What do these enigmatic women want?

25desire_6002In this week’s The Times Magazine of The NY Times, Daniel Bergner has a piece on women’s sexuality and research that’s already in preprint causing a bit of controversy as well as a convulsion of 1950s era humor in the online response. The title, ‘What do women want?’, that nugget of Freudian wonder, no doubt will raise the readership, as will the pictures of models simulating states of arousal (Greg Mitchell is in a bit of snit about them in, Coming Attraction: Preview of ‘NYT Magazine’ With Semi-Shocking Sex Images on Sunday. ‘Semi-Shocking’? I can imagine how that goes… ‘Are you SHOCKED by these photos?’ ‘Well, I’m at least SEMI-shocked, yes!’).

In particular, Bergner gives us thumbnail portraits of women engaged in sex research: Meredith Chivers of Queens University (Kingston, Ontario), Lisa Diamond of the University of Utah, and Marta Meana from UNLV, although there’s also commentary from Julia Heiman, the Director of the Kinsey Institute, and others. As with so much of contemporary science writing, we get researchers as characters, with quirky personal descriptions and accounts of meeting the author, each one standing in for a particular perspective in current scientific debates.

Chivers is portrayed as arguing that women are existentially divided ‘between two truly separate, if inscrutably overlapping, systems, the physiological and the subjective,’ Diamond is made to stand in for the ‘female desire may be dictated… by intimacy, by emotional connection,’ and Meana stands in for the argument that women are narcissists desiring to submit. Whether or not these are accurate portrayals—and they might be—the model is prevalent in science writing: get characters to represent lines of thinking, even though many of us are not so clearly signed on with a single theoretical team. Here, we know the score: Diamond arguing women want intimacy, Meana that they want a real man to take them, and Chivers that women want it all, even if they don’t realize it and contradict themselves.

The irony is that, with such a tangle, the conclusion is foreordained: women will seem enigmatic, inconsistent, and irremediably opaque. As I’ll suggest in this, I think that the conclusion is built into the way the question is being asked. If a similar question were asked about nearly any group, in nearly any domain of complex human behaviour, and then a simple single answer were demanded, the questioner would face nearly identical frustration.

I must admit that, although I found the article readable, even enjoyable, the last paragraph confused me, so I can’t be entirely certain of my analysis. I’ve read the last paragraph at least four times and am still not sure I understand. I’m going to quote it just so you don’t think I’m crazy, but I’m willing to read to anyone’s comment if you think you know what it means.

Bergner was watching Dr. Chivers scrub her data of outlying data points (I remember being shocked by my girlfriend when I found her doing the same thing in her psychology research before finding it was common practice – more on this in another post.). Chivers spent hours with a graph of ‘arousal’ reported by measuring vaginal blood flow, trying to smooth a red line on a computer screen to make sense of which video images were most arousing. Bergner writes in conclusion:

It was possible to imagine, then, that a scientist blinded by staring at red lines on her computer screen, or blinded by peering at any accumulation of data — a scientist contemplating, in darkness, the paradoxes of female desire — would see just as well.

‘It was possible to imagine… a scientist blinded… would see just as well…’ Huh? What I’m getting at is not just to make sport of some tortured prose, but rather to suggest that Bergner, after reporting scads of findings highlighting a whole range of interesting phenomena connected to women’s sexuality and sexual desire, on a number of analytical levels, still wants to reach out for the brass ring, the one thing that ‘women want.’ He has to conclude that women’s desire is paradoxical, a ‘giant forest… too complex for comprehension,’ because there’s no simple answer.

One can imagine an article with the title, ‘What do diners want?’, which bemoaned the fickleness and impenetrable complexity of culinary preferences: Sometimes they want steak, and sometimes just a salad. Sometimes they put extra salt on the meal, and sometimes they ask for ketchup. One orders fish, another chicken, another ham and eggs. One day a guy ordered tuna fish salad on rye, and the next, the same guy ordered a tandoori chicken wrap, hold the onions! My God, man, they’re insane! Who can ever come up with a unified theory of food preferences?! Food preferences are a giant forest, too complex for comprehension. What do diners want?!

