What Do Women Want? Sex. Why Don’t They Know That? Men.

What women really think about news, politics, and culture.
June 4 2013 5:36 AM

Women Want Sex

But men don’t want them to know it.

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“Women’s desire—its inherent range and innate power—is an underestimated and constrained force,” Daniel Bergner writes in his new book

Photo by Fuse/Thinkstock

One Thursday evening last month, I sat sandwiched between Playboy’s CEO and its editorial director inside Marilyn Monroe’s favorite bungalow at the Chateau Marmont. Playboy had fled the mansion to unveil its 2013 Playmate of the Year, the 25-year-old Mexican-American beauty Raquel Pomplun, who was plucked from the Playmate pile to represent a “reimagining” of the brand for the millennial generation. In order to appeal to a new era of Playboy readers, “we’ve got to be female-friendly,” the CEO, Scott Flanders, emphasized. “We’ve got to create events that women are as comfortable attending as men.” In other words, they had to figure out what women want—in other women.

Amanda Hess Amanda Hess

Amanda Hess is a Slate staff writer. 

The first order of business was to bury the ditzy reverberations of The Girls Next Door—the E! reality show that followed three of Hugh Hefner’s girlfriends, stitched up with silicone and marinated in peroxide, as they fluttered about the mansion—and dial the brand back a few generations to a time when it seemed sexually revolutionary for women to hop into Hef’s arms. Scattered across the party were issues of the June cover, on which Pomplun fingers a rotary phone in hair curlers and white panties, grinning broadly over her shoulder. Two of Playboy’s trusted accessories were notably absent. “We’re moving toward what we’re calling the three G’s: God-given gorgeous, with no artificial enhancements,” Flanders explained. “I’m sorry—no obvious artificial enhancements.”

“I prefer to call it Darwin-given gorgeous,” editorial director Jimmy Jellinek said. “The magazine used to have this aesthetic of unattainable perfection” that prompted “unhealthy competition” among women, he said. It hopes to appeal to men and women alike with a “more healthy, naturalistic look.”

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I suggested that, instead of tinkering with the female form, Playboy consider appealing to women by featuring men in the magazine.

 “We used to have a pickle shot now and again,” Jellinek allowed. “Not anymore.”

“Men aren’t comfortable with it,” Flanders said quickly.

“Nowadays, you don’t see a lot of men’s cocks, even in movies,” Jellinek said. We discussed the exceptions: An extended bottomless display in Hall Pass. The Borat nude wrestling scene. Michael Fassbender’s stiff performance in Shame.

“Beautiful penis,” Jellinek said.

“Huge penis,” I added.

“Personally, I’d like to see more God-given normality in that area,” Flanders said.

“See, I’m in the minority. I can appreciate a good piece of equipment,” Jellinek said. “There’s a hypocrisy in consumer culture today,” he continued. “As difficult as it is to show nude women, it’s that much more difficult to show nude men.” After all, “men dominate all forms of media, so they’re going to dictate the tastes that are unleashed among the masses.”

“He’s a socialist,” Flanders told me.

“With a Porsche,” Jellinek added.

Playboy is poised at an interesting moment in the cultural representation of human sexuality, where it’s en vogue to embrace the sexual desires of women—as long as they fit in neatly with the desires of men. As a producer for the now-bankrupt softcore porn franchise Girls Gone Wild told Ariel Levy in 2004, Joe Francis’ cameras were merely capturing a new permutation of female sexuality, one where women willingly “flash for the brand.” Playboy, too, as Hugh Hefner told Levy, is being "embraced by young women in a curious way in a postfeminist world.” As the CEO said at the chateau, “at our parties, more girls want their pictures taken next to the Playmates in bunny costumes than men do. Now, you explain that to me.”

I had some theories. They crystallized that weekend, when I read Daniel Bergner’s What Do Women Want? a fascinating survey of the emerging science on female desire, published today. In the book, Bergner, an occasional Slate contributor, lays out a diverse body of research that threatens to disrupt all the modern stereotypes of female sexuality: That women are not visual creatures; that their sex drive is lower than men’s; that they’re aroused by love, not sex; and that they’re naturally fitted to be sexual objects, not agents.

