What Do Women Want?

by | August 18, 2013 | General | 12 comments

By Donna George Storey

that’s a title sure to sell books. Especially if said book promises to
answer that question with “the latest scientific research” by
“paint[ing] an unprecedented portrait of female lust.”

mostly overcome my old bad habit of feeling compelled, for the sake of
my professional development, to read every article about sex that
catches my eye—from Cosmo covers offering secret bedroom tricks that fulfill every man’s deepest desires to more serious journalism like Mary Roach’s Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex. Yet an enthusiastic review of Daniel Bergner’s What Do Women Want?: Adventures in the Science of Female Desire
proved just too provocative, so I put my name of the hold list at my
local library. Granted I was equally wary and amused that the mystery of
female sexual desire was to be answered by a male author, but the
“science” in the title promised at least a certain amount of objective
reportage and possibly some useful up-to-date discoveries.

finishing the book, I think I’ll go back on the wagon as far as “read
this and you’ll understand sex” come-on’s are concerned.

Bergner’s book left my raging intellectual curiosity about sex sadly
unsatisfied. However, I did gain some valuable insights into issues of
importance for erotica writers: namely, the constrictions on the way
we’re allowed to write about sex in mainstream publishing and our
endless human quest to seek a simple explanation for our very complex
and powerful urge to merge (or the lack thereof in married women, which
was Bergner’s unacknowledged focus, not to say obsession, in the book).

Let’s start with the writing style of What Do Women Want?
Published writing about sex is generally divided into two comforting
categories. First we have the “scientific” approach, which is deemed
acceptable for review in the New York Times (indeed Bergner even nabbed a nonfiction spot
in that venerable publication to promote his book). This is either a
sex guide by a credentialed doctor or a journalist’s reportage of what’s
going on in the underfunded labs of sexologists. The emphasis here is
on the “facts” tastefully and maturely presented with the aim of helping
us understand our biological drives. The tone may be humorous, like
Roach’s, often pointing out the ridiculousness of sex, but there can
never be any obvious intent to arouse lust. That goal is left to erotica
and porn, where the author is at liberty to use every trick in the
book—dirty words, loving descriptions of sex acts, vivid, taboo-breaking
fantasies—to inflame the reader’s libido. The price for this freedom is
that such works can’t be taken too seriously, even if some do prove
wildly profitable.

I’d always wondered what would
happen if someone tried combining these two forms, intellectual
seriousness with vivid, evocative prose. Many erotica writers do so
quite successfully in my opinion. Bergner makes a certain kind of
attempt by juxtaposing reportage of scientific studies and the search
for a “female Viagra” (which is apparently much harder since it requires
a change in brain chemistry rather than just blood flow) with decidedly
flowery accounts of women’s experiences and fantasies. The experiment
derails because Bergner’s heavy-handed prose requires the reader to
either submit equally to the reportage and the personal fancy or to
doubt both. For me, What Do Women Want? has been falsely
advertised as the kind of “scientific” book that we’re supposed to
respect when there is a buried personal agenda at work throughout.
Perhaps the book would be less of a con if it were advertised as memoir
or creative nonfiction, but then again it would lose a good portion of
an audience that craves “objective” answers to the mystery of sex.

an inquiry into what women want could result in a very long book
indeed, Bergner’s main focus is stories of women who have lost desire
for their sweet, loving partners, but feel excitement for men who treat
them like, well, Christian Grey treats Anastasia Steele. Yet, rather
than quoting the women in their own words, he freely indulges his own
writerly impulses. In the following excerpt, he’s describing the
experiences of a “real” woman named Isabel:

“Women who
dressed with urgent, ungoverned need for the desire of men could set
off, inside her, a flurry of disdain, like an instinctive aversion to a
weakness or wound. Yet whenever she walked into a restaurant where
Michael waited for her at the bar, his focus seem to pluck her from the
air, midfall, and pull her forward. His eyes held a thoroughly different
kind of constancy than Eric’s later would. Eric adored her. Michael
admired her. She was a possession, the heels of the boots she picked for
him taking her across crowded rooms toward her owner. The boots were
like the frames and pedestals he chose for the photography and sculpture
in his gallery. He had specific opinions about how she was best

If the book were fiction, I might be more
willing to allow myself to be carried along by the strongly flavored
sensibility of Bergner’s prose. But in many cases I felt manipulated, as
if he were imposing his voice on Isabel among others, making her into
his character, for the mere sake of showing us he can write in a Best American Short Story style.

