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

Chapter 3. The Sexual Fable of Evolutionary Science

The history of sexuality, and perhaps above all the history of women’s sexuality, is a discipline of shards. And it is men, with rare exceptions, whose recorded words form the fragments we have of ancient and medieval and early modern ideas about female eros. Such glimpses are worth only so much. But what can be said about these fragments is that they add up to a particular sort of balance—or imbalance—between an acceptance and even a celebration of desire and drive on the one hand and, on the other, an overriding fear.

A woman in the Bible’s Song of Songs:

I sleep, but my heart is awake

I hear my love knocking.

“Open to me, my sister, my beloved,

My dove, my perfect one,

For my head is wet with dew,

My hair with the drops of the night.”

. . . My love thrust his hand

Through the hole in the door.

I trembled to the core of my being.

. . . Passion as relentless as Sheol.

The flash of it a flash of fire,

A flame of the Lord himself.

There is no sign of terror here, only a sacred glory of thrusting and trembling. And there is this recognition of women’s erotic need from Exodus: “If he take him another wife; her food, her raiment, and her duty of marriage, shall he not diminish.” The archaic King James phrasing can thwart contemporary understanding; the same line in more recent biblical language reads, “He must not neglect the rights of the first wife to food, clothing, and sexual intimacy.”

From Paul in First Corinthians, in King James: “Let the husband render unto the wife due benevolence.” Or, in a modern edition’s version of “due benevolence”: “The husband should fulfill his wife sexually.”

A steady heat and urgency rises from the quills of the Bible’s compilers in classical times and rises, too, from classical poetry and myth and medical texts. “Eros, again now, loosener of limbs, troubles me, uncontrollable creature,” Sappho wrote. And Ovid’s Tiresias, who lived as both male and female, declaimed that women take nine times more pleasure in sex. And Galen of Pergamum, physician to the Roman emperor and great anatomist of antiquity, pronounced that female orgasm was necessary for conception: a woman’s climactic emission had to meet up with a man’s. The contents of this female substance seem never to have been specified, but the requirement of ecstasy—a moment that appears to match our current definitions—was, for Galen, absolute.

For the next millennium and a half, until a few hundred years ago, Galen’s understanding dominated science. A woman’s “certain tremor” was a key to procreation for the fifth-century Byzantine physician Aetius of Amida. The Persian scholar Avicenna, whose eleventh-century Canon of Medicine was studied throughout the world, worried that a small penis might be an impediment to reproduction. The woman might not be “pleased by it,” might not feel enough sensation to send her into blissful spasms, “whereupon she does not emit sperm, and when she does not emit sperm a child is not made.” Gabriele Falloppio, discoverer of the Fallopian tubes in sixteenth-century Italy, stressed that a man’s malformed foreskin might impede a woman’s orgasm and impregnation.

How did Galen’s thinking cling on so tenaciously? The longevity of his teaching is all the more baffling, given that only about one-third of women, nowadays, say they can climax through penetration alone. Were men and women of Galen’s time, and long after, deftly attentive to the clitoris during intercourse? Better coached in the methods of vaginal orgasms? The shards offer up no answers. But, assuming that sexual skill was no better then than now, didn’t women ever volunteer that they’d conceived without the tremor? Hints and theories of procreation without pleasure did emerge over the centuries, yet somehow Galen’s wisdom wasn’t supplanted. In the late sixteen hundreds, the widely used English midwifery manual titled Aristotle’s Masterpiece, which asserted its scientific agreement with Tiresias about women’s superior ecstasy, described the female role in conception this way: “By nature much delight accompanies the ejection of the seed, by the breaking forth of swelling spirit and the stiffness of nerves.”

