Throughout history, female desire has been portrayed as one of the most destabilizing and dangerous forces. It caused Cleopatra to throw away her kingdom for an ill-fated dalliance with Marc Antony. It felled Eve, led Anna Karenina astray, and doomed Emma Bovary. Even after the sexual revolution of the 1960s, lusty women still tend to be slut-shamed by their peers and reduced by popular culture to a Girls Gone Wild stereotype. American society has yet to escape those old madonna/whore dichotomies, no matter how hard we try.
Meanwhile, the true nature of women’s sexuality remains as elusive as ever. The latest attempt to tackle the mysteries of eros, which will surely be one of the summer’s hottest new reads: Daniel Bergner’s What Do Women Want? Based off of his popular New York Times Magazine cover story, Bergner’s book attempts to pull back the societal veil on female sexual urges, to argue that our postfeminist, scientifically advanced age still gets the issue all wrong—and that women are even more animalistic, promiscuous, and dependent upon sexual novelty than men. The provocative 2009 cover story stirred up plenty of controversy, prompting even the liberal author Greg Mitchell to gawk at its photos of women mid-orgasm, while cultural anthropologists criticized Bergner for making blanket statements about women despite that none of his research ventured outside the Western Hemisphere.
But let’s allow Bergner to lay out his case. Tripping through history, from evolutionary biology and psychology to the Bible, the author slowly picks apart our deep-seated belief that monogamy is the natural domain of women and that females are uniquely qualified to thrive inside of a long-lasting commitment to only one sexual partner. Among his most compelling and titillating pieces of evidence that women are built to be just as horny as men: that their arousal, measured by blood flow to the vagina in a lab, spikes while watching hard-core pornography; that female monkeys will relentlessly pursue lazy male monkeys to mate; that female rats will take it upon themselves to mount male rats; that women account for one in three online porn users. He also notes how female rats and other mammals have clitorides, which seem to exist only for the purpose of sexual arousal—a fact that has intrigued evolutionary biologists and upended notions about female desire across a variety of species.
Is Bergner’s survey more than a little voyeuristic? Sure. Whether he’s interviewing women about their darkest fantasies or watching a tantric expert bring herself to climax, his accounts of these moments often read like erotica, so much that the reader can’t help but wonder about a 52-year-old man’s motivations for writing this book.
Still, Bergner seems to be onto something when he comes to the conclusion that women also crave sexual novelty—and that they struggle with monogamy just as much as their male counterparts. Take, for example, a woman who signed up for a trial of a female arousal drug out of desperation—she wanted to “get her freak back” in the bedroom with her partner of seven years.
And then there’s the issue of multiple orgasms. Bergner writers that it “was evolution’s method of making sure that females are libertines, that they move efficiently from one round of sex to the next and frequently from one partner to the next, that they transfer the turn-on of one encounter to the stimulating of the next, building towards climax.”
So here we finally have the real problem with female lust, according to Bergner: that it takes a sharp nosedive in monogamous relationships. The implication is that if only the wives were more enthusiastic about having sex with their husbands, the thorny mystery that is monogamy would be solved (or, at least, improved).
But Bergner thinks a tiny pharmaceutical company called Emotional Brain has stumbled upon a solution that will help women desire their partners more: Lybrido, a.k.a. “female Viagra.” Lybrido and its close cousin, Lybridos, were developed by Adriaan Tuiten, a 58-year-old Dutch researcher with a doctorate in pharmacology. Both drugs tamper with the interplay of serotonin and dopamine, giving dopamine—the brain’s lust courier—a temporary edge over the libido-snuffing serotonin. While the former consists of a Viagra-like chemical that causes blood to engorge the genitals as well as testosterone, which triggers dopamine production, the latter contains buspirone, a compound that can temporarily suppress serotonin.
But many critics believe Lybrido is unlikely to “cure” monogamy, after all.
“The search for a pill to ‘fix’ monogamy just seems like an attempt to medicate away a social-psychology and cultural problem,” says Greg Downey, a neuroanthropologist based in Sydney. “Our expectations are unreachable, but rather than change them, we’ll just use a ‘performance enhancing’ drug.”
While Downey isn’t opposed to women or men using drugs to alter their physical desire, he does note a certain irony behind the idea that a society so conflicted about mood-altering and performance-enhancing substances in the realms of sports and academia might be so quick to embrace them to shore up the marriage unit. And of course, there’s also the risk that women will start to become used to the higher levels of testosterone in their system and that, like an addict, will need bigger and bigger shots of Lybrido to feel the same arousing high.
“If you don’t fix the underlying problem, you’re just going to have to keep upping the dosage,” says Downey. “We could easily have a group of women taking these drugs who are still in situations where there’s too much stress in their lives, they’re unhealthy, they’re not getting enough sleep, and maybe they’re not in an ideal emotional relationship with themselves or their partners.”
As Downey suggests, perhaps what we really need isn’t a sexy new arousal pill, but a new way of thinking about sex and commitment. Perhaps then we will be better equipped to get out of bad relationships or stay in good ones. More important, perhaps it will stop us from clinging to dissatisfaction because we’re afraid of the unknown.
Tuiten would never have developed Lybrido or Lybridos were it not for his dogged determination to better understand why a girlfriend suddenly stopped desiring him, leaving him brokenhearted, after living with him for years. She maintained that she didn’t menstruate when they were dating because it was her body’s way of telling her that she didn’t love him, but he later said that dieting and running had thrown her hormones out of balance at the time. “The psychological hadn’t dictated the hormonal,” Bergner writes. “Rather, biochemistry had determined the trajectory of lust and love; it had destroyed everything.”
Tuiten’s obsession with bridging the discrepancy between the psychological and the hormonal in committed relationships with a magic pill is one way of attempting to understand sex and commitment. But even Bergner admits that a pill can only go so far. And while What Do Women Want? unveils exciting new research about women’s sexuality, he also admits that much remains unknown about female desire. Even the researchers whose studies he quotes seem to be as mystified as the rest of us about how and why women get aroused (or not). How many different types of orgasms can women actually have? It’s still unclear (and depends on the woman). Does the elusive G-spot exist? No one apparently knows for sure, even after decades of searching.
So what do we know? We know that an arousal pill for women may be available as soon as 2016, and that sexually frustrated women can then presumably have it all—a dependable, if slightly boring husband at one moment and a passionate, almost illicit lover at the next. Well, at least for a bit.