‘What Do Women Want?’ Offers Us More Questions to Ponder

Remember when Mel Gibson was almost respectable? I’m talking before the drunken roadside anti-semitic tirades. He made a film called What Women Want (2000) which was, aside from being an absolute clunker of a romantic comedy, premised on the idea that heterosexual men are completely ignorant of the inner desires of their sexual counterparts. Like countless films and television shows before it, What Women Want presented feminine heterosexual desire as an enigma; inaccessible, and totally mysterious. Gibson’s character only gains access to the impenetrable world of the female mind through a freak accident involving a bathtub, a blowdryer, and pantyhose (I told you it was a clunker).

As was the case with that film, Daniel Bergner’s provocative new book What Do Women Want? turns out to be less ambitious than its title suggests. What Do Women Want? Adventures in the Science of Female Desire does not provide a definitive “answer” to its title question, and instead offers mostly additional questions for all of us to ponder. Along the way, the reader is treated to a survey of cutting-edge research on female desire, emotional yearnings, and what inspires, sustains, and destroys, sexual attraction in the female brain. What Do Women Want? is fascinating, with the author’s well-polished prose and affective curiosity justifying its place as one of the most talked-about books of the year, sexy title aside.

Bergner’s hypotheses are scant, as are those of the researchers in his book, however a partial answer to the book’s title question might be “novelty”: the research suggests that the feminine revels in newness, whether it’s the rush of a first-time sexual encounter, or the discovery of a previously-unimagined fetish. Familiarity breeds more than just contempt for many of the women in Bergner’s book; it destroys attraction, relationships, and even entire families. The book has received a lot of press recently, and this controversial insight into the female mind might help to explain why.

You have probably heard of What Do Women Want? by now. Bergner has been promoting it everywhere from The Today Show to The Colbert Report, and the book has caused a minor stir among cable news anchors, stay-at-home moms, and bloggers alike. I’m starting to understand why, as one of the book’s implicit arguments is not likely to go down well in middle America: many of these researchers’ findings suggest that women are not the creatures of chastity and monogamy they are so often portrayed to be. (Gasp!)

Throughout Bergner’s book there are many tales of women bored — even frustrated — by monogamy, and “conventional” romantic relationships, and acting the part accordingly. With divorce rates hovering around 50 percent in most Western countries, and an epidemic of passionless, sexless, and stifling monogamous unions in our society, one is forced to ask: surely there must be a better way? Bergner’s book suggests that many North American women are starting to answer this question for themselves.

Even in the wake of the sexual revolution of the ’60s and ’70s, most cultural representations of women still suggest that women are the sex better suited to monogamy. The myth of the devoted wife and straying husband perseveres in American life. Whether it’s the lingering influence of America’s puritan heritage, the stifling legacy of our species’ transition into agriculture and industry, or both, marriage — for those whom are able to marry in America — is still “the norm”, for better or worse. Some Americans continue to have disdain, or are at least are skeptical of “unconventional” romantic relationships, and inventive sexualities. What Do Women Want? suggests that we might be on the precipice of major change in this regard, as more and more women begin to understand, make peace with, and recognize their need for an alternative to traditional marriage.

Bergner is not the only one profiting from cutting-edge research on female desire. There is a new app on the market intended to support the often ravenous, novelty-hungry female libido: “Pure” allows women to quickly seek out casual hookup sex using their smartphone, and has already generated a fair amount of buzz months ahead of its release. Hookup apps are nothing new (what with your Grindr, Blendr, etc.) but hookup apps that cater specifically to the feminine — that certainly. It remains to be seen whether or not “Pure” will be as popular as its male-dominated forebears, but the research in What Do Women Want? suggests that the creators of “Pure” might be in for a very profitable fourth quarter.

Hopefully, What Do Women Want? will convince many that the stubborn cultural myth that most women are ultimately suited for and should aspire for monogamy deserves to die. The sooner it does, the sooner heterosexual men and women alike will begin to appreciate the fluidity of their sexual and romantic instincts, instead of accepting or assuming that marriage is the “end goal” of their dating lives.

RATING 7 / 10