You get my drift. The line of questioning is rhetorically time-tested (can we say clichéd even?) but objectively and empirically nonsensical. So many of these experiments seem to be testing a series of different, related, but ultimately distinct questions: With whom do women mate? With whom do women have sex? With whom do women say they would have sex? What causes women’s bodies’ automatic arousal responses (and under what conditions)? What type of guys do women like in soft porn stories? What type of guys do women like in photographs? Do certain women get aroused by a particular type of porn movies? Does a particular woman realize or acknowledge that she is getting aroused by a particular stimulus? What affects women’s self-reported sense of sexual identity as it changes over time in women who say they are lesbian, bisexual or not sure? They’re all good questions, some better than others, and they’re all about ‘sex,’ but they are testing a whole range of different things. Can they all be glossed as, ‘What do women want?’ Yeah, sort of, but you’re going to get a hopeless answer.

Sometimes I feel like the research makes sense in context, but once it’s sampled, sound-bited, mixed and matched into a single article with the title, ‘What do women want?’, the simplification tragically robs all the individual studies of any of the insight they could have offered in the first place. Here, synthesis makes understanding impossible because the heterogeneity of what is being studied is ignored, as if all these research projects had the same research question. The reason the article is a fun read in the first place is that the research that the people being interviewed are doing is intriguing; the reason the conclusion is hopeless is that everyone is asked (or is treated as if asked) to extend their findings to cover all women in all situations.

For example, questions about women’s reactions to visual images of sex and nudity are intriguing on a number of levels. Dr. Chivers showed women videos of ‘heterosexual sex, male and female homosexual sex, a man masturbating, a woman masturbating, a chiseled man walking naked on a beach and a well-toned woman doing calisthenics in the nude,’ even a clip of bonobos mating. She sexed up the last one by adding hoots and screeching, because the female’s pleased ‘chirping’ sounds weren’t hot enough.

Chivers found at the University of Toronto that straight male subjects’ genitals (presumably college aged, by the way) responded to heterosexual and lesbian sex, female masturbation and nude callisthenics, but were less moved by male-on-male action or the ‘chiseled’ gent’s ocean side walk. Gay men were just the opposite. Neither group got aroused by hot monkey love (even with dubbed-in hooting and screeching).

The women in the study, in contrast, had increased blood flow vaginally when any sort of sex was on screen—except the bonobos. They also were aroused by the naked workout but not by the man strolling nude on the beach, and pretty much liked any footage with people in it. Except for the naked man, oddly enough.

When Chivers asked the subjects to rate how stimulating each bit of footage was, she found that women’s reports of arousal did not coincide with their vaginal blood flow spikes whereas men pretty much reported what the plethysmographs on their penises were saying.

These results, to me, are fascinating. Not only have they caused me to swear off beachcombing au naturel, at least until I find out it’s the ‘chiseled’ quality that turned off some subjects. They also spark a whole series of questions: Is it the phenomenology of male arousal that helps men to be more aware of physiological arousal? Do women report something different as ‘arousal’ when asked (that is, the research instruction was probably not, ‘push this button when your vagina swells’)? Are all women everywhere equally unaware of physiological arousal? Are men and women trained differently through exposure to different sorts of visual sexual images? Are women unaware they are aroused if having an intimate conversation with an attractive potential partner? Are women aroused by any images of human sexually aroused (after all, beachcomber guy presumably wasn’t sporting a serious chubby, although I could be wrong)? Why are both heterosexual men and women aroused by naked women doing callisthenics when gay men are not? And, perhaps most importantly, doesn’t someone find bonobos getting it on sexy?

In other words, I think Chivers research is fascinating, but when it’s paired with the question, ‘What do women want?’, it prematurely leads to some simplistic conclusions. The logic goes sort of like: ‘A number of things turn women on; therefore, we don’t know the one thing that women want. Damn, women are inscrutable.’ Uh, no, actually, we have pretty clear results on the video arousal tests, it’s just not a simple one-line sound-bite answer (nor, for that matter, does it necessarily tell us about what women desire sexually; it tells us about a certain group’s response to videos).

The gap between measured arousal and reported arousal is interesting, but it’s hardly big news that people don’t know exactly what is happening in their own perceptions or bodies. We’ve been down this road before at Neuroanthropology.net (for example, at How well do we know our brains?), but the bottom line is that there are lots of areas of life where self-reported state is out-of-step with objectively measurable physiological or neurological conditions. For example, we have very little conscious access to motor-perceptual information about our own movement and object tracking; we can move things around in people’s visual fields and they are often lousy at noticing it. This doesn’t mean we throw up our hands and say, ‘People are confused and inscrutable because they don’t even know when objects have moved.’