If society didn’t realize all of that before, Bergner writes, it’s because the men who run it didn’t want to. “Women’s desire—its inherent range and innate power—is an underestimated and constrained force,” he concludes. In the Middle Ages, it was constrained by the idea that “lust-drunk witches … left men ‘smooth,’ devoid of their genitals.” In the last century, it was constrained by Freud’s theory that women have “a weaker sexual instinct” than men. Now, it’s constrained by modern evolutionary psychology that says that “women are rigged by their genes to seek the comfort of relationships.” Across culture, Bergner writes, “with scientific or God-given confidence, girls and women are told how they should feel.” Mostly, they should feel comfortable sexualizing themselves, but not men.

The sexologists Bergner profiles in his book are all working to peel back those cultural messages of how women should feel to find out what actually arouses them. Take the research of Dr. Kim Wallen, who studies the sexuality of rhesus monkeys, the same species we blasted into space to test how the elements would affect human astronauts. When two rhesus monkeys are housed together in a tiny cage, “the males appeared to be the initiators of the species,” Bergner reports. “But put rhesus in a less artificial situation, and sex depended almost completely on the female’s tracking, her ceaseless approaching, her lipping and stroking and belly-kissing and tap-tapping, her craving.” Wallen theorized that “because of social conventions and imperatives,” human women “frequently don’t act on or even recognize the intensity of motivation that monkeys obey.” They’re in their own “cultural cage” that “distorts libido.”

Dr. Jim Pfaus, who studies the aggressive mating behaviors of female rats, concurred. If human women were freed to act more like the animals he studies, he said, we’d see more “supposedly male-like behavior,” such as “more women picking up men, more women getting laid and leaving, having sex without waiting to bond, more girls up in their rooms at their computers clicking on porn and masturbating before they get started on their homework.” That’s a dangerous affront to the modern male, Pfaus told Bergner, because “we’re opening ourselves to being cuckolded.” Men don’t want to open the cage, because they’re “afraid of what’s inside.”

Dr. Meredith Chivers attempts to peek into the cage by sitting women in La-Z-Boy recliners, presenting them with a variety of pornographic videos, images, and audio recordings, and fitting their bodies with vaginal plethysmographs to measure the blood flow of desire. When Chivers showed a group of women a procession of videos of naked women, naked men, heterosexual sex, gay sex, lesbian sex, and bonobo sex, her subjects “were turned on right away by all of it, including the copulating apes.” But when it came time to self-report their arousal, the survey and the plethysmograph “hardly matched at all,” Bergner reports. Straight women claimed to respond to straight sex more than they really did; lesbian women claimed to respond to straight sex far less than they really did; nobody admitted a response to the bonobo sex. Physically, female desire seemed “omnivorous,” but mentally, it revealed “an objective and subjective divide.” (Meanwhile, when Chivers hooked up straight men to a penile plethysmograph and showed them the same images, the path of their desire appeared much more straightforward: Their blood rush spiked at signs of heterosexual sex, women alone, and particularly, women having sex with one another, and their self-reports fell in line with the blood flow.) The only strong preference Chivers found among her female subjects? When she presented straight women with photographs of human genitals, their blood “rushed much, much more when an erection occupied the screen” than when a flaccid penis or a female “crotch shot” appeared.

Apparently, Playboy’s editorial director isn’t the only one who can appreciate a good piece of equipment. But in a sexual landscape ruled by male desires and insecurities, it’s safer to direct women’s sexual gaze at one another instead of back at men. The question that Playboy is hoping to answer with its Playmate reboot is not exactly “what do women want?” It’s more “what do women want, that men will find acceptable?” Or really, “what do men want?” (Some reboot.) Maybe it’s a cultural internalization of male desire, what Bergner calls “an eroticization of disempowerment” that leads some women to ruminate on rape fantasies, some to line up to have their photos taken with Hefner’s bunnies, and others to become the biggest cheerleaders of Girls Gone Wild. As Bergner puts it, “men made objects of girls and women; girls and women, living in a male-run world, absorbed the male outlook as their own and made objects of themselves.”