Bergner does describe some interesting results of studies—did you know
that in speed dating whichever sex sits still is pickier about partners
than the one forced to get up and rotate? But far too many studies he
mentioned dealt with women’s boredom with nice guys. Basically Berger
argues that traditional evolutionary biology got it wrong. It’s not the
men who are the promiscuous sex, sowing their seed far and wide while
women wait for a nurturing mate, but rather the women who are even
hungrier for sex with strangers, thus explaining the much touted desire
gap between married men and women. By the time he attributed Adriaan
Tuiten’s search for a drug to restore female desire to a broken heart
when his first girlfriend lost sexual interest in him, I suspected
something else was at stake for the author as well. And indeed, turning
back to the acknowledgements, Bergner rather wistfully thanks his
ex-wife for the faith she offered for many years.

or not Bergner’s ex-wife left him because her sexual desire for her
tender mate faded, his choice of highly personal writing style and a
notable focus on one slim aspect of female sexuality demands that he be
honest with his readers about where he comes from on the issue of
marriage and the loss of desire. Yet he maintains the opacity of the
traditional journalist throughout, in spite of his revealingly biased
choices in language.

Now is the perfect time for me to
be honest. While I am all for revising the rigid story of a natural
male promiscuity and the female preference for monogamy, in my personal
experience, I have always had better sex when I know and care for my
partner and he cares for me. Thus, I did not in any way feel that the
book illuminated the mysteries of my desire. Which leads me to the
second lesson of my reading. Bergner insists we have to replace the old
story with an equally simple one—it’s not men who have insatiable
appetites, it’s women (which is actually the view of earlier Christian
philosophers, so it’s not exactly new). But what if we human beings,
male and female, all have our own ever-evolving stories about pleasure
and sexual desire? Might not we all have different reasons, genetic and
cultural, for behaving and desiring as we do, narratives that might also
change within a single person’s life course as well as varying among
different people? What if there are no rock-solid eternal truths to
comfort us about what is natural in sex (or any other human behavior)?

inherent in these “scientific” studies is the assumption that there is a
normal or correct sexuality. Yet I’ve never seen a real-life example
offered of this envied normal state. (Therapist Marty Klein maintains in
his book, Sexual Intelligence, that the only true normalis
that most adults have sex when they’re tired.) Bergner does not
interview a promiscuous woman who has found happiness indulging her
natural urges like the rhesus monkeys in the lab. Even one of the few
sexually frisky married women Bergner mentions is not a poster child for
happy monogamy by his definition:

“The abruptly, she
mentioned something hidden. She was a baseball fan, and when she had
trouble reaching orgasm, or wanted to make love with Paul but felt that
arousal was remote and needed beckoning, she tended to think about the
Yankee’s shortstop Derek Jeter. She smiled at the comedy of this
confession. It was only sometimes that this extra help was required, she
explained. ‘Jeter is the ultimate Yankee. Tall, all-American, everyone
loves him—he’s it. He comes home to me after winning the World Series.
He’s still in his uniform, and he throws me onto the bed and kisses me
in a frenzy all over and thrusts right into me without me being really
prepared for it. He just ravages me.’”

Yes, the secret
is out, the wife “sometimes” has to cheat in her fantasies to feel lust
for her husband! Both Bergner and the wife seem to find such fantasies
embarrassing and comic, but more to the author’s point, the fantasy is
described as “hidden” (But from whom exactly? She told him about it,
should she advertise it on a tattoo on her face?) and conforms to the
rape-by-a-stranger fantasy that several of the scientists he interviewed
claim arouses women more than any other fantasy. Bergner does not
really explore the wisdom of taking fantasies literally. He allows that
these women probably don’t actually want to be raped, but he does seem
to assume that a mere fantasy about another man is a form of infidelity
and proves his case about women “wanting” lots of sex with buff, selfish
strangers in alleyways.

