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

Chapter 5. Narcissism

One wall of Marta Meana’s cramped university office was covered with postcard-sized reproductions, portraits from past centuries. All were of women. The faces of Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring and Portrait of a Young Woman floated on their dark backgrounds, their skin luminous, their eyes turned toward something or someone behind them.

Below them, as a joke, Meana handed me a picture of two control panels. One symbolized the workings of male desire; the other, female. One had only a simple on-off switch; the other had countless knobs. “Trying to figure out what women want,” she said, “is a real dilemma.” It was a dilemma she was trying to address—as a scientist, as a couples counselor, and as the president of the Society for Sex Therapy and Research, the most prominent organization in its clinical field—in different ways than Chivers.

And it was a dilemma that Isabel, a lawyer at a nonprofit, was attempting to solve for herself as she debated whether she should stay with her boyfriend of eighteen months, Eric, and marry him if he proposed, which she sensed he would. The issue was that despite his good looks, his intelligence, his kindness, and his skill in bed, she rarely wanted to make love with him.

Isabel, who was not one of Meana’s patients but was one of the women I spent my time learning from, recounted a scene from the evening of last year’s Valentine’s Day. In her small Manhattan apartment, Eric had run her a bath, strewn it with salts, surrounded it with candles, and considerately left her to lie alone in it. When she stepped out of the bathroom, she found her bedroom lit with more candles. And on her bed was a deluge of rose petals arranged in the shape of a heart. Through a fair amount of conscious effort, she managed to be seduced by this gift: while Eric took her place in the bathroom and showered, she lay back on the bed, brushed the petals across her lips, and dropped some onto her shoulders and breasts. When he emerged from the shower, she did feel pleasure as he went down on her, slid his broad shoulders up her body, and slid inside her. But the pleasure was precarious. And on many other nights what she felt was merely patience or something worse than that.

She loved him, she was certain. She said, “I remember the first time I brought Eric home to St. Louis to meet my dad and my stepmother and my grandmother. She’s eighty-eight years old. She helped raise me when my parents were divorced. We call her The Patter. If she sits next to you, she’s going to find some part of you and pat it. She’s going to pat your hand or your knee or your arm. Pat-pat-pat as you sit there. She’s incredibly special to me. She’s incredibly affectionate. She’s deaf, mostly. I think that’s one reason she’s so tactile; her ability to communicate is hampered. There’s something very child-like about her. And one afternoon during that visit, I walked into the living room, and she and Eric were sitting on the couch, holding hands. He looked totally comfortable. There was nothing ironic in his expression. I think they had been talking, but talking is labor-intensive with Granny, and now they were watching TV. Probably she’d been patting him, and they’d wound up holding hands. I think most men would have been highly self-conscious. Holding hands with her like that would have been an ironic exercise. But for Eric it was natural.”

She also said, “The shades in my bedroom let in a small amount of light, and he likes to sleep with something over his face. A T-shirt, a pillow, an arm, all three—I don’t know how he breathes. It’s kind of hilarious. In the mornings, I have to peel away layers to get to where his face is. I want eye contact.” She endured sex once a week but yearned for this every day. “I’ll find his eyes under everything and wait for his eyelids to open, and then I’ll find space for my body right against his.”

She was transfixed by the tenderness of his gaze and tormented by the fact that her lust for him had waned within a few months of their starting to date; she sensed that his proposing might happen any day. She dreaded it. She was in her early thirties. She believed that she couldn’t afford to make the wrong choice, and amid all the truths she tried to weigh rationally, it was impossible for her not to compare her situation with Eric to the two years she had spent with her previous boyfriend. When she had dressed for Michael, she had selected her clothes while subjecting herself to a silent inquisition. “Am I a doll?” she had asked herself as she stood in front of her mirror, or as she lingered in a boutique’s fitting room, deciding whether to buy. “Am I a fantasy?” Michael’s preferences weren’t extreme, but they were pointed. High-heeled boots, a short skirt. Or tight jeans and a T-shirt slung halfway off one shoulder, sizeable hoop earrings, dark eyeliner.

