Are Women Passive When It Comes to Sex?

What Women Really Think
June 10 2013 10:08 AM

Are Women Passive When It Comes to Sex?

woman_in_bed1
Interested but waiting for you to make the first move

Photo by Lana K/Shutterstock

Thanks to everyone for your replies last week about sustaining passion within monogamy. I’m about to pose another question, but first a note about nature versus nurture in humans and monkeys.

Amid the nice reviews for my new book, What Do Women Want?, one or two have criticized me for being overly essentialist—that is, overly focused on the aspects of female desire that are innate. Meanwhile, I’m pretty sure that evolutionary psychologists might say the opposite: that I am way too much of a social-constructionist and put too much emphasis on the role of culture in sculpting—and I would say distorting and constraining—women’s sexuality. As I was writing the book, I came to a point, almost exactly in the middle, where the battle between these two dueling explanations grew kind of crazy inside my brain. This was partly because of Marta Meana, a terrific researcher and thinker, and Deidrah, a rhesus monkey involved in studies of primate sexuality, which I write about in my book.

Meana talks about the desire to be desired as being particularly powerful within women. In this view, female desire often relies on someone else’s lust to ignite, which makes it fundamentally receptive and even passive. (I’m speaking in overly general terms here; I’m talking on average. It goes without saying that the erotic beings of women and men are infinitely varied—my last book, The Other Side of Desire, is all about that.) But when I was writing about Meana’s perspective, I kept crashing, in my mind, against what I’d learned from Deidrah, who, like all the females of her species, is a sexual aggressor; she stalks and seduces like a lusty Don Juan. The desire to be desired doesn’t really seem to be Deidrah’s thing. Except in the moments of actual mounting, there is nothing passive or receptive about her sexual soul.

If Meana was right about the desire to be desired, how, in evolutionary terms, had we moved so far from Deidrah? Was culture so powerful that it could carry out a nearly complete inversion in how women behave? There’s a lot of complexity I’m speeding past for the purposes of this blog (including important differences in the ovulatory cycles of monkeys and humans), but maybe that’s just as well, because no matter how much I considered all the nuances as I wrote and revised, the question felt unanswerable.

So I am enlisting your help. Do you, as women, experience your sexuality as relatively passive?  (I’m interested in hearing, too, from men on their perception of the women they’re with.) For you, does female desire feel like a fundamentally receptive force? Please write from personal experience and be as specific and honest as possible, but stop short of pornographic. We want to be able to publish some of your responses later this week. Send your replies to doublex.slate@gmail.com and put “what do women want—passive” in the subject line. We will use your name unless you specify otherwise. (Let us know if you prefer that we only use your first name.) Please check out Slate's submission guidelines before you write in. We look forward to hearing from you.

Daniel Bergner is the author of the new book What Do Women Want? Follow him on Facebook and Twitter.