For years, the dominant theory among anthropologists and evolutionary biologists has been that men are lusty, sexual creatures, primed by eons of evolution to spread their seed far and wide, assuring the propagation of their genes.
Women, on the other hand, mind the hearth and home. They trade sex for security and protection, saving the sweetest honey for the most viral suitor, who is also the one most likely to provide, protect, and produce robust offspring. Thus, women prefer monogamy and fidelity over sexual exploits.
That theory fits the predominant cultural paradigm. It’s a comforting, unthreatening explanation of how things are.
Except that it may not be accurate. Exactly.
Lately, this tried-and-true evolutionary theory has come under fire. Maybe the sexes don’t fall so neatly into “his” and “her” categories. Maybe previously overlooked research casts a different light on how humans interact sexually.
Maybe, for example, women aren’t so monogamous and passive. Maybe, despite even their own self-described diffidence, women are just at lusty and promiscuous at heart as men. That’s the thesis behind the new book What Do Women Want? Adventures in the Science of Female Desire by Daniel Bergner.
“Women's desire—its inherent range and innate power—is an underestimated and constrained force, even in our times,” writes Bergner.
Consider that passion is one of the first casualties of long-term, committed relationships. According to Bergner, “flagging sex drive is not just an inevitability for women—it is specifically the result of long-term monogamy. Even [effects of] the hormonal decrease of menopause can be entirely overridden by the appearance of a new sexual partner.” (qtd. in this article in The New York Times. My italics)
So, dangle some studly dude before a menopausal lady, and she’ll be giggling like a teenager, but serve up the same old spouse and watch the sizzle drizzle.
Bergner references several studies that underscore the raw lust of the “gentle sex.” Female subjects were hooked up to a machine that measures vaginal blood flow. Then they were shown images of heterosexual and homosexual sex and even pictures of sex between bonobos—a species of ape. Women were turned on by all of it—even the apes—according to their vaginal reaction.
When heterosexual men were shown the same images, the response was predictable: they were slightly turned on by photos of men masturbating and male homosexual scenes, but they were overwhelmingly aroused by heterosexual and homosexual images of women.
But the really interesting thing?
In this study, both men and women also self-reported their levels of arousal as they watched the images. The men’s written responses were completely consistent with their physical responses—body and mind told the same story.
Not so with the women. Even though the instruments showed wide-ranging arousal at all the images, the women’s self-reported assessments were very different. The heterosexual women said they were turned on by the men but not by sex between apes or women. Right in line with cultural expectations and maybe their own idea of how they ought to feel.
Except that their bodies were telling a different story.
This female dichotomy between self-reporting and physical arousal has been repeated in several experiments that indicate women are turned on a lot more and by a wider range of sexual situations than previously thought, and also that women either aren’t aware of their own arousal or consciously under-report it.
Why is this? Why is the suggestion that women are naturally lusty such a shocking and forbidden topic? Why does this rattle the cage of cultural morés and expectations?
Women have, since time immemorial, been the kin-keepers, the caretakers, the foundation of the family, the social glue. But at what cost? Denial of their own primal sexual urges? Settling for sexual repression and boredom for the greater good?
No one is suggesting that monogamy, commitment, and long-term relationships ought to be tossed out, or that women should act on their urges. Clearly, stability, attachment, and intimacy create strong societies and families. Despite whatever sexual frustration it entails, monogamous relationships work for raising children and also perhaps for long-term psychological contentment.
But repression doesn’t work very well. So long as women feel they ought to ignore, deny—or to be puzzled or embarrassed by—urges that seem unacceptable or culturally unsanctioned, they will continue to be confused by and out of touch with their most primal urges. And maybe lose out on some healthy sexual energy as well.
No one has to act on their impulses, but acknowledging and accepting that they exist might be a healthy psychological choice, and one that puts women in touch with their sexuality.
How do men feel about all this female sexual sturm und drang? Well, “this scares the bejeesus out of me,” said one man in this article. The notion that, roiling beneath the domestic façade of the little woman tending hearth and home, may lie scary sexual urges has always been deeply unsettling, especially to men. Who’ll mind the children and navigate the social contract? Who’ll be the faithful one?
The growing scientific suspicion that women have a lot more going on beneath the surface than we let on or the culture sanctions is an interesting theory. While it may not be the whole story, I think somewhere we recognize it as at least partly true.
Dr. Barb DePree, M.D., has been a gynecologist and women’s health provider for almost 30 years and a menopause care specialist for the past ten.