What Do Women Want?: Adventures in the Science of Female Desire - Daniel Bergner (2013)

Chapter 10. A Beginning

Lifting her arm and ringing a little bell, the monitor calls out, “Men rotate! Men rotate!” In the cocktail lounge that’s been rented for the evening, each man rises from a small square table, turns from the woman he’s been talking with, and steps toward his next assignment. The women wait. They sit along a low, L-shaped banquette. In a pink blouse with a ruffled neckline, in a tight, black cardigan, in a dress with sleeves of gauze, they stay where they are, folded into the maroon upholstery, gazing upward to find out who will appear before them. For a few seconds, the men stride through the soft glow.

This is speed dating. The dates last four minutes, marked by the high-pitched bell. At the session’s end, all the women and men submit their decisions privately to the speed-dating company—a yes or no on each of the ten people they met, an expression of interest or an expression of none. Any pair who said yes to each other is put in contact.

The setting isn’t always a lounge. The bell is sometimes a playful gong, sometimes just a command. Four minutes is sometimes eight, sometimes three. But one aspect rarely varies: the men move, step near, before taking the seat opposite; the women remain still. The companies explain the convention by observing that women have handbags and that switching spots for them would take more time. Or they note expectations: that men should make the symbolic gesture of chivalry, getting up from their chairs and taking the initiative, while the women need only perch comfortably. This is just the way it is.

And since speed dating caught on in America and Europe after its invention in the late nineties by a Los Angeles rabbi desperate to make Jewish matches, researchers have used the form to examine patterns of desire. They’ve studied the statistics of a company named Hurrydate, tallying the choices of ten thousand clients. They’ve created evenings of their own, following all the speed-dating traditions and compiling their own numbers. And again and again, a contrast has emerged: when it comes to wanting a second date, a real date, women are far more selective than men, far less likely to say yes.

For evolutionary psychologists, this has added confirmation to certainties already established. Men are programmed to pursue and inseminate, pursue and inseminate, women to choose the just-right mate. Genetically, men are designed to lust wildly, women to desire in distinct moderation.

But two psychologists, Eli Finkel at Northwestern University and Paul Eastwick at the University of Texas at Austin, noticed what is known to scientists as a confound, a factor that might distort the data, insinuating illusion under the guise of insight. The factor was obvious, yet none of the speed-dating researchers made anything of it. No one discussed it in their academic papers; no one treated it as relevant. What would happen, Finkel and Eastwick wondered, if the instruction was “Women rotate,” if the men waited while the women stood and strode forward?

The science and thinking I have brought together in this book are a beginning, only that. None of the researchers I have learned from, not Meredith Chivers or Kim Wallen, not Marta Meana or Jim Pfaus, would claim to have definitive, fully formed answers about female desire. All of them, no matter how evocative their experiments and piercing their ideas, are acutely aware of the layers of unknowns—and of the impediments to getting beneath. The investigation of women’s sexual psyches is, with the exception of pharmaceutical quests, dismally funded, supported in strangely inverse proportion to its importance. Eros lies at the heart of who we are as human beings, yet we shun the study of our essential core, shun it perhaps most of all where it is least understood, in women. Where there should be an abundance of exploration, there is, instead, common assumption, unproven theory, political constraint, varieties of blindness.

Once, I asked Chivers why I never found myself phoning the psychology departments of Harvard or Yale or Princeton, why I never spent time with their professors, why so few of America’s most elite universities devoted any attention to her field. “Because there is a kind of taboo,” she said. “Because we who do this work are second-class citizens.” Second-class citizens for digging toward the primary, the primitive, the primal. Unseemly to be down there, metaphorically, literally. And unsettling to have scientists constantly threatening to send back information that might, experiment by experiment, study by study, paper by paper, tear presumption to shreds.

The presumption that while male lust belongs to the animal realm, female sexuality tends naturally toward the civilized; the belief that in women’s brains the more advanced regions, the domains of forethought and self-control, are built by heredity to ably quiet the libido; the premise that emotional bonding is, for women, a potent and ancestrally prepared aphrodisiac; the idea that female eros makes women the preordained if imperfect guardians of monogamy—what nascent truths will come into view, floating forward if these faiths continue to be cut apart?

Finkel and Eastwick set up fifteen speed-dating events with a total of three hundred and fifty women and men. At half of the gatherings, the men carried out the approaches. At the rest, when the bell sounded, the women took this part; in just this one momentary way, repeatedly over the course of an hour, traditional romantic roles were upended. A hint of Deidrah, of the sexually stalking rhesus females, was written into the rules.

The researchers asked the participants not only to check yes or no after each four-minute meeting but to rate their sexual feelings for every partner.

The results were straightforward. Social structure—and maybe something imbedded physically in the act of initiating—altered perceptions, decisions, eros. Improbably, yet unmistakably, the shift took hold right away. The numbers were plain. When the women were the ones who moved near, they said yes as often, as indiscriminately, as the men. When the women were the ones who crisscrossed the room and closed in, their ratings of desire became just as lustful. With the rules adjusted, a new reality leapt fleetingly into sight.