Isabel, a New York City lawyer, has a fiancé who appears a perfect catch. Eric is sensitive, smart, kind and handsome. He’s an attentive lover, the sort of man who, on Valentine’s Day, draws her a bath surrounded by candles and arranges rose petals into a heart shape on the bed. Isabel loves Eric, even though her passion for him dwindled months after they became involved. She misses her erotically charged relationship with her ex-boyfriend who, though not marriage material, made her feel desired, his “possession.” Still, Isabel tries to rev up her low libido for sex with Eric, buying massage oil and a blindfold—which also lets her pretend she’s with someone else.
Isabel’s story may read like an outline for the next wannabe 50 Shades of Grey franchise, but it’s actually one of several personal accounts punctuating journalist Daniel Bergner’s bold new book, What Do Women Want? Adventures in the Science of Female Desire. Bergner’s account of myth-shattering research into female sexuality arrives amid a publishing landslide on the topic, joining Bella Ellwood-Clayton’s Sex Drive: In Pursuit of Sexual Desire and Katherine Angel’s Unmastered: A Book on Desire, Most Difficult to Tell. Together they offer startling revelations about female desire—or rather its absence, a fevered debate of our time.
Low female libido—“hypoactive sexual desire disorder” as its been medicalized—has been the subject of hand-wringing for decades. It’s the Where’s Waldo?of scientific research, as drug companies desperately seek a “female Viagra.” There’s big money to be made: a 2005 study in the Canadian Medical Association Journal claimed between 35 and 40 per cent of women have low libido—which suggests “low” is in fact closer to “average.” Ellwood-Clayton spells out the problem in Sex Drive:“Once in a secure relationship, women’s sex drive begins to plummet,” she writes. The Canadian-born sexual anthropologist cites a German study that found that four years into a relationship, less than half of 30-year-old women wanted regular sex with their partners. After 20 years of marriage only 20 per cent of women did. Men’s libidos, on the other hand, remained pretty constant.
The issue, we’ve long thought, is that women just aren’t interested; female desire is simply weaker, and stoked by intimacy and familiarity. But scientists are now wondering whether commitment itself might be the problem. In other words, it’s not a libido deficit, it’s monogamy—an unspoken two-year itch. As Bergner puts it, the female drug we’re really seeking is “monogamy’s cure.”
Female desire is a relatively new field of research. Until the late 1970s, the male-dominated field of sexology focused on documenting male behaviour and performance. The more complex, discrete mechanisms of female lust were inconsequential. Anatomical drawings of female rats didn’t bother to include the clitoris, Bergner reports. Even today, a peep-show stigma remains attached to sexology in academe, particularly in the U.S., which is why many of the scientists he interviews are Canadian.
Psychologist Lori Brotto of the University of British Columbia cuts to the chase: “Sometimes I wonder whether [low female desire] isn’t so much about libido as it is about boredom,” she says. Ken Wallen, a psychologist and neuroendrocrinologist whose work at Emerson University outside Atlanta has revealed that female rhesus monkeys are the sexual aggressors, echoes the sentiment: “The idea that monogamy serves the natural sexuality of women may not be accurate,” he says. Bergner also cites an Australian study of women over age 40 that correlated low female desire to the length of time a woman had been with her partner, not hormonal changes. Once those women were with new partners, libido returned.
American psychologist Marta Meana routinely sees women whose white-hot lust for their partner has turned to ash. She theorizes that, within monogamy, women’s narcissistic need to feel desired is not being met: they feel their partners are trapped and that “a choice—the lust-propelled selection of her—was no longer being made.” One of the women interviewed in In What Do Woman Want?, Sophie, reveals how she compensates to summon lust for her husband: by fantasizing about being ravaged by Yankee shortstop Derek Jeter.
The “you complete me,” best-friends model held as the marital ideal and routinely joked about as a turn-off for men may actually be even more so for women, says Meana: “There has to be an ‘other’ for there to be sexiness.”
The idea that women might be ill-suited for monogamy flies in the face of entrenched thinking that women use sex to bond while men use intimacy for sex, as enshrined in the “intimacy-based sex-response cycle” pioneered by Rosemary Basson, a professor of psychiatry at UBC. It also upends the “parental investment theory,” the notion that men’s seemingly limitless reproductive capacity is why they fling seed far and wide, while women maximize limited reproductive resources by being choosy. Societies have long used the low-libido explanation to maintain order: it discourages female infidelity and has freed women’s energy to focus on home and children.
But that doesn’t jibe with the new thinking that a big part of what triggers female desire is to be desired. Some of this is conditioned: the idea that women—or “good” women—must be pursued and coaxed into sex. But women also expend a lot of energy on the hunt, Elwood-Clayton points out—much of that also focused on being desired. The stakes are even higher for women in the current hypersexualized culture, she writes: “Our desire to appear desirable exceeds desire itself.” Jim Pfaus, a Concordia University psychologist and neurobiologist, sees the double standard surrounding female sexuality rooted in fear: “We men are afraid that if we open the box, open her control, we’re opening ourselves to being cuckolded. We’re afraid of what’s inside.” A glimpse of the box’s contents was provided by Natalie Angier’s 1999 book Woman: An Intimate Geography, which describes the clitoris as the only organ designed purely for pleasure; it has 8,000 nerve fibres—twice the number in the penis. “Who needs a handgun when you’ve got a semiautomatic?” Angier writes.
At Queen’s University in Kingston, Ont., psychologist Meredith Chivers is working to expose the “animal truth” of female desire. Her research, which uses a plethysmograph, a miniature bulb and light sensor placed in the vagina, suggests women’s desire is as omnivorous as men’s; they’re equally aroused by a range of pornography and are far more responsive to stories involving strangers than long-time lovers. Yet when asked to rate their arousal, women downplay it, particularly when the stimuli aren’t socially acceptable.
Chivers’s findings suggest that women buy into the zipped-up model of their own sexuality. Yet as Katherine Angel makes clear in her sexual memoir, Unmastered, female desire is a tangle of complex, often contradictory impulses fed by the mind, the heart, the images we see, things we’ve read and been told. Angel, a post-doctoral fellow at the Centre for the History of Medicine at Warwick University, writes of processing her first erotic impulses: “The words I would have put this into, had I felt the urge—the words I still put this into—are these: ‘I feel like a man.’ ” She understood, even then, that as a woman she had to tamp those impulses down.
Fittingly, Angel’s lyrical, explicit meditation on her own desire, a “ferocious and vulnerable” thing, defies traditional narrative structure. She weaves trenchant social observation throughout the book, exploring seeming contradictions like being a feminist who enjoys sexual submission. She calls porn “misogynistic, coercive, tacky,” but, like Chivers’s subjects, can be turned on by it: “I imagine sex with her—or is it me?—through his eyes. I see myself as he might. I allow myself desire for her through my desire for him.” Awareness of her capacity for pleasure feeds her desire, she writes.
Pfaus believes the new spotlight on female sexuality will make way for a revolution among women in the next generation: “We’re going to see more supposedly male-like behaviour, more women picking up men, more women getting laid and leaving, having sex without wanting to bond, more girls up in their rooms clicking on their computer and masturbating before they get started on their homework.” It’s a tableaux destined to horrify many. But, paradoxically, it could also pave the way to more aware, realistic marital expectations—and that includes new ways of scratching the two-year itch.