Okay, I’m going to get
personal again, but at least I’m being transparent about my point of
view. I’ve never fantasized for more than two seconds about a specific
person or celebrity, nor does rape, which we’ll define as nonconsensual
sex, ever play a role in my rich and varied married-woman fantasies,
although the partner usually takes the lead because, damn it, I get
tired doing everything out there in the real world. Still my preferred
fantasy partner is a faceless drone, used and discarded for his sexual
value alone. I like it that way. Does my fantasy prove anything more
than that my imagination does not follow society’s rules for
proper female focus on the man’s personhood? And how is it that
Bergner’s list of women’s sexual fantasies, told with a sort of
breathless titillation, can be seen as news decades after Nancy Friday’s
My Secret Garden shocked the world? Alas, the book is mired in
not-very-unprecedented assumptions and judgments Bergner claims to be
challenging. In the end he does admit it is “just a beginning,” in spite
of the promotional copy’s promise to a potential reader that he or she
will get some interesting answers to the title question.

yes, the book is mostly a waste of time if you are expecting to find
out what all women want. Yet even its failures remind us that there is
plenty of room for a nuanced, clear-eyed inquiry into the stories we
tell ourselves about sexuality and desire. Daniel Bergner has
unwittingly made his own contribution, though not quite as he intended.
His book does give us a coded look into the interests and passions of
one particular man, but undoubtedly a more honest What Do Women Want?: I Don’t Really Know Either would not sell nearly as many copies.

Donna George Storey is the author
of Amorous Woman (recently released as an ebook) and a new collection of short
stories, Mammoth
Presents the Best of Donna George Storey
. Learn more about her
work at www.DonnaGeorgeStorey.com
or http://www.facebook.com/DGSauthor

Donna George Storey

I want to change the world one dirty story at a time. When I posted this mission statement on my website, I hoped my cheeky ambition would make my readers smile. I smile every time I read it myself. And yet I’m totally serious. I truly believe that writers who are brave enough to speak their truth about the erotic experience in all its complexity—the yearning, the pleasure, the conflicts, and the sweet satisfaction—do change the world for the better. So if you’re here at ERWA because you’re already writing erotica, a big thank you and keep on doing what you’re doing. If you’re more a reader than a writer, I encourage you to start dreaming and writing and expressing the truth and magic of this fundamental part of the human experience in your own unique voice. Can there be a more pleasurable way to change the world? I'm the author of Amorous Woman, a semi-autobiographical erotic novel set in Japan, The Mammoth Book of Erotica Presents the Best of Donna George Storey  and nearly 200 short stories and essays in journals and anthologies. Check out my Facebook author page at: https://www.facebook.com/DGSauthor/  


  1. Jeremy Edwards

    As far as I can credibly say such a thing without having read the book you're critiquing, I find this to be a terrifically well-focused, sagacious, and insightful analysis. One of the best essays I've seen recently!

    • Donna

      Thank you, Jeremy! I think the issues I raise are worth thinking about even if you haven't read but this particular book, but I'm sure you've read similar things. They're all over the place!

  2. zak

    Certainly makes the author (of the book, not the post) sound like yet another whinyarse Angry Dude On The Internet. I shan't bother with the book either but enjoyed the writeup.

    • Donna

      He was more of a stealth angry and sad dude, but, yes, that was my impression.

  3. The Moose

    What do women want? An old and oft repeated question with a prolific and varied volume of response and "answers." Let me offer another one.

    Many years ago on the analyst's couch (yes, Freudian) that question arose more as a demonstrative statement than a pure question given the state of my then current analysis. Very early on with him, actually the 2nd session, he said, "We are going to park your Superman's cape. You don't have to fly anymore." Somewhat later on in my treatment he explained that my not needing to fly meant that he was there to catch me. In the state of my then being that notion served to enable me to deal with many issues that had either eluded me or presented fixed objects through which or over which I had no capacity.

    It would be sometime even later that he explained in more detail what these symbols meant for me. It was not enough that he was there to catch me but that I sought the sanctity of being held.

    That he said was the answer to the question of what women wanted. They wanted to be held. How did he know this I asked.

    "Because that is what they tell us," was his reply. I had no difficulty accepting that answer as it seemed to not only satisfy me but acted as a fulfilling space where I no longer had to flay about aimlessly.

    You must remember I am talking about my personal analysis only. He never outlined it in more broad fashion as he went on to explain that I was referring to my own female parts which for all of one's life you ignored or denied, for most or all of the reasons anyone reading this account can I am sure understand and decide for themselves. It did not mean necessarily that I was a gay man, although he insisted that all of us have male and female components.

