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What Do Women Want?: The Complications of Female Sexual Desire

What Do Women Want?: The Complications of Female Sexual Desire

On the eve of Thanksgiving, I wish that I could say that I’m giving thanks for a scientific study or article in the New York Times or even a headline in The Onion that takes the complexity of all human sexuality into account, without relegating men and women to different sample groups.  But sadly, Daniel Bergner’s latest foray into the dangerous territory of female sexuality for the NYT just gives us more of the same.  In “Women Who Want To Want,” an article for next Sunday’s magazine, Bergner explores the work of researchers and therapists who try to figure out reasons (and perhaps uncover a cure) for low sexual desire in women.  The specific disorder, “hypoactive sexual desire disorder,” is not something physical.  Instead, specialists plumb the depths of “desolation” and “despair” of women who “want to want,” but can’t.

The article is fairly technical, and in Bergner’s style (you may remember him from last January’s NYT mag article about – what else – the complexity of female desire), we don’t end up very far from where we started.  The most interesting part of the article comes when Bergner explains the research of Rosemary Basson, who believes that desire follows arousal, rather than the other way around.  In this upending of all cultural sexual theory, Basson claims that there is “nothing wrong, nothing disordered” about women who don’t feel aligned with “the model with swollen red lips gazing out with molten need from the billboard or the MTV dancer pumping her half-covered hips at the camera.”  Lori Brotto, the specialist on whom Bergner focuses much of his article, teaches women to immense themselves in sensation – to repeat over and over, “my body is alive and sexual,” whether they believe it or not.

All of this is interesting, and important, especially in light of the news, a few weeks ago, that a German pharmaceutical company may have accidentally discovered a female form of Viagra.  The drug flibaserin seems to work in the brain to increase female sexual desire, even though it failed as an anti-depressant.  Viagra, on the other hand, treats erectile dysfunction by increasing blood flow – which is a different solution for a different problem.  And here is something that no one addresses – the way that we think about female and male sexual dysfunction is fundamentally different.  Men’s desire for sex is never questioned, simply their ability.  And women’s ability to have sex is not at stake, just their desire.

A new study came out about two months ago talked about female sexuality is deep and complex, which it is – and the study was refreshing because it admitted that although many women suffer from the dearth of wanting that Bergner wrote about, for others, sex “provides a soaring height of euphoria and makes them feel alive and vibrant.” 

But the conversation about all of this hasn’t even begun for men.  There is plenty of talk about male sexual function – the scads of Viagra ads showing men looking embarrassed and emasculated are a case in point – and it’s tied to humiliation, so perhaps a discussion about male desire would be so culturally shaming that we can’t even conceive of it.  And doesn’t that say something deep and devastating about the way that we talk about sex – that male desire is off the table, that it’s utterly inconceivable that erectile dysfunction might be tied to something mental, (for example, self-esteem), just like lack of female sexual desire?  But perhaps these studies would make more sense – and Bergner would be able to draw more conclusions – if we talked less about the mysteries of female sexuality, and more about the complexities of human desire.  What kind of radical conversation would that be?

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74 comments

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12:45PM PDT on Jun 17, 2010

Jen Kae - this is not a place to advertise. Have some decency and respect what the comment part of it is. I would like to see further studies done on male sexuality. I'm not at all convinced that us "men" would find that too difficult as was suggested in the article.
Yes we have differences and I think communication is critical. But in some cases, medication can help until the man/woman is comfortable with the act. I've noticed that many women are highly sexual in the early stages of the relationship, only to withdraw after they have their man settled into them. What's that about??

11:12PM PST on Dec 11, 2009

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11:41PM PST on Dec 7, 2009

Final Comment: Cynical One says, "I'd bet you just misunderstood what the original statement meant and just kept digging yourself in a hole because... well I have no idea why. Maybe instead of getting all pissed off about something you don't understand, maybe you should just ask what the comment meant. It would waste a lot less of your time." To which I reply, for my last comment to him, "I don't care why you said it, you said it. Grow up and accept responsibility for being the yerk of the jear. I don't care if you think it was funny. I didn't appreciate it, and I really think Zoe was hurt so badly that your abusive and insensitive comments looked nice to her. All women deserve to be treated with respect. You say you have the ultimate respect for women yet you tell us to get a dildo and yawn in our faces. Where's the respect in that?