Still, this embrace of women’s sexuality, from Exodus onward, shouldn’t be taken as the prevailing ethos of any period. The ancient wariness and repression of female eros is a story that barely needs telling. There is Eve’s position as first sinner: seductress and source of mankind’s banishment from paradise. There is, from Tertullian, founding theologian of Christianity, the assignment of Eve’s sinfulness to all women. All women were destined to be “the Devil’s gateway.” There are Moses’s transcriptions of God’s warnings in Leviticus. As the Jews encamp at Mount Sinai on their journey toward the land of milk and honey, God descends in a cloud and makes clear, again and again, that the center of a woman’s sexual anatomy overflows with horror, with a monthly blood “fountain” so monstrous that she must be quarantined, “put apart for seven days, and whosoever toucheth her shall be unclean . . . and everything that she lieth upon shall be unclean, everything also that she sitteth upon.” The litany of taint continues, relentlessly, until the decree that those who “uncover” the fountain and have sex will be expelled from the tribe, cast away from God’s people.

For the Greeks, the original woman was Pandora. Molded by the gods out of clay, her erotic thrall and threat—her “beautiful evil . . . bedecked with all manner of finery” in the poet Hesiod’s rendition, her “shameless mind and deceitful nature”—made her as dangerous as Eve. Lust-drunk witches of the Middle Ages left men “smooth,” devoid of their genitals; and to the long line of living nightmares caused by female carnality, French and Dutch anatomists of the seventeenth century contributed the clitoris that grew with too much touching into a full-blown phallus, turning women into men who ravished their former sex.

But if the pre-Enlightenment West had always been frightened by female heat, sometimes extoling it, yet corralling it carefully within the bounds of marriage—where, for the sake of women’s as well as men’s sexual release, England’s early Protestant clergy prescribed conjugal relations exactly three times per month, with a week off for menstruation—what followed eventually, with Victorianism, was a focused effort at extinguishing it. Lately historians have made the case that the Victorian era in Europe and America wasn’t as prudish as we’ve tended to think; still, on the subject of female desire, it was a period of ardent denial. As with all the tectonic shifts of history, this one had uncountable reasons. One explanation has beginnings in the sixteen hundreds, with scientists’ incipient realizations about the ovum, about the egg’s part in reproduction. Slowly, incrementally, this ended Galen’s legacy; gradually it separated women’s ability to ignite from their ability to get pregnant. The ever-haunting female libido became less and less of a necessity. It could be purged without price.

Then, too, at the outset of the nineteenth century, nascent feminist campaigns and evangelical Christian rallying cries converged around the theme of irreproachable female morality. The two voices were intertwined; they amplified each other. Nineteenth-century feminists made humankind’s salvation, here on earth and forever, their own womanly mission; Christianity made womanhood its exemplar. American prison reformer Eliza Farnham preached that “the purity of woman is the everlasting barrier against which the tides of man’s sensual nature surge.” Without this feminine barricade, “dire disorder will follow.” And educational crusader Emma Willard proclaimed that it was for women to “orbit . . . around the Holy Centre of perfection” in order to keep men “in their proper course.” One well-read American manual for young brides captured the inextricable feminist and evangelical spirits: women were “above human nature, raised to that of angels.”

This was all a long way from “by nature much delight accompanies the ejection of seed.” The innately pious had replaced the fundamentally carnal. The new rhetoric both instilled and reflected a transformation. In the mid–eighteen hundreds, in a letter about the sexual lapses of ministers throughout the Eastern states, Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote to her husband, “What terrible temptations lie in the way of your sex—till now I never realized it—for tho I did love you with an almost insane love before I married you I never knew yet or felt the pulsation which showed me that I could be tempted in that way—there never was a moment when I felt anything by which you could have drawn me astray—for I loved you as I now love God.” And meanwhile, the renowned British gynecologist and medical writer William Acton was making plain that “the majority of women, happily for society, are not very much troubled by sexual feeling of any kind.”

Yet beyond reproductive science, feminism, and religion, the Industrial Revolution had a tremendous impact on the West’s thinking about what it meant to be female. Class barriers were breaking down; men could climb. This placed a value on work and professional ambition to a degree that may never have existed before, now that the rewards were potentially unlimited. And work—to borrow from Freud, who both was and wasn’t a Victorian—required sublimation. Eros needed to be tamped down, libido redirected toward accomplishment. Victorianism assigned the tamping, the task of overall sexual restriction, primarily to women.

