Sex Drive: In Pursuit of Female Desire; What Do Women Want? Adventures in the Science of Female Desire

By Dr. Bella Ellwood-Clayton; Daniel Bergner
Allen & Unwin; HarperCollins, November 30, 2012, $27.99; $25.99

Female sexuality has long been viewed as something of a mystery. Women’s distinct lack of penises and threatening ability to create life resulted in centuries of undisputed ignorance. In a patriarchal society, women are placed firmly in the category of “other,” as compared to the central character against which all other beings are measured: man.

Only recently have researchers begun to fight the trend, ever-popular within evolutionary psychology, of ignoring all social and cultural factors as well as the individual biases of researchers, to look beyond “caveman” as foundation for scientific study.

It is because of these uninterrogated biases that sex is so often represented as something men seek, want and “get.” The role of women is, we learn, to stave off advances, as well as to satiate our husbands sufficiently to prevent them from straying.

While monogamy is something both parties traditionally commit to in a marriage, we are told it’s women who truly desire commitment and stability whereas men would opt for “philandering frat boy” if left to their own devices. This puts women in the position of being responsible not only for their behaviour, but for the behaviour of their husbands as well.

While feminists have long argued against these stereotypes, new research is catching up and disproving commonly accepted beliefs about female desire and sexuality.

The myth of the eternally robust libido

When Dr. Bella Ellwood-Clayton began to research female sexual desire, she found a commonality among women in long-term relationships — one that many of us can surely relate to. While, initially, women’s libidos tended to match their male partners’, as the relationship progressed, sex fell lower and lower on the list of priorities.

The response to this phenomenon has generally been chalked up either to a gendered difference in libido or, as of late, to a kind of “sexual dysfunction.”

In her book, Sex Drive: In Pursuit of Female Desire, Ellwood-Clayton argues that we’ve painted a rather unrealistic picture of what our sex lives should look like. A woman who, perhaps, has a full-time job, kids, financial stress or a trying home life seems fairly justified in not being “in the mood.”

In other words, libidos aren’t static.

Early on, we have an influx of “love chemicals” working in our favour that don’t much care about wedding vows. That early passion tends to dissipate into what is usually a perfectly normal lowered libido, yet we’ve elected to label it as “dysfunctional” because of a recently adopted (and completely unrealistic) notion that we should always be “on,” sexually.

We’ve learned that if our relationships aren’t eternally hot and sexy, there is something wrong; but after five or ten years of sleeping with the same person you’re also arguing with about bills and dishes, is it really fair to expect sexual desire to match those early months or years?

Is monogamy the problem?

In his book, What do Women Want? Adventures in the Science of Female Desire, Daniel Bergner looks beyond the simplistic theory that after we lock it down, women can go back to focusing on eating chocolate and talking about their periods. 

The “fairy tale” we’ve been hanging on to so tightly — encouraged by evolutionary psychology — that women are the sex “more suited, biologically, to faithfulness,” appears to be little more than a comforting myth, Bergner says. 

There is no doubt that many women are concerned when they can no longer muster desire for their partners. But while everyone is busy trying to find a cure for this, supposedly, female “problem,” no one is asking questions about monogamy.

“Sometimes I wonder whether it isn’t so much about libido as it is about boredom,” a researcher commented to Bergner. Considering that monogamy is a social phenomenon, it seems odd to look at libido as simply a biological issue.

Ignoring patriarchy, inventing ‘disorders’

Bergner finds many examples of active, aggressive female desire in nature, leading him to believe that social and cultural biases underpin notions about male and female sexuality more than anything else. 

Science has not only imposed gendered stereotypes about our own society onto nature but has, more generally, failed to ask questions that take patriarchy into account.

What might happen if, Bergner asks, “promiscuity were considered normal in teenage girls and not in teenage boys, if it were lauded in girls and condemned as slutty and distasteful in boys… how might the lives of females and males — how might the appearances that evolutionary psychology treats as immutable — be different?”

Elwood-Clayton also talks about the necessity of “integrating biological, psychological and cultural factors when evaluating low desire.” Newly invented diagnoses such as “hypoactive sexual desire disorder (HSDD)” ignore the possibility that low sexual desire in a long-term, monogamous relationship might be a perfectly normal thing for a woman to experience.

For example, she notes that, in order to be classified with HSDD, a woman must not only “experience a persistent or recurrent lack of sexual fantasy and desire,” but it must also cause her “personal distress.”Of course what is ignored is the fact that “distress is subjective.”

Is it possible that, without social, cultural or relationship pressures, a woman’s “distress” around her low libido might dissipate? Is it possible that the notion of eternal, frequent, hot movie sex might not be a completely realistic scenario within a long-term, monogamous relationship? Or that this “distress” might exist in direct relation to our partners?

“If the man in the picture isn’t too bothered, the woman usually isn’t either,” Ellwood-Clayton notes.

It’s fair to assume that if we create a “norm” that women feel they are to live up to and that, if women don’t meet this “norm” and are then given a diagnosis that includes the words “dysfunction” or “disorder,” what might once have felt “normal” could turn into “distress.”

Bergner calls HSDD a “normal abnormality — a condition that was largely not psychiatric but created by our most common domestic arrangement.” Seeing as the problem of “low-libido” in women often resolved itself with the introduction of a new lover, it’s worth considering that, perhaps, women aren’t wired for monogamy after all.

While Bergner finds hope in the potential for an “antidote to monogamy” in the form of a female Viagra of sorts, Elwood-Clayton is skeptical that medicalizing sex is a necessary or good solution.

Do “problems” created by society need prescription solutions?

If we’re attached to monogamy, a “little pink pill” could be tempting for women who want nothing more than to restore the lustful feelings they once experienced, effortlessly. On the other hand, surely there is more to consider when looking towards Big Pharma to solve something that is, it would seem, completely natural.

Meghan Murphy is a writer from Vancouver, B.C. Her website is Feminist Current.

Meghan Murphy

Meghan Murphy is a writer and a journalist in Vancouver, B.C. She is the founder and editor of Feminist Current, and is host and producer of the syndicated Feminist Current podcast. Meghan’s writing...