12:27PM PST on Dec 5, 2009

Cynical One, I am not going to waste my time getting to know an insensitive person who told at least one woman he didn't even know (me) to get a dildo because she called you on your insensitivity. I don't want to waste my time on someone who claims to have the utmost respect for women but won't commit to the one he has. This is a forum on what women want and I can't see any woman who respects herself wanting a man like you. Maybe I'm wrong, but from where I sit, you're probably the main reason dildos were invented in the first place. Since I don't want anything to do with you, why would I buy one?

I am in a secure, happy, loving relationship. Sex is not a problem. I came on this forum to help people understand what women want and to help women get it. You're just a big detractor. I don't care what you think of me, I think even worse of you, but I will extend you the respect of stating your opinions without sullying my good name. If you don't know how to disagree respectfully, you don't need to be on this forum. My one fault: Actually being stupid enough to answer your posts. I guess stupid is as stupid does. It's my time to stop being stupid. I hope I've helped at least one other woman on this forum realize that she has enough value not to settle for a man who will degrade and disrespect her the way you do not only me but other women as well.

9:11AM PST on Dec 5, 2009

Myra Gold says

"Clearly you have no manners or respect for women. You are not worth my time, and I am quite certain that after this foray you waltzed through with me, everyone else will see you as you really are, a bucket of crabknuckles. Yawn all you want. That's as much value as you can offer anyone. Why not take a nap until you have something of value to offer this forum. Nitey Night."

You obviously don't know me, since everyone that knows me agrees that I have absolute respect for all women.

Of course, they all so know I have no patients for people that have knee jerk reactions and/or make huge assumptions about things they know nothing about. You rants show that you are one of those type of people.

I'd bet you just misunderstood what the original statement meant and just kept digging yourself in a hole because... well I have no idea why. Maybe instead of getting all pissed off about something you don't understand, maybe you should just ask what the comment meant. It would waste a lot less of your time.

8:08PM PST on Dec 3, 2009

Clearly you have no manners or respect for women. You are not worth my time, and I am quite certain that after this foray you waltzed through with me, everyone else will see you as you really are, a bucket of crabknuckles. Yawn all you want. That's as much value as you can offer anyone. Why not take a nap until you have something of value to offer this forum. Nitey Night.

7:06PM PST on Dec 3, 2009

Still going on about this, eh, Myra? *yawn*

8:36PM PST on Dec 2, 2009

Cynical One, wrote, "Myra, you have the inept ability to totally misinterpret people's post. You have been wrong on pretty much everything I've posted." Interesting. The word "inept", according to Webster's New World dictionary, is defined as "unfit, unreasonable, foolish". First, that sounds like an insult targeted at me just like telling me to get a dildo. Second, if Cynical One is calling my "ability to totally misinterpret people's post" inept, clearly he has no complaint, since I'm no good at doing what he accused me of. Logically speaking, if my ability is inept, I could not have misinterpreted people's posts, and therefore my assessment of what he posted was correct and my response, according to Cynical One's own statement, would be appropriate. I don't thnk Cynical One or any other male would appreciate being told to bend over and ..... , please don't disrespect me or any other woman, even jokingly, by telling us to just get a dildo.

7:35PM PST on Dec 2, 2009

Cynical One, you told both Zoe and me to get dildos. No misrepresentation there. That very statement was degrading and insulting to all women, and I have respectfully asked you to not do it again. I have not ranted, but you have. Key to the forum: Women want respect and kindness. That's what turns us on, not some smart mouthed guy who thinks telling women to just get a dildo is funny. It is mean spirited and has nothing to do with cynicism. For the record, you have no right to tell me what I need to do. Also, telling me I misunderstood you was apologetic. Guess you did feel the need to apologize after all.

7:17PM PST on Dec 2, 2009

Myra, you have the inept ability to totally misinterpret people's post. You have been wrong on pretty much everything I've posted.

The post had nothing to do with you or what you believe it meant and yet you keep ranting over and over about stuff you misunderstand. You really need to get over it and move on.

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Judy Molland An award-winning writer and teacher, Judy Molland is also an avid hiker, backpacker, and nature... more
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