He was ten years older. And he was particular, though his requests were never demands. What she put on was her choice. He let her know, keenly, precisely, what he liked: the black lace bra through which her nipples showed. But the decision about whether to fulfill his wishes belonged entirely to her.

The problem was that she wanted to fulfill them all, though his taste in clothes was not hers. What was she collapsing into? she had berated herself. Yet it didn’t feel like collapse. There was strength in sliding on the lace thong that matched the bra, in pulling on the jeans or skirt, the boots. He would be riveted. She had that power. An alertness spread through her body as she dressed for him. An awareness suffused her skin.

With Eric, she didn’t have to accuse herself of any capitulation. He liked what she liked, and she counted this as a sign. When they went out in summer, she often wore a loose-fitting pastel green dress she’d bought on a trip to Guatemala. It was girlish, she knew, and she laughed at herself because of it. But Eric cherished this quality in her. To be who Michael had wanted required stepping off a precipice, dismissing the voice that warned her against inhabiting his wishes, plummeting over that edge. Women who dressed with urgent, ungoverned need for the desire of men could set off, inside her, a flurry of disdain, like an instinctive aversion to a weakness or wound. Yet whenever she walked into a restaurant where Michael waited for her at the bar, his focus seemed to pluck her from the air, midfall, and pull her forward. His eyes held a thoroughly different kind of constancy than Eric’s later would. Eric adored her. Michael admired her. She was a possession, the heels of the boots she picked for him taking her across crowded rooms toward her owner. The boots were like the frames and pedestals he chose for the photography and sculpture in his gallery. He had specific opinions about how she was best displayed.

Her mind was already reeling by the time they sat down to dinner, yet she kept the appearance of balance. The display that pleased him depended on a degree of agility. In conversation and body she maintained dexterity, but when his breath or hand grazed across her in any way, or even when there was no contact at all, only proximity, she could become so frantic with need she grew almost angry. “If you don’t touch me right now, I’m going to scream,” she would plead silently. “Please, God, touch me right now. Please, God, something’s got to be done here.”

She came quickly, repeatedly, when the dinners were at last over and they were in bed. The certainty of her coming guaranteed it; she didn’t have to doubt, so doubt never got in the way. Her mind never obstructed; it had been unspooling since the evening’s start.

Michael’s effect on her had been all the more enthralling because of the way she viewed her own body. At the age of seven, anointed a flower girl for a summer wedding, she had worn a dress of pink flounce and lace trim with a pink sash and a crown of roses and baby’s breath. She couldn’t have been more pleased; the outfit was the prettiest she had ever put on. But when she glimpsed the girl chosen to walk alongside her, who wore the same flounce and trim and sash, and who seemed half Isabel’s size, the spell cast by the fairy-tale clothes floated away, replaced by bewilderment, then despair, that two seven-year-olds in identical gowns could look so far from identical. Ever since, she’d seen herself as encased by a soft excess, sometimes horrifically thick, sometimes subtle. She assaulted this flesh by dieting, or ignored yet never forgot it. And though as an adult she told herself that it had been years since anyone could rightly have called her even chunky, still there was this padding that dismayed her. Under Michael’s stare, she had felt pared away. The sharpness of his eyes had somehow cut her body to a better outline. Eric didn’t have that ability. He was gentle, while Michael had been gentlemanly; he was empathetic, while Michael was at once solicitous and commanding. Michael’s admiration had convinced her of her allure; Eric’s telling her she was beautiful couldn’t quite make it so.

The relationship with Michael had ended only because she understood he would never commit to her, never marry her or even live with her, but it didn’t end cleanly at all. Months after breaking things off, she met him for dinner, and afterward, outside, he turned up the collar of her overcoat, hailed her a cab, and five minutes later sent her a text: I’m following you. Soon she was buzzing him into her building. There were lapses like that, lapses and lapses. The end point she had announced to her friends took forever, it seemed, to become fact, until she could no longer bear to confess her failures to them.

“I could not part with him,” she said. “I couldn’t get him out of my skull.”