This is the reason that, although it’s great to hear that sexologists studying female arousal are carving out some important research results, I kept seeing some very tired old interpretive frameworks being prematurely introduced. For example, a couple of times Bergner threw in the gratuitous ‘evolutionary’ explanation that men are ‘programmed’ by evolution one way, women another (although this tendency was not NEARLY so bad as some of the other research on human sexuality we’ve discussed, and for that we’re grateful; see Chicks dig jerks?: Evolutionary psych on sex #1). At another point, we got the ‘female narcissism’ explanation for the fact that some women seem to be stimulated by the sense that they are desired more than a desirable object itself.

Fair enough, we can bring it whatever interpretation fits the data, but it seems to me that if women’s desire is really a ‘giant forest’ that is poorly understood, and if the data is multiple and contradictory, it’s likely that any blanket statement (‘Women just want to be desired.’ ‘Women only feel desire after they feel intimacy.’ ‘Women just want money.’ ‘Women use sex to get love.’) will always be inadequate. Some of the older models of an essential female sexual identity contain a partial truth, or they wouldn’t even seem plausible, but they aren’t the simple answer to the simplistic question, ‘What do women want?’

At times in the article, I was reminded of discussions of ‘My Type’ in high school and college. I’m sure you’ve heard these discussions as well, with someone going on ad nauseam about what sort of person they find arousing. Then you show up at the five year reunion, and the guy who said he liked tall, bronzed, blonde beach girls is with a short, perky, darked-haired sexologist wearing high boots and fashionable rectangular glasses (apologies to Bergner). Turns out that ‘desire’ is a more slippery term, and that our sexual arousal and sexual behaviour are in more complex relations than just desire-leads-to-arousal-leads-to-sex. If it were only that easy…

Often, when I read studies of ‘attractive faces,’ I get the same response. The research projects ask students to rate how faces in photographs look, and then make conclusions about desirable mates. But the research is really asking about attractive faces in photographs, not peering into the actual sorting mechanism that produces our mating behaviour. Thank God people don’t pick mates on the basis of their headshots, or I for one likely never would have gotten married. And I’m sure that the research subjects in these experiments would strenuously object if the researchers said that they had to pick a mate on the basis of a photo of a face only, even if they thought symmetrical, feminine faces looked good in pictures.

So often, even when we’re dealing with these research papers, we’re still only seeing a statistical majority or even less when someone is making statements about men and women (for another case, see Girls gone guilty: Evolutionary psych on sex #2). Dr. Meana points this out in her interview with Bergner when she suggests that ‘the variability within genders may be greater than the differences between genders’ in arousal and desire. Although I was pleased to read this, it was immediately followed with some blanket statements about female desire and contrasts with male arousal. The section with Meana was one of the most interesting in the whole article, with some provocative statements about women’s narcissism, the effect of female nudity, the problem of desire in committed relationships, and even sexual fantasies of submission. Don’t get me wrong—it’s well worth reading. But prefaced by this statement about variability within and difference between ‘genders,’ it sort of contains its own critique.

One of the wisest books I ever read about sex was Passionate Marriage by David Schnarch. One of the thing he points out is that the reason sexuality in marriage is a challenge is because so many psychological issues, so much of our own individual, idiosyncratic life experience, can be brought into intimacy for resolution and healing. In fact, other areas of our life are not that different. People make eating and food about all sorts of things, as they do shopping, sports, and so on. That is, the idea that a person desires some one thing in sexuality is part of the problem for understanding sexuality. I suspect that the sexologists Bergner was interviewing are well aware of this, and it’s only this journalistic framing that makes it seem so simple that the question becomes unanswerable: ‘What do women want?’ (For a subtle discussion of the complex experience of desire for drugs, see Daniel’s piece, Wanting to Craving: Understanding Compulsive Involvement with Drugs.)

