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Book review: What Do Women Want?

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 11 August, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 11 August, 2013, 5:28pm

What Do Women Want?: Adventures in the Science of Female Desire
by Daniel Bergner 
Canongate
2.5 stars

Emma Brockes

If you can get past the studied jauntiness and occasionally histrionic style, Daniel Bergner's What Do Women Want? says some useful things about female sexuality.

Rats are a big part of this book: Bergner spends time watching scientists watching rats for signs of what in humans might be considered inverse or atypical gender behaviour. The same goes for human experiments, in which women are shown porn. Sure enough, the female rats are more sexually aggressive than the males, and the porn-watching women as indiscriminately aroused as the men in the trials.

The complicating factor, of course, is that arousal does not always equal desire. To support his theory, Bergner finds case studies of women who feel guilty for not fancying sweet, reliable men, opting instead for unreliable risk-takers.

The solid point is that women's sexuality is still bound up in strict ideas about evolution. Which is why, perhaps, overt sexuality in women over child-bearing age is not considered attractive.

Bergner's potted social histories are cursory - from Freud to Madonna in a single sentence, and a summary of Victorian "nascent feminism" that aligns it with Christian evangelism to explain how women came to be seen as society's moral guardians. Without wider social or political context, this is practically meaningless.

The lives of modern women fare better, particularly in a good section on the huge and growing problem of antidepressants: 15 million women in the US are on mood-stabilising drugs, a common side effect of which is reduced sex drive - and Bergner is touching on the difficulty of sustaining interest in a partner over the course of a long marriage.

One woman likens the pleasure of having sex with her husband to "the pleasure of returning library books". Another says, "my husband feels like my brother". These sections are a welcome relief from the rats and a reminder that reading life through brain chemistry will get you only so far.

Guardian News & Media

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