Meana was a psychology professor at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas, and just before I flew out to meet her, she said that we should start by going together to a Cirque du Soleil show at one of the casinos. So, soon after my plane landed, we sat in a darkened U-shaped theater and began our conversation while a pair of topless, dark-haired women in G-strings dove backward into a giant water-filled champagne glass on stage. The women plunged in from opposite sides of the pool, swam toward each other, and entangled with each other, eel-like. They slid up the walls, arching their spines and dragging their breasts along the glass.

Next, a wispy blonde came skipping like a schoolgirl out on stage. Wearing a tiny pleated skirt, she swirled her hips and kept a set of hula hoops spinning around her waist. Suddenly a cable snatched her up above the audience, hoisting her high. It was her act’s climactic moment, a symbolic ravishing. The nymphet opened her legs wide above our eyes, splitting them wider than seemed humanly possible; the splitting was almost violent.

Then a sinewy black woman wearing only beads thrust and pumped her gleaming body to a tribal beat. The soft-porn performances followed each other in fast succession, the stage dominated by arresting women. The audience was divided equally between the sexes. Finally the platinum-wigged MC cried out, “Where’s the beef?” and a long-haired man in a cowboy’s vest and chaps climbed through a trap door. He strutted and swiveled and bared his abdominal ladder of muscle. He shed the chaps, kept only his groin covered, and stood in his cowboy boots, flexing his ass. Yet even as male nudity had its minutes, a dozen female bodies surrounded him.

In her early fifties, Meana, wearing a shirtdress and tights that evening and wearing her bronze-colored hair in bangs, didn’t doubt the usual explanations for the fact that women far outnumbered men among the performers, though she didn’t believe they were terribly illuminating. Those explanations went like this: The men in the audience would have been made too uneasy by more male nudity on stage. For them—for the heterosexuals among them, anyway—the cowboy needed to be obscured by breasts. And for the women in the crowd, the female nakedness fed an addiction—judging their own looks against iconic beauty. So the ticket buyers were gratified, given a live version of what they were used to from a million images on billboards, in magazines, on television: for the men, an opportunity to lust; for the women, a chance to compare.

Meana saw more in the imbalance on stage. She began simply, with something that fit with what Chivers had found through her plethysmograph, as the flaccid Adonis tossed stones on the beach. “The female body looks the same whether aroused or not. The male without an erection,” Meana said, “is announcing a lack of arousal. The female body always holds the promise, the suggestion, of sex.” The suggestion sent a charge through both genders.

And then, the imbalance served women in a further way, an essential way—a way that formed the crux of Meana’s thinking. To be desired was at the heart of women’s desiring. Narcissism, she stressed—and she used the word not in damning judgment but in plain description—was at the core of women’s sexual psyches. The females in the audience gazed, erotically excited, at the women on stage, imagining that their own bodies were as searingly wanted as those in front of them.

From her office wall, in one of the two Vermeers Meana had put up, the young woman glanced back and outward, her thin-lipped mouth smiling timorously, as if she couldn’t be sure anyone was aware of her. In the other, the more full, parted lips were not smiling at all. The girl had no doubt she was being watched.

“Being desired is the orgasm,” Meana said somewhat metaphorically; it was at once the thing craved and the spark of craving. Her confidence about this narcissistic engine arose partly from a curtained area in her lab, from a contraption that seemed to belong in an ophthalmologist’s office. With chin clamped and immobilized on its little cradle, her subjects peered at a screen, at a series of soft-porn images. The contraption took hundreds of readings per second of how the eyes roamed and where they paused.

For a few years, she had been comparing female and male patterns of focus. Long ago, she had earned a master’s in literature and planned on a career teaching great novels. But she found she couldn’t endure standing in front of a classroom and trying to make her students share what she felt. “I didn’t want to tarnish it,” she said. So she had returned to study as an undergraduate, to get the background she needed to start on her doctorate in psychology.

In a study she had just published, her heterosexual subjects had gazed at pictures of men and women in foreplay, among them a couple standing at a kitchen sink, he behind her, tight against her, genitals out of sight, the two of them wearing little more than a few suds of dish soap. Viewing the sequence of pictures, the male subjects stared far more at the women on the screen, at their faces and bodies, than at the men. The females looked equally at the two genders, their eyes drawn to the faces of the men and to the women’s bodies—to the expressions, it seemed, of desire in the men and to the flesh desired in the women. For the females, heat seemed to radiate from the men’s urgency and from the women’s power to generate it.

