During a conversation about books with a male friend, the subject turned to the erotic novel Fifty Shades of Grey, which propelled its author to the top of the Forbes Magazine’s highest-earning authors’ list, grossing in US$95 million only in the past year.
He was protesting against the number of women he used to witness every morning, on his commuter train, reading a copy of Fifty Shades. The idea of women reading a sex book on their way to work was, in his opinion, distasteful. This made me laugh out loud. Did he never think about sex on his way to work? Aren’t men supposed to think about sex every seven seconds? What was wrong with women getting lost in sexual reveries any time of the day?
In fact, journalist Daniel Bergner’s new book, What Do Women Want?, says that women actually desire sex as much as men, that “female sexuality is as raw and bestial as male sexuality”; only their urges are less known because they are stigmatised by society.
In one experiment, women reportedly experienced arousal even while made to watch two monkeys copulating, while men did not. Their arousal levels were measured through contraptions placed inside the women’s vaginas. The studies conclude that females are “naturally more promiscuous, voracious and predatory” than men, breaking the long-held myth that women are staunch defenders of serial monogamy and chastity.
Bergner’s book has been widely reviewed and talked about in the press and in the blogosphere, but the most balanced commentary I’ve come across was in the New York Times’ review:
Why is female lust getting such a big dose of scientific legitimacy at this moment? Are these theories influenced by women’s and men’s evolving social roles? By women’s increasing economic and political power? By feminism itself? Many of the scientists are, after all, women, a novel situation. The history of the study of women’s sexuality tells us that when many scientists are finding the same sorts of things at the same time, it is because they have gone looking for them; a cultural shift has already taken place. For some reason — maybe for many reasons — the story of the libidinous male and sexually indifferent female doesn’t make sense to us anymore.
We shouldn’t mourn its passing. As long as we continue to think (in the back of our minds, to some degree) that men are hard-wired for sex and women for intimacy and babies, then we are stuck with the logic that only men really want to have sex; women want to trade it for something else. This makes straight couples into hagglers: self-interested, ungenerous, wary of being played. Better for men and women to approach each other as more or less equal partners in lust, and work out the rest in the morning.
Any sweeping generalisations that men or women are randier than each other should, I think, be taken with a large pinch of salt, but that men and women are finally finding equality in the lust department, I find liberating and refreshing.
Truth be told, I think about sex a lot these days.
On the one hand, my “thinking” is pure fantasy. Women like to fantasise about fictitious situations they would never encounter in real life, and that is probably why Fifty Shades of Grey was so successful. That is also why every summer I daydream about me and the ‘goh-juss’ Roger Federer having a shower together at Wimbledon…
On the other hand, the “thinking” is about an increased awareness of my sexual needs. Whereas I have always been conscious of my need to eat and sleep, I had never been quite attuned to my body’s sexual desires.
Such thoughts had never crossed my mind when I was married. Come to think of it, already in the years preceding my marriage, I had become detached from sexual feelings within myself.
Several factors contributed towards it: the trauma of going through a couple of serious health scares, dysfunctional relationships with men with whom I was ill-matched, which also meant sex was lacklustre, a long period of unemployment, which shattered my self-esteem, and led me to depression and loss of libido.
For a long time I simply didn’t find sex appealing – to do nor to think about.
Of course being trapped within an unhappy marriage with a man who was prone to episodes of extreme aggression did not help. I now know that in order to be able to enjoy intimacy I need to first and foremost feel ‘safe’ with the person I am with. If I harbour any suspicions they may hurt me, physically or emotionally, I shut down, detaching myself from my body; I can fake, but I don’t feel a thing. I might as well be a prostitute having sex with a client.
Since I walked out of my marriage, I have evolved from a state of ‘being able to tolerate sex’ to actually ‘desiring sex’. That is as revolutionary as an anorexic discovering hunger and the pleasure of eating for the first time. I feel like I have turned a gigantic leaf in the history of my sexual awakening, and I love the new sensual me that has been born as a result.