To go out on a limb, I would argue that most women, like most men, probably desire a number of things, some of which are more likely to be found in sex than others. Not all societies encourage us to seek out the same satisfactions in our relationships, nor do they all saddle us with the same psychological issues to contend with in our sexual relationships. Even within a single society, different people bring different issues to the bedroom (or wherever they deal with sex), whether they are straight, gay, bi- or other. Moreover, once we satisfy one set of desires, that hardly means we are finished with desiring, and we might seek something else in sex. Same activity, but looking for ‘something else’ within it.

I’m not convinced that what men want is all that much less complicated than what women want in sex; perhaps, men’s constellation of desires in sex seem more internally consistent because they conflict less with each other, but that doesn’t mean men only want one thing (just that getting many needs met at once might be easier). We’ve seen a change in women’s desires and how they might be met in Western society over the past half century (and longer), and I suspect that these will continue to change.

In other words, sex is a field for interaction, and arousal is a physiological phenomenon that both influences how those interactions play out, and is influenced by these interactions. Arousal doesn’t determine sexual behaviour. Every time we get aroused, we don’t have sex; every time we have sex, we may not be aroused, although, again, the interaction might end up affecting our physiological state (for better or worse). One of the things that makes humans human is that layers of other considerations can override or modify basic physiological processes like fear, arousal, anger, and panic. Stripping back or ignoring these other factors like inhibition, enculturation, and socialization doesn’t get us to ‘human nature,’ it erases so much of what makes humans distinctive.

What do women want? Lots. Just like men. And, just like men, as soon as they get what they want, women are liable to want something else. If you fine that inscrutable, or ‘semi-shocking’, you need to hang out with humans more often.

Image by Ryan McGinley/Team Gallery from New York Times.

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Trained as a cultural anthropologist at the University of Chicago, I have gone on to do fieldwork in Brazil and the United States. I have written one book, Learning Capoeira: Lessons in Cunning from an Afro-Brazilian Art (Oxford, 2005). I have also co-authored and co-edited several, including, with Dr. Daniel Lende, The Encultured Brain: An Introduction to Neuroanthropology (MIT, 2012), and with Dr. Melissa Fisher, Frontiers of Capital: Ethnographic Reflections on the New Economy (Duke, 2006). My research interests include neuroanthropology, psychological anthropology, sport, dance, human rights, neuroscience, phenomenology, economic anthropology, and just about anything else that catches my attention.

44 thoughts on “What do these enigmatic women want?

  1. “The irony is that, with such a tangle, the conclusion is foreordained: women will seem enigmatic, inconsistent, and irremediably opaque.”

    I’m not sure about that. Isn’t it the case that it’s the journalist who wants to maintain this mystification — the final paragraph, repeated allusions to the “dark forest”, etc. — in spite (or because) of the reality that the final goal of this type of research is to make female sexuality transparent.

    This quote is revealing: “She spoke about helping women bring their subjective sense of lust into agreement with their genital arousal as an approach to aiding those who complain that desire eludes them.”

    In response, the author almost hopefully concludes: “The giant forest seemed, so often, too complex for comprehension.”

  2. “In response, the author almost hopefully concludes: “The giant forest seemed, so often, too complex for comprehension.”

    Because if a monolithic block of women are too uncomprehensible for us to understand, we can continue to treat that monolithic group like sexbots.

    “Why are men sexist?” is a question researchers never ask, and they don’t ask it because they don’t want to know the answer…

  3. This is a ridiculous article. Women vary in what they wish to have in partners just as men do. Women’s libidos vary based on any number of factors. Here is the bottom line: the researchers who wrote this article are women who probably have sexual dysfunction issues and were drawn to study it because of this. The normally functioning, healthy women are out there finding men who bring them pleasure and loving their lives for that and many other reasons. These researchers would do much better to offer women sound information and education on health related information rather than spending their lives studying “what’s wrong” with women. They aren’t doing any of us any favors or contributing anything of value by spending their lives measuring vaginal blood flow. Maybe they should just spend some time self cultivating.

  4. Bergner was watching Dr. Chivers scrub her data of outlying data points (I remember being shocked by my girlfriend when I found her doing the same thing in her psychology research before finding it was common practice – more on this in another post.).

    What was that? I was struck by that line as well. That is common practice? Please, more info! How does that *not* make the resulting data suspect?