    So much so that one day in a conversation with a female rabbi I added the phrase, "Mrs God," to an injunction of God she had invoked. She froze momentarily then went on without dispute or further conversation. Still if one accepts for any reason the Homeric tale of the rise of Judo-Christian "God" one need not look too far for your own pathway. It is given to us all, one way or another.

    I can imagine some if much disagreement with these words, but for me that answer to the question at hand is more than salutary.

  4. Donna

    @The Moose–there's nothing to disagree with! You have eloquently explained your experience at a particular time in your life. That really is my broader point. The very act of sharing our truths reveals that no expert, in the science lab, the therapists couch or anywhere else, can define all of us. Yet we keep trying to find a "normal" and many feel bad if we don't fit into that.

  5. Fiona McGier

    Great analysis! There are a whole lot of horny men out there who think that if they just discover a magic secret, they'll be able to get all of the sex they want to. Unfortunately, as you point out, all humans are different. What is too much to one woman, will be not enough to another. It's the same way with men.

    To me, the disagreement comes in when males and females marry with opposing agendas, which is actually the traditionally-accepted "normal". He thinks that once he's married he'll get sex whenever he wants it, without having to consider her feelings or do anything else to woo her. She thinks that once she's married she won't have to do those kinds of nasty things that she doesn't like to do anymore. Predictably they both are bored and unfulfilled. Sad, really.

    But books like this are popular because there are just so many men who think everyone else is getting more sex than they are, and damn it, they want to know why! Hmmm, maybe if we stop telling our children that "boys can but girls can't or shouldn't", then kids will be able to progress at their own rate. But that would require a seismic shift in society, in which slut-shaming would no longer exist, and rapists would be called out as violent, not over-sexed or deprived, or "driven to it by lust".

    As you say, the topic is much larger than this guy's imagination. Sad that his book is actually making money.

  6. Donna

    Great points, Fiona! You've pointed out many of the reasons that women's desire remains such a "mystery"–mainly because it's still unclear when we're "allowed" to desire. One of the new glitches today is that we are told others are having great sex all the time, hence the obsession with polls about sexual frequency and our personal comparison with that "normal." Bergner is supposedly revolutionary by arguing that women are the more promiscuous sex, but again that just feels trapped in old and not particular satisfying views of the dynamics, including what is "natural." It is a large topic, but I'm really appreciating everyone's thoughtful comments.

  7. The Moose

    Thank you for the enlightening and clarifying comments. I would only comment in the nature of good humor I do hope that in literally thousands of 12 Step meetings and elsewhere, I have heard repeatedly from many women: "It's a guy thing."

    Am I one of those guys?


  8. Lisabet Sarai

    Early in my sexual life, I came to the conclusion that most men don't have sex as often as they'd like. Now, this is of course a biased conclusion based on the men I knew. (They were all very grateful to have met me LOL.) But even now, I've never encountered a guy who said, "I was so lucky – I was completely satisfied with my sex life." Even my husband, who it appears could charm almost any woman into his bed, says he didn't have enough sex.

    On the other, I've also talked to women who complained that their partners didn't desire them, rebuffed them when they were affectionate or sexual.

    What's going on here? Why this disconnect?

    One reason, I think, is that women are not officially "allowed" to admit they want sex – Cosmo notwithstanding. The virgin-whore syndrome survives, much to my astonishment. Perhaps it even affects the guys. They don't dare ask their wives to do anything unusual from a sexual perspective, for fear the women will feel as though they're being treated as whores. (Of course, if they did ask – and the wives agreed – would the men despise them because the women WERE acting like "whores"?)

    A definite mess. It certainly sounds like Bergner's book doesn't shed any light upon the complexities, however.

  9. Donna

    Excellent point, Lisabet. Come to think of it, I've read statistics about men with low desire, and how only 75% of men "always" have orgasms (not my experience yet), and it always surprises me because such experiences are absent from public discourse. Any woman who said she hadn't had enough sex would either be a self-admitted nympho or pathetic, right? If she wants sex, she should just go to a bar or put out her whore shingle, right?

    You raise some great questions I would love to see explored further. Yet we still seem stuck in the "which sex is more promiscuous" phase, which isn't even that interesting. The question just seems to (falsely) promise to uphold in one way or another a clearly limited view of sex.

  10. Jean Roberta

    Very balanced critique of a book, Donna, followed by a great discussion. Several commentators have said what I was thinking when I read your post.

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