Meana wanted to test this further. She had to be certain that the females weren’t checking out the women’s bodies merely for the sake of comparison with their own. She had to dispense with this reason that she saw as intertwined but secondary; she had to confirm that her subjects were staring at what turned them on.

One method might have been to run the same experiment while her subjects masturbated. That way, their eyes would more surely seek out what carried an erotic jolt. But there was little chance that she could get this kind of study approved by the university’s review board and, even if she could, too high a chance that research with masturbating women would bring Meana the outraged scorn of Las Vegas’s conservative press—condemnation that could, in turn, endanger all of her explorations. Las Vegas was a paradoxical place, with nearly all its advertising based on titillation and with prostitutes waiting at licensed ranches down the highway and yet with a prudish strain in the atmosphere, a resistance to the animal impulses that made people flock to the city. This divided psyche seemed an extreme version of a split that ran throughout the country. It left the erotic as hard to study as it was omnipresent. This was partially why Chivers, who had earned her PhD and done the first of her plethysmographic experiments in the States, had returned home to Canada after graduate school to continue. During her years in the United States, her research had been the target of ridicule. The Washington Times had protested the American government dollars that helped to pay for her work. “Federally Funded Study Measures Porn Arousal,” the headline had read. A congressman had demanded an investigation. The outcry over her small project soon faded, but she worried about an acute American aversion to looking too closely, too carefully, at the sexual.

Meana was going slowly with the review board. She was designing a study that would use eye-tracking and X-rated videos. The films would turn on her subjects more than the soft-porn photos could. In this more heightened state—a state less conducive to cognition and comparison—would the women’s eyes become less drawn to female body parts and more compelled by everything male? She didn’t think so. She expected that the pattern from her earlier experiment would hold, that when it came to bodies, the female figure would prove full of electricity.

As she developed the new study and hoped for the review board’s approval, she didn’t yet know about Chivers’s research with the pictures of isolated genitals. Those results might have led her to wonder if, in her video experiment, women would seek—as well as female bodies—Deen-like erections, pure declarations of male desire.

Meana’s ideas grew not only from her lab but also from her work as a clinician, some of it trying to help women besieged with dyspareunia, genital pain during intercourse. The condition is not, in itself, caused by an absence of lust, yet her patients reported less pain if their desire increased. So part of her challenge was how to enhance desire, and despite prevailing wisdom, the answer, she said, had “little to do with building better relationships,” with fostering communication between patients and their partners.

She rolled her eyes at such notions. She described a patient whose tender lover asked often during sex, “ ‘Is this okay?’ Which was very unarousing to her. It was loving, but”— Meana winced at the misconception behind his delicate efforts—“there was no oomph,” nothing fierce, no sign from the man that his hunger for her was beyond control.

Talking with Meana made me think of Freud and one of his followers, Melanie Klein. Sexologists don’t have much time for psychoanalytic theory; they tend to ignore or deride Freudian ideas as ungrounded in the empirical research that defines their discipline. Meana never mentioned Freud, yet his thinking, and Klein’s, seemed to float within hers. It seemed to hover, as well, behind Chivers’s readings of blood.

For Freud, sexuality was etched into our psyches with our earliest rapture—and the mother’s breast was the dazzling source. “It was the child’s first and most vital activity,” he wrote a century ago, “his sucking at his mother’s breast. No one who has seen a baby sinking back satiated from the breast and falling asleep with flushed cheeks and a blissful smile can escape the reflection that this picture persists as a prototype of the expression of sexual satisfaction in later life.” The primal need for sustenance dictated the child’s first lessons in eros; survival and sensuality converged. “The child’s lips, in our view, behave like an erotogenic zone, and no doubt stimulation by the warm flow of milk is the cause of the pleasurable sensation.” The infant’s consciousness was flooded, immersed in moments of nearly orgasmic power.