How far have we traveled in the last hundred or so years? In one way of seeing, Victorianism is a curio, encased in the past, its pinched rectitude easy to laugh at. This argument relies on a line of evidence leading rapidly away from the minimizing or denial of female sexuality, a line running through Freud’s candid investigations of the erotic in women, through the brashness of the Jazz Age, the brazenness of flapper girls. It runs through the invention of the birth control pill, through the social upending brought by the sixties and the sexual revolution, and on through Madonna’s aggressive cone-shaped breastplates and the pornographic self-displays of any number of lesser female celebrities. The opposing argument begins, too, with Freud, with the sections of his writing that render women as having, by nature, “a weaker sexual instinct,” an inferior erotic capacity, and passes through post–World War I advice books like one informing that, unlike just about all males, “the number of women who are not satisfied with one mate is exceedingly small.” From the forties and fifties, there is the story of Alfred Kinsey, whose research funds were revoked when, unforgivably, he turned from cataloguing the sex lives of men to publishing Sexual Behavior in the Human Female. Then, from the late sixties, there is the bestselling Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex delivering emotional law: “Before a woman can have sexual intercourse with a man she must have social intercourse with him.” And finally there is the confluence between strains of contemporary thought: between the virginal edicts aimed mainly at girls and young women by evangelical Christianity, the waves of panic and sexual protectionism that overtake secular culture when it comes to girls but not boys, and the widely believed—and flimsily supported—thesis of evolutionary psychology that, relative to men, who are hardwired to hunt for the gratification of sex, women are rigged by their genes to seek the comfort of relationships.

This confluence is telling. In subtle yet essential ways, Victorian thinking about women and sex isn’t so alien to our era. And science—evolutionary psychology—is an unlikely conservative influence. Mainstream evolutionary theory nimbly explains our physiological traits, from our opposable thumbs to our upright posture to the makeup of our immune systems. By contrast, evolutionary psychology, a field that has bloomed over the last few decades, sets out to use the same Darwinian principles to illuminate the characteristics of the human psyche, from our willingness to cooperate to our inclinations in one of the discipline’s main areas of investigation, sex. The ambitions of the field are enticing and elusive, enticing because they hold out the promise that Darwin’s grand logic can provide us with an all-encompassing understanding of ourselves, and elusive because the characteristics are so intricate and may have been created mostly by culture rather than inherited on our chromosomes. Evolutionary psychologists put absolute faith in the idea that our patterns of behavior and motivation and emotion are primarily the expressions of our genes. What is, evolutionary psychologists say, is meant to be, genetically speaking. This is equally true for the fact that we all have thumbs that help grasp and for the fact that—judging by appearances—men are the more lustful gender.

The role of social learning, of conditioning, isn’t given much weight by the field’s leaders. If promiscuity were considered normal in teenage girls and not in teenage boys, if it were lauded in girls and condemned as slutty and distasteful in boys, if young women instead of young men were encouraged to collect notches on their belts, how might the lives of females and males—how might the appearances that evolutionary psychology treats as immutable—be different? This kind of question doesn’t much interest evolutionary psychologists like David Buss, a professor at the University of Texas at Austin and one of the field’s premier sexual theorists. He dispenses with such challenges by amassing evidence that, all over the globe, male randiness and female modesty are celebrated. The widespread, in his view, proves the predetermined, the genetically encoded. Look, he has written in one of the discipline’s academic manifestos, at the ideal number of sexual partners named by college students as they think forward over a lifetime; research has shown far higher figures for men than women. Look, around the world, at preferences in mates. From Zambia to towns of Arab Palestinians to America, societies set great value on chastity or some measure of propriety or reserve in women.

Evidence like this piles up in Buss’s pages. And then he adds another worldwide mating reality—that from Zambia to America, financial prospects are prized in men—and this takes him to one of evolutionary psychology’s pivotal conceits. Within the field, it is known as “parental investment theory.” To the public, it may not be known by any name at all. And by most, the theory’s components may be only hazily comprehended. Yet the conceit has traveled from academia through the media and into general consciousness. It has been fully embraced, deeply absorbed, become part of common wisdom. Parental investment theory goes like this: because men have limitless sperm while women have limited eggs, because men don’t have to invest much of worth in reproduction while women invest not only their ova but their bodies, as they take on the tolls and risks of pregnancy and childbirth, because women then invest further in breast-feeding (the investment being in time, in extra calories required, and in the postponed ability to conceive another child)—because of this economy of input, far more pressingly relevant to our prehistoric ancestors, to our ever-endangered forebears, than to the humans of today, males have been programmed, since way back when, to ensure and expand their genetic legacy by spreading their cheap seed, while females have been scripted to maximize their investment by being choosy, by securing a male likely to have good genes and be a good long-term provider to her and her offspring.

