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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