“The finding of an object is in fact a refinding of it.” Freud delineated the way our adolescent and adult desires took shape. We searched for the past, for the pleasures we once received, which were given by the mother not only in feeding but—all the more so by her, as opposed to the father, during Freud’s lifetime—in countless other ways of tending to the baby, from cleaning its genitals to nuzzling its neck to clutching it tight. “A mother would probably be horrified,” Freud continued, “if she were made aware” that she was “rousing sexual instinct and preparing for its later intensity. She regards what she does as asexual, pure . . . after all, she carefully avoids applying more excitations to the child’s genitals than are unavoidable in nursery care.” She should, Freud assured, “spare herself any self-reproaches even after her enlightenment. She is only fulfilling her task in teaching the child to love.”

The erotic energy of girls, in Freudian theory, was soon led along intricate emotional routes and rechanneled from mothers to fathers. But the original lessons lingered; the mother’s sexual pull was never erased.

Then Klein amplified Freud’s thought. For Freud, nursing and the breast were far less important, finally, than the phallus or lack of it, in writing the psychic scripts of boys and girls. Klein toppled this hierarchy. The breast, for her, was nothing less than mountainous. Maybe it was inevitable that Freud, as a man, would magnify the phallus above all and that it would take a female psychoanalyst to overturn this. Maybe Klein’s thinking arose not only from her being a woman but from working, as a clinician, with young children, from observing the psyche close to its beginnings, rather than reconstructing childhood through the lives of grown patients, as Freud did. No matter what the reasons, Klein evoked a breast that seemed to occupy the infant’s entire vision. All else disappeared. The breast soothed and withheld, seduced and denied, gave itself and guarded itself, taught love and rage. It was “devouring . . . bountiful . . . inexhaustible . . . persecuting”—it consumed our earliest consciousness and never really relinquished its overwhelming role.

Freud believed that homosexual attractions churned within women because of their experiences as infants; his and Klein’s writing offered an explanation for the pulsings of blood when Chivers’s women watched women together, women alone. The breast was the first locus of desire; a woman’s body was its owner; we are all on a quest of “refinding.”

And the mother in Freud and yet more in Klein added depth to Meana’s thinking about women’s sexual narcissism. Through the female bodies in her lab or on the casino stage, through a mostly nude model washing dishes at a kitchen sink or topless swimmers diving into a giant champagne glass, women made themselves, unconsciously, vicariously, recipients of the unmanageable desire they themselves had once felt for the bodies of their mothers. They acquired their mothers’ erotic omnipotence.

On one of the laboratory walls, outside the curtained room where women’s pupils were tracked, there was a poster from an Annie Lennox concert Meana had been to. Lennox’s piercing, incantatory voice, her unflinching lyrics, her band’s icy, electronic sound, seemed almost audible sometimes as Meana spoke. “Sweet dreams are made of this; who am I to disagree,” Lennox sang. She then laid out, without judgment, without lament, some of the inescapable realities of lust. Meana’s face was round while Lennox’s was lean; Meana’s bangs were pixieish while Lennox’s hair was shorn half an inch from her skull; Meana’s voice didn’t hold the singer’s unremitting insistence. But there was a shared impatience with the tales people tell themselves about desire. Meana’s features were nimble, expressive; her mouth twisted occasionally, faintly, into something akin to a grimace. This happened when she talked about the legion of couples counselors who held to the idea that, especially for women, incubating intimacy would lead to better sex.

Empathy, closeness—these were supposed to be the paths. For Meana, these paths might lead to lovely places. Lust, though, wasn’t likely to be one of them.

“Female desire,” she echoed Chivers’s experiment with the strangers, the close friends, “is not governed by the relational factors that, we like to think, rule women’s sexuality in contrast to men’s.” She was about to publish a study built on long interviews with women whose marriages were sexually bereft. It might be right, she said to me, that bad relationships can kill desire, but good ones don’t at all guarantee it. “We kiss. We hug. I tell him, I don’t know what it is,” she quoted from one subject. “We have a great relationship. It’s just that one area”—the area of their bed.

It was important to distinguish, Meana went on, between what was prized in life and what was most potent as a source of lust. Women might set a high value on ideals of togetherness and understanding, constancy and permanence, but “it’s wrong to think that because relationships are what women choose, they’re the primary source of women’s desire.” Again, she spoke of narcissism and the wish to be the object of primal need.