This all fits neatly with the evidence from Zambia, Yugoslavia, Palestinian towns, Australia, America, Japan. And the theory’s stark economic terms have a solid, incontrovertible sound. Our erotic beings, the differences in desire we observe between the genders, are the inevitable manifestations of evolutionary forces from eons ago. Parental investment theory gratifies one of our urgent longings: for simple answers about how we’ve come to be the way we are.

But the theory’s foundation is precarious at best. Does the fact that women are expected to be the more demure gender in Lusaka and New York, in Kabul and Kandahar and Karachi and Kansas City, prove anything about our erotic hardwiring? Might the shared value placed on female modesty speak less to absolutes of biology than to the world’s span of male-dominated cultures and historic suspicion and fear of female sexuality?

And then, what of Chivers’s plethysmograph, which made a myth out of appearances? What of the drives that lie concealed beneath the surface, that crouch within the strictures? The sexual insights of evolutionary psychology can sometimes seem nothing but a conservative fable, conservative perhaps inadvertently but nevertheless preservationist in spirit, protective of a sexual status quo. Women, the fable teaches, are naturally the more restrained sex; this is the inborn norm; this is normal. And the normal always wields a self-confirming and self-perpetuating power. Because few people like to defy it, to stray from it.

One recent pop psychology mega-seller, The Female Brain, opens with lessons grounded in parental investment theory and serves as an emblem of the ways evolutionary psychology has spread its sexual vision throughout the culture. “The girl brain” is a “machine built for connection,” for attachment. “That’s what it drives a female to do from birth. This is the result of millennia of genetic and evolutionary hardwiring.” The boy brain-machine is very different; it is built for “frenzies” of lust.

The book, like loads of others in the pop psychology genre, pretends to back its evolutionary theory with something concrete, with the technology known as functional magnetic resonance imaging, fMRI—with pictures of the brain at work. But the technology is nowhere near being up to the task. To spend time in fMRI laboratories, to stare alongside neuroscientists while fMRI data is sent from subjects’ brains to lab computers, to listen as those neuroscientists strain to read and parse the pictures of brain regions forming on their monitors, as I have, and to ask bluntly about the state of our seemingly miraculous equipment, its capabilities much hyped by the media, is to understand that our technology is not at all precise enough to subdivide and apprehend the miniscule subregions and interlaced brain systems that enact our complex emotions, among them the wish to have sex. When, on the news or in a magazine, we hear or read something like, “The hippocampus lit up as subjects looked at photographs of . . .” we are learning something about as specific as a TV traffic reporter scanning from a helicopter and being able to say only, “The heavy traffic is somewhere in northern New Jersey.” As scientists told me again and again, brain imaging just isn’t a way to determine much of anything definitive about female versus male emotional neurology, not yet. And such technology may never be the right way to study inborn differences between the genders, because experience—use and disuse, positive and negative reinforcement—is forever altering neurological systems, strengthening some and weakening others.

Proclamations like the ones in The Female Brain—about connection versus frenzies, or about how a woman, to have satisfying sex, must be “comfortable, warm, and cozy” and, “most important,” has “to trust who she is with”—are in striking parallel with the teachings of fundamentalist Christianity. The secular version is less extreme, but the messages are similar. As a pair of health education programs, designed by evangelicals and used in thousands of public schools within the past decade, instructed in their charts, the “five major needs of women” in marriage are topped by “affection” and “conversation.” Sex is nowhere in the five. Across the page, the male list is led by “sexual fulfillment.” In another graphic titled “Guys and Girls are Different,” girls have an equals sign between “sex” and “personal relationship.” Guys have the sign crossed out.

So, with scientific or God-given confidence, girls and women are told how they should feel.