  5. I suspect that if the well-built chap on the beach were, in fact, sporting a visible boner, some women would indeed have displayed some arousal watching him. Just a hypothesis.

  6. I found that whole baloney about measuring female arousal by vaginal blood flow to be absolutely infuriating. I’d like to meet a woman who wasn’t completely surprised by her body readying itself for a possible sexual invasion when she wasn’t the least bit interested or even experiencing the least bit of pleasure. That strikes me as an evolutionary adaptation to the tendency of the human male to rape. Women who didn’t have bodies that lubricated in self-defense were a lot more likely to die of infection. And the tendency throughout recorded history for women to frequently be considered property and the spoils of war make that a very sensible explanation. The question that just screams to be asked is how does the average female experience arousal, interest, and pleasure. Then some enterprising person will have something to measure. This research put the cart before the horse and it’s just infuriating that it’s done by a woman.

  7. Is this the first time you’ve read the NYTimes?

    They write everything like that! Every day a couple new sweeping questions on how to save Iraq, reform health care, improve literature, etc.

    I guess it’s better than the WSJ, where they start with the answer…

  8. Great response to the NYT piece. You really put your finger on what was bothering me, which is the attempt to take related but distinctly different studies and combine them to draw general conclusions.

    Also, why was it necessary to describe the female researchers’ physical appearance and fashion choices? I mean, I know it’s a popular piece, but how does reading that Dr. Chivers wears boots have any bearing on her abilities as a researcher.

  9. Thanks for this wonderful critique Greg. Coming as I do from the tradition of researchers like Chivers and Meana I found it harder to be as generous as you were with their work, but you do a great job of taking the best of what was in that mostly crappy article and making something of it.

    @Gretchen: I think the physical appearance stuff was very New Yorker wannabe style. It’s an effort to bring the reader into the scene (it’s like you’re in the windowless concrete university office with her!) but when it’s done poorly it comes off badly. I think one of the problems with the piece in terms of writing was that it was clearly sections from his book torn out and put together for the article. Another example of how the bar gets lowered editorially and stylistically when the content is about sexuality.

  10. Seems that when writers like Bergner are men, their question triggers the cultural question of the libido gap – asking “what do women want?” may in part have the underlying agenda, “how can I make women want what I want?” or “how can I make women want me?” or if we’re lucky, “how can I understand what women want so I can be more intimate with the women in my life?” Yet, it is women researchers asking the questions in the studies, and the answers even when filled with bias might help women understand women’s desire better. If there is a gap between physical arousal (if vaginal blood flow should even be considered a determinant of women’s physical arousal) and the self-identified mental-emotional state of arousal, does this mean women should work to close the gap, or should we redefine women’s arousal as more complex and including more factors, or both? (If you asked me, I’d love to find a measure of skin motility, temperature, etc. that was linked with the mentally self-identified arousal state – the over focus on genitals limits sex too much for my taste.)

    In a systemic historic model of women’s sexuality being suppressed, co-opted, stolen, objectified, and in the past 40-50 years finally cultivated, it’s no wonder we are confused. We have a long way to go before women worldwide both have the voice and the power to ask for what we want and the equality and agreed-upon cooperation to negotiate. Still, one by one, collectively and individually, we can ask ourselves and each other, “what do I want?” “What do you want?” “What do we want?” The question isn’t wrong per se. I just wish we could unpack from the question the agenda of sexual pressure. Is the libido gap about women acting out what they want? Is it a withdrawal because there’s insufficient cooperation, equality, negotiation? As a woman who often finds herself the higher libido partner in relationships with men, I certainly haven’t figured out how to close the libido gap by turning my partner on. Usually I have to turn myself on, then my partner gets turned on with me. After all, if a woman knows what she wants, she might just get it!

  11. In complement to Carol and Nancy, my reaction reading the NYT piece (and Greg’s mostly helpful critique) is that the premise that vaginal blood flow = “arousal” (and in places in the article also = desire) comes from a penis-normalizing view of the world. Other physiological changes don’t have single meanings — try heart rate, red face, etc. Why should vaginal blood flow agree with what the female subjects report as their experience of desire? We don’t need to go as far as “what do diners want?” — we could start with “what does elevated heart rate mean?”

  12. Categories. *sigh*. What do women want? What do students want? What do the Kikuyu want? What do Hispanics want? What do blacks want? Will we never learn?

