Sigmund Freud famously asked the question, but he didn’t have an answer. Even today, the question of what motivates female sexual desire continues to resound. Definitive answers have proven elusive.
What men want we understand quite well. In general, their sexual desire is orderly, consistent, and narrowly directed. A heterosexual man is heterosexual. If you show him heterosexual sex, his sexual physiology and subjective, reported desire rise in tandem. Homosexual sex will leave him cold both physically and emotionally. For men there is an excellent match between physiological arousal (as measured by penile tumescence) and level of reported desire.
Viagra’s success demonstrates the simplicity of the male mechanism. Viagra does not target desire, but works by increasing genital blood flow, allowing erection. This, apparently, is all that is needed. As the penis rises, desire is already waiting.
For women, the story is different. The female body, studies show, likes everything, or at least responds to everything (or does not know what it likes, some cynics will say). Female physiological arousal (as measured by vaginal lubrication) occurs in response to viewing most any type of sexual activity: man with woman, woman with woman, man with man. Even watching sex among Bonobo monkeys stimulates physiological arousal in women.
The Canadian researchers Kelly Suschinsky and Martin Lalumiere have proposed that this all-inclusive arousal pattern is an evolutionary adaptation. According to this theory, the vagina immediately becomes moist at any hint of sexual activity in the vicinity so as to protect the woman from injury in the event of rape or sexual violence. This arousal is not necessarily related to the sexual desires, intents, or preferences of the woman. After all, women do not really want to have sex with Bonobos.
Indeed, it turns out that unlike men, women’s objective bodily responses don’t reflect their subjective mental desires. This is one reason Viagra does not work for women. Physical preparedness does not imply desire. That the woman can have sex does not mean she wants to.
So what does she want?
This question, as Freud intuited, is not easy to answer.
On one hand, there is considerable evidence that women seek and place a premium on a sense of intimacy and emotional closeness with their sexual partners. The reasons for this seem clear and logical: Having but one uterus to fill with one fetus at a time, a woman gains no obvious evolutionary advantage from promiscuity. For women, possessing no seed to spread, sex with more people does not result in more potential genetic offspring. Moreover, women are at higher risk than men for sexual violence and sexually transmitted diseases, not to mention the unique risk of pregnancy. It pays for women to be careful in choosing their sexual partners.
In addition, the female orgasm is less reliably achieved than the male’s so their odds of enjoying casual or anonymous sex are lower. A woman who wants to increase her chances of enjoyment and minimize her chances of harm is better off getting to know her partner well before she gets to sex. From this logic follows the claim that women are bio-programmed to want relationships, not sex; that they need a stable, intimate relationship to feel aroused and are therefore built for sexual monogamy and marriage.
Not so fast. First, more recent studies show that gender differences in reported number of sexual partners are reduced or disappear altogether if women are told that they are connected to a lie detector and that the information they provide will remain confidential. In other words, when women feel safe enough or otherwise compelled to tell the truth about their sexual behavior, the story they tell more closely resembles the male story.
Moreover, if women believe that they will not be harmed and that the sex will be good, their willingness to engage in casual sex equals that of men. The female tendency toward a roving eye can also be inferred, according to the work of evolutionary psychologist David Buss, from the very phenomenon of male jealousy, which is common in all societies and consistently related to men’s fears of potential cuckoldry. If women really do not want extra marital sex, then why are men so suspicious and jealous? Why put Stop signs on a street with no traffic?
Second, recent studies indicate that human sexuality is adapted for sperm competition. In other words, our evolutionary past had programmed women to seek sex with different men in short succession, and have their sperm compete intra-vaginally for the right of paternity. So, while women may have no seed of their own to spread, they do have multiple varieties of male seed to select from. Recent studies indicate that the objects of female sexual attraction vary with the menstrual cycle. During their fertile days, women tend to fancy high-testosterone men who are not good candidates for monogamy but have healthy male genes. How many married women secretly act on this impulse is difficult to estimate, but this type of ‘sperm poaching’ appears to be quite normative among our primate relatives.
Men, in turn, are designed for this sperm competition as well. Biologist Robin Baker of the University of Manchester found, for example, that the amount of sperm a man discharges during intercourse with his wife is not dependent on the timing of the man’s last ejaculation but on the time since his last sex with his wife. If a long time has passed (increasing the chances that someone else’s seed found its way into his wife’s vagina), the husband’s ejaculate contains more sperm cells, which increases his competitive odds. Sex after a long separation tends to be more intense and prolonged. This is because long intercourse increases the chance of the woman reaching orgasm. According to research by Baker and biologist Mark Bellis, the uterine muscle contractions that accompany the female orgasm help retain sperm inside the vagina and move them toward the ovaries, and fertilization.
