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What Do Women Want?
By Daniel Bergner



On the subject of women and sex, Meredith Chivers was out to obliterate the civilized

world. The social conventions, the lists of sins, all the intangible influences needed to go. “I’ve

spent a lot of time,” she said, “attempting to get back in my head to what life was like for proto-


When Chivers and I first met seven years ago, she was in her mid-thirties. She wore high-

heeled black boots that laced up almost to her knees and skinny, stylish rectangular glasses. Her

blond hair fell over a scoop-necked black top. She was a young but distinguished scientist in a

discipline whose name, sexology, sounds something like a joke, a mismatching of prefix and

suffix, of the base and the erudite. Yet the matching is in earnest—the ambitions of the field have

always been grand. And Chivers’s dreams were no different. She hoped to peer into the workings

of the psyche, to see somehow past the consequences of culture, of nurture, of all that is learned,

and to apprehend a piece of women’s primal and essential selves: a fundamental set of sexual

truths that exist—inherently— at the core.

Men are animals. On matters of eros, we accept this as a kind of psychological axiom.

Men are tamed by society, kept, for the most part, between boundaries, yet the subduing isn’t so

complete as to hide their natural state, which announces itself in endless ways—through

pornography, through promiscuity, through the infinity of gazes directed at infinite passing

bodies of desire—and which is affirmed by countless lessons of popular science: that men’s

minds are easily commandeered by the lower, less advanced neural regions of the brain; that men

are programmed by evolutionary forces to be pitched inescapably into lust by the sight of certain

physical qualities or proportions, like the .7 waist-to- hip ratio in women that seems to inflame

heterosexual males all over the globe, from America to Guinea-Bissau; that men are mandated,

again by the dictates of evolution, to increase the odds that their genes will survive in perpetuity

and hence that they are compelled to spread their seed, to crave as many .7’s as possible.

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But why don’t we say that women, too, are animals? Chivers was trying to discover

animal realities. She carried out her research in a series of cities, in Evanston, Illinois, which sits

right next to Chicago, in Toronto, and most recently in Kingston, Ontario, which feels utterly on

its own, tiny, and fragile. The Kingston airport is barely more than a hangar. Kingston’s pale

stone architecture has a thick, appealing solidity, yet it doesn’t chase away the sense that the little

downtown area, on the frigid spot where Lake Ontario spills into the Saint Lawrence River, isn’t

much more formidable than when it was founded as a French fur-trading post in the seventeenth

century. Kingston is the home of Queen’s University, a sprawling and esteemed institution of

learning, where Chivers was a psychology professor, but the city is stark and scant enough that it

is easy to imagine an earlier emptiness, the buildings gone, the pavement gone, almost nothing

there except evergreens and snow.

And this seemed fitting to me when I visited her there. Because to reach the insight she

wanted, she needed to do more than strip away societal codes; she needed to get rid of all the

streets, all the physical as well as the incorporeal structures that have their effects on the

conscious and the unconscious; she needed to re-create some pure, primordial situation, so that

she could declare, This is what lies at the heart of women’s sexuality.

Plainly, she wasn’t going to be able to establish such conditions for her studies. Almost

surely, for that matter, such pure conditions never existed, because proto-humans, our forehead-

deficient Homo heidelbergensis and Homo rhodesiensis ancestors of some hundreds of

thousands of years ago, had proto-cultures. But what she possessed was a plethysmograph: a

miniature bulb and light sensor that you place inside the vagina.

This is what her female subjects did as they sat on a brown leatherette La-Z- Boy chair in

her small, dimly lit lab in Toronto, where she first told me about her experiments. Semireclining

on the La-Z-

Boy, each subject watched an array of porn on an old, bulky computer monitor. The two-inch-

long glassine tube of the plethysmograph beams light against the vaginal walls and reads the

illumination that bounces back. In this way, it measures the blood flow to the vagina. Surges of

blood stir a process called vaginal transudation, the seeping of moisture through the cells of the

canal’s lining. So, indirectly, the plethysmograph gauges vaginal wetness. It was a way to get

past the obfuscations of the mind, the interference of the brain’s repressive upper regions, and to

find out, at a primitive level, what turns women on.

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As they enrolled in the study, Chivers’s subjects had identified themselves as straight or

lesbian. This is what all of them saw:

A lush-bodied woman lay back beneath her lover on a green army blanket in the woods.

