You’ve probably heard it before: women are hardwired for monogamy, while men are primed for casual sex. The problem is, a growing body of research points to a much more complicated picture than that. In the new book What Do Women Want: Adventures in the Science of Female Desire, award-winning journalist Daniel Bergner highlights new research that challenges commonly held beliefs about the female sex drive.
“This idea that women’s desire is less of a drive than male desire,” says Bergner, “I feel like that is a disservice to us all.” So Bergner talked to sexologists, primatologists, and real women to see if those long-held theories about female sexuality really tell the whole story. What he found was a ton of research that flew in the face of these commonly held myths:
Myth 1: Monogamy is just “easier” for women than for men Evolutionary psychologists have explained that men are programmed to spread their seed, while women are programmed to search for a supportive mate, says Bergner. But the original research didn’t have him convinced, and new studies by Meredith Chivers, PhD, assistant professor at Queens University in Canada, suggest that the female libido is much more complex than we thought. “When it comes to sex, monogamy may be at least as problematic for women as it is for men—maybe more so,” says Bergner.
In one survey that Bergner describes in his book, female desire drops off much more quickly than men’s after a couple has been together for a few years. But if women were “made” for monogamy, their desire would remain steady—or even increase—when in a committed relationship. “If evolutionary scientists are right, it should be very much the reverse,” says Bergner.
Myth 2: Women aren’t as visual as men when it comes to sex No doubt you’ve heard the phrase “Men are visual creatures” more often than you can count. But new research suggests that women may be just as visually driven when it comes to sex as men are, says Bergner. One study described in Bergner’s book found that women’s eyes linger on erotic imagery just as much as men’s do, and a recent Neilson report found that one in three porn users was female. “Every one of Chivers’ experiments shows an immediate physical response to erotic imagery, and that in itself is an indication that we’ve been missing something,” says Bergner.
Myth 3: Women need an emotional connection to want to have sex with someone Previous studies pointed to a need for emotional intimacy for female desire to occur. In one popular study, a woman and a man asked 200 members of the opposite sex either if they would go on a date with them or sleep with them. About the same amount of men and women said yes to the date, but almost 75 percent of the men and none of the women said yes to sex. According to the researchers, women weren’t interested in a casual hookup.
But recent research has called this theory into question. In a newer study, men and women were given a hypothetical situation where it was an attractive celebrity asking them to spend the night. “What the researcher did was strip away the social stigma that’s involved in casual sex and take away the reality of physical danger,” says Bergner. “And once those things were taken out of the equation, women said yes to casual sex just as often as men.” Yet another new study by Chivers gave women hypothetical erotic scenarios involving either a trusted friend or a stranger. Though the women claimed to be more turned on by situations with a friend, a measure of genital blood flow suggested they were much more aroused by the strangers. The bottom line: Emotional intimacy is a great predecessor to sex, but you can’t make the generalization that it’s a requirement for all women.
Myth 4: Women initiate sex less frequently than men The stereotype that men are usually the sexual initiators may not be totally accurate. What Bergner found when he visited primatologists was that female monkeys are much more sexually aggressive than the males, and he found the same results in rodent studies. This research—combined with the interviews he had with women—suggest that this stereotype may just be the result of our culture. “It may have a lot to do with the fact that we’re much more accepting of male sexual initiation,” says Bergner.
In fact, a speed dating experiment mentioned in his book explains what happens when gender norms are reversed. When women made the rounds at a speed-dating event while the men remained seated, their self-reported desire for the men increased. “Suddenly, women were checking as many boxes as men, indicating that there’s something about the social structures we have—the physical act of stepping toward something—that changes the way we experience desire,” says Bergner.
Myth 5: Hormones alone fuel your desire You know that your hormones affect libido, but there’s a lot more controlling desire than just testosterone and estrogen. “Chemicals of the brain really need to work in balance in order to feel a strong desire,” says Bergner. Along with dopamine and serotonin (neurotransmitters in the brain involved in your reward system and mood, respectively), there’s also norepinephrine (a hormone similar to adrenaline that’s involved in arousal), says Bergner. “Scientists have known that it’s not that simple, but we love the simple explanation, and that gets us into trouble,” says Bergner.