Moreover, the evidence suggests that women initiate divorce more often than men, and benefit less from marriage than do men on measures of health, happiness, and wealth. Additionally, as is well known to clinical psychologists and marriage counselors everywhere, many women who feel close to a loving partner nevertheless fail to feel passion for him. Australian researcher Lorraine Dennerstein found that the decline in women’s libido over the years of adulthood is strongly linked to the loss of sexual interest in their long time partners.
If monogamy, intimacy and communication are the engines of female desire, why do so many women fail to ignite with a familiar and faithful man? Why does their passion fizzle in marriage? Why will they seek to secretly graze in foreign pastures? Why do they not benefit from the monogamous arrangement more? Why do they break it up more readily?
In light of the new research findings, the old narrative—that women desire relationships rather than sex and are thus built for monogamy—begins to crumble. Instead, a new narrative emerges in which female sexual desire is powerful, flexible, complex—and even subversive.
As additional evidence, developmental psychologist Lisa Diamond of the University of Utah found that many women experience their sexual interests as fluid and open, encompassing at different times men or women, or both. Richard Lippa of California State University has found that unlike men, whose sexual appetite narrows as it increases, sexually charged women display an increasingly open orientation. Women with higher libidos are more likely to feel desire toward members of both sexes.
Marta Meana, a researcher at the University of Nevada, has argued provocatively that the organizing principle of female sexuality is the desire to be desired. In her view, the delicate, tentative guy who politely thinks about you and asks if this is okay or that is okay is a guy who may meet the expectations of your gender politics (treats me as an equal; is respectful of me; communicates with me) and your parents’ preferences, but he may also put you into a sexual coma—not despite these qualities, but because of them.
Female desire, according to Meana, is activated when a woman feels overwhelmingly desired, not rationally considered. Female erotic literature, including all those shades of gray, is built on this fantasy. Sexual desire in this view does not work according to our expectations and social values. Desire seeks the path of desire, not the path of righteousness. It thrives not on social order but on its negation. This is one reason all religions and societies try to control, contain, limit and re-direct it.
Marta Meana had men and women watch erotic pictures of contact between a man and a woman and tracked the participants’ eye movements. She found that men and women focus on different aspects of the sexual event. Men looked at the women, while the women watched the two genders equally. They concentrated on the man’s face and the woman’s body. What turned them on apparently were the desired female body, with which they identify, and the man’s lustful gaze, for which they long.
Despite what is commonly believed, then, Meana argues that female sexuality is more self-centered than male’s. Mick Jagger’s lamentations aside, male fantasies focus on giving satisfaction, not on receiving it. Men see themselves in their fantasies bringing the woman to orgasm, not themselves. Women see the man, set aflame by uncontrollable lust for them, bringing them to ecstasy. Men want to excite women. Women want men to excite them. Being desired is the real female orgasm, Meena says, and her words resound as a kind of truth. After all, wouldn’t more women be jealous of the desired woman who cannot orgasm than of the orgasmic woman who is not desired?
Meana asserts that this aspect of female sexuality explains the prevalence of rape fantasies in the female fantasy repertoire. Rape fantasies, in this understanding, are actually fantasies about surrender, not out of masochistic yearnings to be harmed or punished, but out of the female desire to be desired by a man to the point of driving him out of control. By this logic, the fantasy is actually about surrendering voluntarily after the coveted man, in his inability to stop himself, attests to the woman’s own supreme desirability.
According to this view, monogamous marriage does work for women on a certain level: it provides security, intimacy, and help with the children. But it also suffocates female sexual desire. As the mischievous author Toni Bentley wrote recently: “There is virtually no female sexual problem—hormonal, menopausal, orgasmic, or just plain old lack of interest—that will not be solved by—ta-da!—a new lover.”
At the end of the day, the accumulating evidence appears to reveal a paradoxical element at the core of female desire, a tension between two conflicting motives. On the one hand is the desire for stability, intimacy, and security—picture the flame on the burner of a gas stove: controlled, utilitarian, domesticated, and good for making dinner. On the other hand is the need to feel totally, uncontrollably desired, the object of raw, primal lust—a house on fire.