Sex for Dummies: Deflating Myths About Female Desire

March 14, 2009 § 5 Comments

I wrote this editorial for my English class. As always, feedback is appreciated in comments!

Maybe you’ve already read Daniel Bergner’s recent New York Times Magazine article, ominously titled What Do Women Want? In the piece, Bergner chronicles the research of four contemporary sexologists trying to discover what “ignites female desire.” The scientists are given huge sums of money to make sweeping, oversimplified generalizations about what women crave, while paradoxically concluding that women’s true desires are still a scientific mystery. If you’re anything like me, your reaction might have gone something like this:

Part A: Intrigue and excitement. You’re thinking, “Sweet deal! An article about female sexuality that hasn’t been relegated to the Style section? It even has the word feminist in the subtitle! Okay, postfeminist, but I’ll take what I can get.”

Part B: Mid-read, you pause to catch your intellectual breath. “Wow, this article is incredibly dense. I expected it would be research-heavy, but this is just ridiculous. How will other women be able to relate to such clinical language?”

Part C: You’ve finished the article, but nothing’s become any clearer. “I thought I was supposed to have that crazy woman code cracked by now!” Sorry, my friend. Bergner seems morbidly confused about the answer to his own weighty question.

Allow me to help.

MYTH: All women want the same thing.
While he never says it outright, Bergner’s narrative is based completely on this lofty idea. In the first few pages, one of the researchers bemoans the fact that “no one right now has a unifying theory.” The sexologists are portrayed like explorers in some bizarre Nicholas Cage movie: through tireless excavation and sifting, they might one day uncover THE SECRET! to women’s sexuality.

I don’t want anyone to be too disappointed, so let me just fill you in now before you get sweaty: there is no secret.

There are 3.4 billion women in the world. How could it be possible that we all have the same sexual inclinations? The human race is fairly well-known for its incredible diversity; did Bergner think that such sexual multiplicity only applies to men?

Well, it doesn’t. Women are just as varied as men, and that means we like a lot of different things in the bedroom department. Sorry, sexologists, but there isn’t just one light at the end of the tunnel; there are literally billions of them.

MYTH: Women are inherently sexually passive.
Bergner and his subjects spend many a page ruminating on the subject of female sexual docility. I’m going to take a page from activist Jaclyn Friedman’s book – or, rather, letter in response to Bergner’s article: “Wondering why women gravitate toward sexually passive roles? The answer has far less to do with evolution than with the ways women are shamed for expressing aggressive desire and with the pervasive idea that women who pursue their own satisfaction are asking to be raped.”

Our society presents women who purposefully and insistently seek sexual pleasure as laughable, desperate caricatures. We are demeaned and labeled as sluts, hussies, skanks, and whores. Men who pursue such gratification, on the other hand, are just guys being guys (can you think of a single male equivalent for the word slut? No, man-whore doesn’t count). This is not biology – it is a socially constructed power dichotomy that’s been actively created to keep women submissive. We don’t need million dollar studies, Mr. Bergner, to understand why the majority of women take on more subservient sexual characters: we are at risk for ridicule, rape, and murder when we do otherwise.

MYTH: This research will help women understand their sexualities.
I’d like to believe that Bergner had women’s best interests in mind when he wrote this article. The same is true for the scientists involved: “‘I wanted everybody to have great sex,’ [Meredith Chivers] told me, recalling one of her reasons for choosing her career, and laughing as she did.”

But the somber reality is that articles like these actually corrupt women’s sexualities by overcomplicating them with jargon and alienating women whose sexual preferences fall outside the accepted “norm.” As activist Andrea James writes in a letter to the Times, “‘Sex science’ will eventually be viewed as we view ‘race science’ today: as 19th-century eugenic pseudoscience produced to justify oppression. Sexology oppresses women and sexual minorities by describing their desires and behaviors as exotic and diseased.” The tone of this article – which portrays female sexuality as something mysterious to be comprehended instead of celebrated – has the potential to divorce women from their authentic desires. I’d much sooner consider this text a study in social stigma and pervasive sexism than in biology.

MYTH: We need scientific investigation because without it, women won’t know what they really want.
Contrary to what researcher Chivers says, female sexuality is not a “giant forest” that must be mapped. Most of us are already pretty familiar with the path.

It’s true that some women are in the dark about what brings them pleasure – but that unfortunate phenomenon has little to do with science and much more to do with the fact that society is turning the lights off. As Deborah L. Tolman, professor of social welfare, writes in response, “When girls and young women are more than ever socialized to be the best ‘sex objects’ they can be, is it surprising that women grow up struggling to know what they want?” My generation’s women are constantly shown how to please men; blow jobs, masturbation, and sex from a straight male perspective dominate every aspect of popular culture. We can’t even get our health teachers to say the word “clitoris.” It’s no wonder that there’s such a wealth of women who don’t want to talk about orgasms, who don’t know how to ask for what they want. That is society’s fault. The sort of science that Bergner rallies behind isn’t going to change anything for these women as long as our culture still shames us for being sexual.

But the majority of women do know what they want. And we might be happy to share the information – it’s just that no one ever asks. Instead of relying on academics and big-time newspapers for our female-sexuality-101 lessons, I propose we do something radical: talk to females. Our culture generally has little interest in what women have to say – but that doesn’t mean we don’t know what we’re talking about. If you’d like to know what a certain lady wants, ask her. No university lab scientist can be surer than she is about what turns her on.

I want an end to articles that encumber my sexuality and rely on what Jaclyn Friedman fittingly terms “tired clichés dressed up as science.” I want reputable newspapers to devote these seven thousand words to the real problems that today’s women face. I want journalists to stop belittling their female subjects with sexist, irrelevant commentary (Chivers “favors high boots and fashionable rectangular glasses”). I want an end to subtitles that claim we are in a “postfeminist” age, when everything I know tells me feminism is needed now more than ever.

I want a world where my peers know the difference between science and speculation, my sisters aren’t mocked for expressing desire and expecting satisfaction, and my daughters will see their own pleasure discussed in health textbooks.

I am a woman, and that’s what I want.

§ 5 Responses to Sex for Dummies: Deflating Myths About Female Desire

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