Tuesday, November 25, 2014

What do Women Want? : Daniel Bergner

What do Women Want? Adventures in the Science of Female Desire
By Daniel Bergner

There is a fine line authors tiptoe to cover science research well.  On one hand you do not want to misrepresent or over-represent the findings of scientific research with its very specific and precise experiments and findings. On the other hand, you need to provide analogies, narratives and/or a human aspect story, in order to make the science understandable and relate-able to the non-science reader,.  Unfortunately, this book just does not get that balance right.

Don't get me wrong, the science is fascinating and delves into findings that are culturally uncomfortable to talk about.  And Bergner does a decent job describing what questions researchers are trying to address and how they go about their experiments. For example, Meredith Chivers showed video clips of erotica to female subjects who were not only hooked up to a plethysmograph, a device that measures blood flow to the vagina, but also were rating their own feelings of arousal on a keypad.  Clips included lone masturbation scenes, straight male-female porn, gay male-male porn, lesbian female-female porn, and even sex between bonobos.
  Chiver's objective numbers, tracking what's technically called vaginal pulse amplitude, soared no matter who was on the screen and regardless of what they were doing, to each other, to themselves. The strength of the pulsings did hold a few distinctions, variations in degree, one of them curious: the humping bonobos didn't spur as much blood as the human porn, but with an odd exception. Among all women, straight as well as gay, the chiseled man ambling alone on the beach - an Adonis, nothing less - lost out to the fornicating apes.
  There was some further discrimination on the part of the lesbians... amplitude leapt more during videos starring women. Yet the lesbians' blood rushed hard during scenes of gay male porn...
 The keypad contradicted the plethysmograph, contradicted it entirely. Minds denied bodies. The self-reports announced indifference to the bonobos. But that was only for starters. When the films were of women touching themselves or enmeshed with each other, the straight subjects said they were a lot less excited than their genitals declared. During the segments of gay male sex, the ratings of the heterosexual women were even more muted - even less linked to what was going on between their legs.
While Bergner does note that Chivers is cautious about not wanting to "declaim more than the data could support," clearly these are experiments that raise a lot of uncomfortable questions. 

My issue is more with Bergner's writing and his approach to the human aspect angle. For example, in the following paragraph, Bergner iterates through and compares the physical traits of researcher Marta Meana's physical traits to those of Annie Lennox's.  He does this all to build up to the subject of relationship intimacy and its impact on female lust.  Wait, what?  What do the researcher's physical traits have anything to do with intimacy?
... there was a poster from an Annie Lennox concert Meana had been to. Lennox's piercing, incantatory voice... seemed almost audible sometimes as Meana spoke... 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 pixie-ish 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.  
It is not the only time Bergner makes sure to describe the physical appearances of the female researchers.  Here's the very first page: 
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, 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,...

There is a section in the book on vanity's role in female sexuality.  Perhaps the most generous explanation for Bergner's penchant for these physical descriptions is an awkward attempt at complimenting the researchers. However, it is the not-so-generous explanation that I lean toward - that this is a male author with his own biases, who is letting a fantasy of female sexology researchers, come to surface.

There were also a few passages, which I won't quote here, where Bergner seems to attempt to wax poetic, devoid of any coverage of scientific research and it just does not work.

All in all, it's a net positive to get exposure to the science going on, which is some very thought-provoking stuff.   But unfortunately some of the surrounding writing is a bit of a slog to ignore / get through.