The attainment of this wish, she argued, required not closeness but a measure of distance. An object of lust was, by necessity, apart. She warned against the expectation or even the hope of reaching popular romantic dreams: of “merging” with a partner, of being able to say “you complete me.” This was the wrong standard for love. This kind of bond, or just the striving for it, could suffocate eros. Melding left no separation to span, no distance for a lover’s drive to cross, no end point where the full force of that drive could be felt.

“Sometimes we wake up looking at each other,” Isabel said. There was a radiating warmth in this perfectly timed stirring, this simultaneous opening of eyes with pupils and irises so close they were about to blur, she and Eric on the verge of vanishing in proximity. Second best and still wonderful was the lifting of coverings from his face so his eyelids opened and she was seen, recognized, taken in, ensconced, absorbed.

Why, she asked herself, indicted herself, interrogated herself, did she feel indifference—why, if she was honest with herself, had she begun to recoil when he reached out in a way that asked for more? It made no sense to her. At the party where they had first met, she had been the one to spot him first; on their first date, she had been the one to kiss him first; during their first months together, she had, she said, felt such lust she had “climbed him like a tree.” Now, at a year and a half, she “clung to him like Velcro,” had the daily thrill of his just-woken eyes, and felt as though her desire had been stolen, spirited away by some mischievous minor god.

She took action. She ventured into an upscale sex-toy shop and bought massage oil, a blindfold. This was with the intention not of blocking out his handsome features but of transforming the effect of his touch. Attempts like these were successful, slightly, temporarily. What was wrong with her? Sometimes, she said, she wished he would “take more of the marauder approach”—her shoulders pinned to bed or wall, her nipples bitten hard, her thong pulled harshly aside, torn. But she told herself not to ask for this. “Because he would feel badly and because his gestures would be empty, a parody of what I want. The whole thing is that it should be instinctual. The idea that I would have to request it . . .” Her voice trailed off. Was it possible, she asked herself, to have both what she’d had with Michael, for whom the marauder approach had been one part of a hypnotizing repertoire, and what she had from Eric, the profound sincerity, the absolute presence? What was she setting herself up for if she stayed with him? Did she need to extricate herself, no matter how excruciating that would be?

Early in her second winter with him, a great snowstorm hit New York. It piled high plumes on the railings and layered plush cloaks on the sills. It pushed drivers off the streets and consumed their cars once they were parked. The blizzard caused a communal thrill, all the more so since only a few days remained till Christmas. Several days before this, she and Eric had put up her tree, adjusting and clamping it in the stand and adorning it. As she had hooked a gleaming red ball to a high branch, her eyes teared abruptly with gratitude that she was doing the decorating with him.

And now, in the middle of the Saturday afternoon blizzard, she came home from shopping for gifts and, in her kitchen, talked with him about what she’d bought. She noticed that he wasn’t saying much, then that he wasn’t taking part at all. He walked out of the room, into the vestibule.

He stopped, turned. She realized his hands were behind his back. Maybe, she thought, he’d got her an early present. He stepped again into the kitchen and knelt on one knee.

“What are you doing?”

“I’m asking you to marry me.”

“You’re doing that? Right now?”

Plainly, he was, because below her, in his outstretched fingers, he held a ring. Still, she seized on the thought that he might be joking, because the knee was so sudden and the kitchen, as a setting, was so strange.

“Are you going to speak?” he asked.

She didn’t.

“Are you saying yes?”

So much hope lay in that question, and it was met by her own, hers full of desperation to preserve everything she had with him.

“Yes,” she said, “I am saying yes.”

She joined him on the kitchen floor. She slid on the ring, a diamond in a deco setting, a hexagon. He’d chosen it without any hint from her. As ever, they had the same taste. He told her that, hours earlier, he’d called each of her parents and asked for their blessings. She loved that, too.

On the linoleum they hugged and drank the bottle of champagne he had ready. He listed all the reasons he wanted to spend his life with her, and eventually they stood and moved from the kitchen. They went not to the bedroom but outside, into the evening dark, into the unabating snow. As they walked, the sills grew more and more lush, the cars more and more enveloped. Everything was covered over, buried.