull apart the cultural from the biological. What is it that drives the notion that our biology is where the "truth" about us would be found if only we could clear away the confusing layers of socialization and culture? I would much prefer to see research examine the intersection of the biological and the cultural giving equal "truth value" to both. This is a theme that comes up over and over, especially in relation to the discussion of Chivers's work. (In fact if we could get past our desire for biologically essentialist answers we could see the variations in human experience that would allow us to start breaking down the false binary of male/female = boy/girl = man/woman, but that is for another blog post I think.)

It isn't that Chivers denies the importance of culture. In fact in several places her research leads to insightful observations about the interaction between culture and biology. It is just that she seems, at least in the way that the article is reported, to believe that cultural influences somehow interfere with our natural responses, and that assumption leads me to think that for her "truth = biology" rather than "truth = biology + culture". Humans do not exist outside of culture, and culture shapes our deepest drives and desires - or at least our perception and expression of them. Even if we could somehow discern a completely unsocialized physical truth about human beings' sexuality (which we could only begin to uncover by studying members of a much wider range of cultures) how would that help us understand human behavior in society if we did not also understand the ways that behavior is shaped by culture? And why should the biological seem more intrinsically "real" than the combination of biological and cultural?

Chivers is not the only sexologist whose work is discussed, and Bergner does interview people who take a less physiological approach. He talks with Marta Meana, a psychologist at University of Nevada at Las Vegas, who cautions him that in studying desire "the variability within genders may be greater than the differences between genders," something that is true about many sex-linked differences. And he talks to Lisa Diamond, whose recent book Sexual Fluidity explores the connection in women between desire and emotional intimacy, suggesting that women are attracted to and desire people less based on their gender and more based on their personalities and the emotional connections that they develop. (Yes, I am bracketing the criticism that sex and gender are not dichotomous in the first place, and that those very ideas are culturally constructed. Those of you who know my work know that I argue against essentialism in general.)

But Bergner begins and ends the article with Chivers in a way that tells us that the physiological is understood to be the essential source of truth about us as humans. And the last two paragraphs tell us that both Bergner and Chivers despair about the possibilities of ever knowing "the truth." After quoting Chivers talking about how many cultures have placed such strict limitations on women's sexuality and how those strict limitations belie the stereotype that women's sexuality must be naturally passive, Bergner remarks:

There was the implication, in her words, that she might never illuminate her subject because she could not even see it, that the data she and her colleagues collect might be deceptive, might represent only the creations of culture, and that her interpretations might be leading away from underlying truth....There was the chance that the long history of fear might have buried the nature of women's lust to deeply to unearth, to view.

It was possible to imagine, then, that a scientist blinded by staring at red lines on her computer screen, or blinded by peering at any accumulation of data -- a scientist contemplating, in darkness, the paradoxes of female desire -- would see just as well.

It is a sad ending. It is sad because it presumes that if we cannot know the physiological truth of women's desire then we might as well just wander in the darkness, perpetuating myths about it. I could not disagree more. We need more work that explicitly seeks to understand the ways that culture shapes biological processes without being weighed down by questions about its essentially physiological nature. I am put in mind, again, of Leonore Tiefer's work and the New View Campaign which does exactly this.

There is a lot more to say about the article and the findings it discusses. Fortunately we'll have an opportunity to talk to the author of the article in the near future. Daniel Bergner contacted me on Thursday to ask if I'd be interested in reviewing his new book, "The Other Side of Desire: Four Journeys Into the Far Realms of Lust and Longing," which comes out on Tuesday, and I've invited him to hang out here when that review is posted and answer questions or discuss issues with readers.