    Of one thing, I am certain. Play some Barry White with those Bonobos and we will all get chubbies.

    Seriously, thanks for the thoughtful discussion, I was hoping you would tackle that article.

  13. Wow, some great feedback. Thanks folks. Lots I could respond to, but there’s a very interesting thread in the discussion questioning the idea that vaginal blood flow is the same thing as ‘arousal.’ Very interesting. And the same could be said about erection, as many guys know. Sometimes one can be very emotionally ‘aroused’ and not exactly experiencing a lot of blood flow, and, on the flip side, realize that blood flow has done its own thing when one was not psychologically aroused at any particular thing.

    Along this line, Nina (#13) asks ‘what does elevated heart rate mean,’ which is one interesting way into getting a more dynamic, system-wide approach to thinking about arousal, such as Nancy (#12) is suggesting. If arousal includes a whole series of factors, such as blood flow and subjective state, how are the different dimensions linked? Are they tightly linked? Does one trigger the other? Can they occur in each other’s absence? Does causation potentially flow in multiple directions? In fact, I think some of the researchers described in the article are likely getting at this sort of thing, but you’d never know it from the write up.

    If you’re interested in this work, definitely check out the link in Cory’s (#11) comment over at About.com. And Cory, if you read this, contact us when you post about the up-coming panel. It would be interesting to read more about this discussion as an outsider. It’s really not my area of specialty (I actually deal far more with men, which is what makes me especially suspicious about gender comparisons from the other end).

    Ropty (#6), yeah, this blew my mind — talk about dubious! It turns out it’s a pretty common process in psychological research to throw out outlying data points, even if that means dropping subjects from the pool so that a statistical trend reaches the significance you need. What makes it especially sad from an anthropological perspective is that this would involve throwing out exceptional performers of all sorts — deviants, virtuosos, the inept, the resisters and others — exactly the kind of ‘subjects’ that anthropologists think have something to teach about human variation. I’ve been writing a bit about this for my sports book.

    Finally, Pamthropologist, I had written almost the same exact thing about a dubbed in Barry White soundtrack with the bonobos, but I ‘scrubbed’ it when I realized I might be sharing a bit too much about myself. I’m glad I’m not the only one though…

  14. Leonore Tiefer just pointed me to your story and whew… what an antidote! What a marvelous writer you are. Thank you for articulating the sinking feeling in my stomach.

  15. I think it’s perfectly acceptable and even scientific to conclude that knowing what women want is difficult to determine. Why should the answer be clear and obvious and specific? The article was devoted to measuring what women want by certain standard metrics by which it could be determined that women certainly differ from men in several respects, while also sharing many attributes with men as well. All of this is quite illuminating and worth reading. According to such research, determining what men want by the same metrics yields a more narrow and specific answer. Women, as it appears, are more complex, deeper, if you will. Nothing wrong with that conclusion. I think that’s true and I’m a white, middle-aged male. It would be interesting to continue the research and to come up with and incorporate new metrics in the endeavor. Viva la difference! And study and know about them as well.

  16. I just love how men can ask/study the question “what women want” but women who know are labeled narcissists.

    Yes, as another poster has touched upon, the only reason the question is asked is so that men can get into the pants of the the 5% of women that 95% of all men want. Now, who is the narcissist? Men looking after male interests is just fine and dandy but should women’s interest be different, well, Houston, we have a problem or rather SHE has a problem.

    Why do men marry women that isn’t their type? Because they couldn’t get their type thus prompting this type of research. All together now, let’s say ACADEMIC PLAYA.

  17. I believe the meaning of the final paragraph follows from what was said in the previous paragraph:

    “There was the implication, in her words, that she might never illuminate her subject because she could not even see it, that the data she and her colleagues collect might be deceptive, might represent only the creations of culture, and that her interpretations might be leading away from underlying truth. There was the intimation that, at its core, women’s sexuality might not be passive at all. There was the chance that the long history of fear might have buried the nature of women’s lust too deeply to unearth, to view.”

    The idea is that cultural socialization has warped the true, or “natural”, nature of female sexuality so much that it can no longer be examined, so if all data is irrelevant, then the researcher will see just as well looking at her own irrelevant data. I think that’s the point, though, I agree, it was expressed in an extremely convoluted way.