His hair was cropped, his shoulders hulking. He propped his torso on rigid arms and slid inside

her. She lifted her thighs and enwrapped him with her calves. The pace of his thrusting

quickened, the muscles of his buttocks rippled, her fingers spread and seized his triceps.

After each ninety-second clip of porn, the subjects watched a video that sent the

plethysmograph’s readings back to a baseline state. The camera scanned jagged mountains and

rested on a parched plateau.

Then a man walked naked on a beach. His back formed a V, and ridges of muscle angled

toward his groin above his taut thighs. He flung a stone into the surf. His chest was massive. So

were his buttocks, without a hint of fat. He strode along a rock precipice. His penis, relaxed,

slung from side to side. He tossed another stone and stretched his spectacular back.

A slender woman with a soft, oval face and dark, curly hair sat on the lip of a large tub.

Her skin was tan, her areolas dark. Another woman rose from the water, her soaked blond hair

raked behind her ears. She pressed her face between the brunette’s thighs and whisked with her


On his knees an unshaven man mouthed a sizeable penisthat rose below a sheer, muscled


A woman with long black hair leaned forward on the arm of a lounge chair, her smooth

buttocks elevated. Then she settled her light brown body onto the white upholstery. Her legs

were long, her breasts full, high. She licked her fingertips and stroked her clitoris. She pulled her

spread knees up. She handled one breast. Her hips began to grind and lift.

A man drove himself into the ass of another man, who let out a grateful moan; a woman

scissored her legs in a solitary session of nude calisthenics; a bespectacled, sculpted man lay on

his back and masturbated; a man slipped a woman’s black thong over her thighs and began with

his tongue; a woman straddled another woman who wore a strap-on.

Then a pair of bonobos—a species of ape—strolled through a grassy field, the male’s

reedy, pig-colored erection on view. Abruptly, the female splayed herself, her back on the

ground and legs in the air. While her mate thrust into her, his rhythm furious, she threw her

hands above her head, as if in total erotic surrender.

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Sitting on the leatherette chair, Chivers’s subjects, straight and lesbian, were turned on

right away by all of it, including the copulating apes. To stare at the data amassed by the

plethysmograph was to confront a vision of anarchic arousal.

This was my initial glimpse of sexology’s strivings after female desire. Chivers’s

husband, a psychologist whose thinking I’d sought out for another book about sex, introduced us.

And soon I was learning not only from Chivers but from many of the researchers she called a

“gathering critical mass” of female scientists who were set on puzzling out the ways of eros in

women. There was Marta Meana with her high-tech eye-tracker and Lisa Diamond with her low-

tech, long-term studies of women’s erotic existences and Terri Fisher with her fake polygraph

machine. Men, too, were part of the project. There was Kim Wallen with his monkeys and Jim

Pfaus with his rats. There was Adriaan Tuiten with his genetic screening and his specially

designed aphrodisiacs, Lybrido and Lybridos, that were headed to the Food and Drug

Administration for approval.

And while they tutored me in their labs and animal observatories, I was listening as well

to numberless everyday women who shared their yearnings and their bewilderment, who

explained what they could—and couldn’t—understand about their sexuality. Some of their

stories are laced throughout these pages. There was Isabel, who, in her early thirties, was

tormented by a basic question: whether she should marry the handsome and adoring boyfriend

she had once—but no longer—desired. Every so often, when they stood at a bar, she told him,

“Kiss me like we’ve never met before.” She felt a reverberation, terribly faint, instantly fading. It

mocked her, teaching her repeatedly: better not to make requests like that. “I’m not even thirty-

five,” she said to me. “That tingling—I don’t get to feel that anymore?” And there was Wendy,

who, ten years older than Isabel, had signed up for the Lybrido and Lybridos trials, to see if an

experimental pill could restore some of the wanting that had once overtaken her with her

husband, the father of her two children.

Others I interviewed—like Cheryl, who was slowly, deliberately reclaiming her capacity

for lust after disfiguring cancer surgery, or Emma, who wanted our conversation to start at the

strip club where she’d made her living a decade ago—don’t appear in these chapters but

invisibly inform them. I interviewed and interviewed and interviewed, hoping for yet more sight

lines, and in the end, recent science and women’s voices left me with pointed lessons:

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