As a straight woman who once published a 300-page book about lesbian cartoonists (Dyke Strippers: Lesbian Cartoonists from A to Z) I'm the last person to question why What Do Women Want?, a new book about female sexuality, is written by a guy.
It's a great book topic. And author Daniel Bergner, who has written about sex before (The Other Side of Desire: Four Journeys Into the Far Realms of Lust and Longing) knows that sex sells. Besides, this is America, where the First Amendment guarantees every man's right to publish a book about what turns women on.
And yet, I can't help but be aware of the fact that a book about female sexuality written by a guy is very different from one written by a woman.
His mystery is my reality.
Bergner seems surprised by certain things I take for granted. Women, for instance, are sexually aroused by more than we might admit to. Did we really need a study in which elaborate plastic dildos measure the blood flow to women's yin-yangs as they viewed pornography to establish this fact?
Put another way: If watching a video of copulating monkeys turned you on, would you necessarily admit that to a stranger? Even if that stranger were wearing a lab coat?
Still, this is an often fascinating myth-buster of a book that strives, and occasionally manages, to get to the truth about women and sex.
You learn about how the experts actually study sexuality, and some of their surprising conclusions. Monogamy, for instance, can be a libido-killer for women. And men aren't necessarily the more sexually aggressive gender. Other topics explored include female Viagra, rape fantasies, lesbian bed death, the anatomy of the clitoris, hypoactive sexual desire disorder and what it means if you love your husband but need to fantasize about Yankee shortstop Derek Jeter in order to reach orgasm.
And you'll add a new word to your vocabulary! A "plethysmograph" is a "miniature bulb and light sensor that you place inside the vagina, " which, through a convoluted Rube Goldberg-like process involving surging blood and tracking light beams, measures "vaginal wetness."
(Can you order one on the internet? Not yet. For your sex researcher fantasies, you'll just have to wait. Or improvise.)
For a book that's packed with throbbing erections, it ain't an easy read. The organization is elusive, and Bergner's quirky writing style, which loads each sentence with as much (often odd) information as possible, often results in awkward lines like: "Durhan, who has an eager, thin-lipped smile, had worked at Apple for nine years marketing iMacs."
The book's tone careens from dispassionate scientific jargon to chatty People magazine-speak to smutty purple prose. It often gets downright smarmy. Swelling nipples! Hard cocks! Throbbing genital blood!Here's Bergner's description of a video shown to female research subjects:
No need to search the web for porn with a passage like that.
A woman with long black hair leaned forward on the arm of a lounge chair, her smooth buttocks elevated. Then she settled her light brown body onto the white upholstery. Her legs were long, her breasts full, high. She licked her fingertips and stroked her clitoris. She pulled her spread knees up. She handled one breast. Her hips began to grind and lift.
Still, keep turning these pages and you can learn a lot about what turns you on. And while you're at it, savor sentences like: "My body would respond, but the pleasure was like the pleasure of returning library books."
And where else are you going to read about a "tantra warrior" masturbating in an MRI machine? For science! ("When you're about to have an orgasm," a researcher tells her through the intercom, "just raise your hand.")
WDWW includes lots of fascinating facts about women and sex. For much of history, we're told, experts thought female orgasm was necessary for conception. England's early Protestant clergy prescribed conjugal relations exactly three times a month, with a week off for menstruation. Over the past few decades, the percentage of women saying they've used a vibrator has gone from one to over 50. According to Nielson, the consumer tracking company, one in three online porn users is female. (Porn star James Deen's fan base, we learn, is made up primarily of teen girls and young women.)
While often confused by the meandering narrative, I found that if I just relaxed and went with it, I could have a lot of fun, as in when, out of the blue, Bergner drops in six pages that describe a variety of women's sexual fantasies -- many of which I found hilarious. I loved the young women whose libido was rocked by imagining sexually-charged encounters with a middle-aged bald man. But my favorite had to be: "Occasionally I fantasize about being raped as punishment for having anti-feminist fantasies."
You could devote an entire book to sorting that one out.
I do hope Roseanne Barr never reads this book. Bergner describes a study in which men were offered one night stands with Angelina Jolie, Christie Brinkley or Roseanne. While eager to have sex with Brinkley and Jolie, Bergner reports, most dismissed the opportunity to bed Barr with "distaste." (Women subjects, we're told, were eager to make whoopee with Johnny Depp and Brad Pitt, but turned down a night of passion with Donald Trump.)
That a smart, funny, female is, without question, sexually repellent? I doubt a female author would have accepted this conclusion without comment, as Bergner does. This kind of subtle sexism, along with the smutty prose, might motivate women readers to hold out for a book about female sexuality that's written by one of us. There's plenty of interesting information here, but you could decide to take a pass on this one.
Unless you're REALLY interested in how a woman on the receiving end of a high-tech plastic dildo wielded by a sex researcher feels about copulating bonobos.
Not that there's anything wrong with that.