Let me make it clear: I have not become a sex-starved hussie, ready to leap on the first male that shows a flicker of interest in me. Nor does the sight of humping apes excite me. All I’m saying is I am now deeply in touch with my sexual self and am able to recognise when my body longs for intimacy, the things that turn me on, the things that turn me off.
I welcome the points made in Bergner’s book in that it make us women exercise our right to think about or want sex as much as men, without the fear of being labelled ‘sluts’. But the true nature of female sexuality and desire is far more complex than any lab gizmos shoved up women’s private parts could ever gauge.
Sex in the brain
The research questions the belief that women always need an emotional connection in order to want to have sex. I call this ‘male researchers’ wishful-thinking bullshit’. C’mon; excepting cases of women with actual sex addiction, who may want to sleep indiscriminately with multiple partners, sex for a woman always happens in the brain. Even if she is not looking for a deep, meaningful relationship, in order for a woman to enjoy sex, she needs to be mentally turned on, that is a fact.
I have asked girlfriends and female colleagues in their 20s, 30s, 40s, 50s and 60s what they found most appealing in men, and got a wide variety of answers. Some women (usually younger) do mention six-packs and gym-toned bodies as a first point of attraction, and those will usually be ladies who also spend a lot of time and money on their own appearance. In other words, likes attract likes. The intellectual women always say “the brain” is the most attractive part of a man’s body. One, who’s married to a professor, even said “the mention of PhD and thesis papers” was an instant trigger for her to fall in love. A woman in her 60s said “kindness” was what she was mostly looking for in a man, and she did not care what he looked like. Others rated financial stability highly so what the man did for a living and the size of his paycheques could increase or decrease their interest. Needless to say these women were also proud of properties they owned and tended to buy designer dresses for their wardrobe.
But all of these answers still make it seem like women use sex as a trading tool for something else, not that they want sex for the sake of sexual enjoyment. We are probably biologically programmed to select men who can provide us with physical protection, economic stability and good genes to be passed on to our progeny. But I was surprised that none responded they wanted a man who satisfied them in bed.
I am sure it is something all women secretly hope for, but perhaps, when they are looking for a long-term life partner, it gets pushed down the priority scale because survival of the species is paramount. What a shame…
For me, going through a kind of late-life journey of sexual self-discovery, sexual fulfilment is high on my priority list. Not that I intend to become promiscuous, but I feel entitled to a fantastic sex life, with a considerate lover for whom giving is as important as taking.
I once joked to a friend that in future relationships I wanted sex to be so steamy and wild that the bed wouldn’t last a month. Her response amused me: “Well, you’d better find a rich man then, who can buy you a new bed every month.” Money again! Too much realism for my fantasy-loving mind.
Even with so much scientific evidence now available that women are as lustful as men, women are still shy of exploring their sexuality and eroticism with brutal honesty. Centuries of social conditioning are not easy to shed. But those hundreds and thousands of women taking to openly reading erotica in public transport for a flight of fantasy make me think women are screaming to come out of their shells and reclaim their right to truly ecstatic sex, not the mechanical mating routine they may be having at home with their husbands/boyfriends.
How much can we really achieve in reality? Apart from our social programming, we have our own personal fears and insecurities to grapple with. We also have to deal with an entire male population out there, who may not be able to appreciate the fine balance between respect and daring we want in bed. Not to mention that communication between men and women tends to be ambiguous and turbid at the best of times.
Forget the women. What do men really want? – is what women would like to know.
There is one immediate and simple solution for men and women to achieve sexual truce and enjoyment without the need to hurt each other, and that is for them to be able to answer these two questions with total honesty: What do you want? Do you want what I want?
Nothing else, in the end, matters.
“Honesty is such a lonely word.
Everyone is so untrue.
Honesty is hardly ever heard.
And mostly what I need from you.”
(from Honesty, Billy Joel)