    And to Lisa (#5): What the hell? Personally, I do want women measuring vaginal blood flow. I don’t think their goal is to find “what’s wrong with women.” Maybe you should follow you’re own advice and self-cultivate.

  18. “It was possible to imagine, then, that a scientist blinded by staring at red lines on her computer screen, or blinded by peering at any accumulation of data — a scientist contemplating, in darkness, the paradoxes of female desire — would see just as well.”

    Perhaps Bergner is simply making the point that contemplation may be just as successful in solving paradoxes as peering over the accumulation of data.

    If so I would have to agree with him. My experience over many years is that paradoxes are often solved quite unexpectedly in moments of quiet reflection.

    I like to imagine that the current impasse between innateness and enculturation might be somewhat tempered through a little more inner reflection.

  19. What the “research” doesn’t and cannot say is that incosistencies exist on both sides of the gender divide. Inconsistency is a human trait. If, in a relationship, each would just continually sacrifice self to the other these inconsistencies would be greatly leveraged, but alas, the me-first attitude of humanity has everyone constantly shooting each other in the foot and all the research in the world will not help

  20. There is a very simple answer to all of this. We simply don’t know! That is all, nothing more, or less.

  21. Great discussion. The original article reviewed a few recent studies and said the answer to the question “What women do women want?” is confusing and complex. Here are question for those of you who are familiar with broad review of literature. What traits, characteristics and or nonverbal behaviors do you think women initially find attractive? What traits, characteristics and nonverbal behaviors are men most attracted to in women? I know the inherent problems in the way I have worded the question so please feel free to restate the questions in way that leads to the most interesting answers.

  22. It is very simple: women want a perfect balance of musculinity and feminity. they want a wild, virile man with a quivering sensitivity. they desire their own images in men. Unfortunately, such men are very rare in life. Most of men are endowed with a single trait and they can pretend that they possess both, unfortunately those faked personalities can not last long and can be easily detected by women.
    All these reseaches are a gigantic waste of money. Look at Marlon Brando in streetcar named desire: the male beast with female sensuality, playfulness and sensitivity. No wonder women fell for him at his prime. Unfortunately that male beauty did not last long in real life. Also, read Destoveysky’s novel “Idiot”, the female heroine vacillated between two characters: one with grand animalistic passion and another with Christ like purity. In reality, men are made of a singular dimension, women have to accept the fact of biology or they can imagine some of their partern’s traits into these ideal categories ( even these traits do not fit into strict defintion of virility and feminity).
    The desire of the combination in men can be attributed to the female biological changes during their monthly fluctuation of hormone. If such men exist in real life and acting accordingly, they will be sent to mental hospitals and jail. Because men are made for action and women can live in paradox.
    In conclusion, women are made of two diametrically opposed elements, the constant mixing of these two elements make them enigamtic.
    the answer to all these research can be found in art and literature and all the scientific research simple destoryed the beauty of life.

  23. Hi Greg — it’s been ages since this was posted but I thought I would comment nonetheless. First, it seems that this blog entry has also succumbed to the need to insert quippy and non-factual statements to draw in your reader. I did not “sex up” the bonobo films; the excerpts were originally presented with voice-over narration so I created a soundtrack from chimp vocalizations in lieu of silence. Second, data cleaning is not about removing outliers but detecting and removing movement artifacts that, if left in, would seriously distort the data. for example, a typical vaginal signal is around say 15 mV; the artifacts are typically massive by comparison, say 200mV. Not removing them would produce uninterpretable data. I’d encourage you to consult the primary sources before making inaccurate statements; your portrayal makes the research seem suspect & invalid. After reading the primary sources, you may still believe this is the case but at the very least your opinion would be based in fact. The media rarely gets it right and the NYT article was no exception. Cheers, Meredith

  24. The actual question these guys are asking is what will make a woman regularly and predictably crave sex with me with the minimal outlay of time and resources.
    Closely related is why is the universe so unkind as to make my desire more than hers so I have to work harder to get laid than she does. The answer of course is that the universe is much more unfair to her having to bear children, menstruate, hormonal cycles, and greater susceptibility to venereal diseases.
    The answer to how to have predictably have sex was solved a long time ago and is called prostitution.

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