“I want to live darkly and richly in my femaleness.”
– Anaïs Nin
She is a silent hunter, purposefully circuitous, subtle and stealth. She is ozone in the atmosphere, the smell in the air right before a storm – invisible to the eye, alive to the senses. She deftly locates the hairline cracks in the veneer of her target and inserts herself deeply – the indispensible nutrient in the cells of her beloved. She is single-minded and laser-focused. She is out for pleasure – her own – but for her there is no pleasure without rapturous emotion, a rush of blood to the heart. A lust fuelled by her unfettered imagination, by the tantalising promise of love. If only for a brief, decadent, never to be repeated moment.
The narrative of the female in pursuit: thrilling, intriguing and universally unsettling. Compelling to our more salacious appetites but threatening, in a way, to our cosy maternal worldview of femininity. The idea conjures images of sexual cannibalism – female insects devouring their mates post copulation, or film noir femmes fatales casually destroying a man’s life with the suggestive swoosh of a false eyelash.
The archetype of the lusty woman has always borne a twinge of crazy, a spike of sinister. The steely-eyed temptress who seduces for her own wicked end – money, power, narcissistic gratification. Driven by morally dubious motives that usually lead to the ruin of helpless men stupefied by her spell and, ultimately, to her own undoing. Glenn Close boiling bunnies in Fatal Attraction, Sharon Stone and her trusty ice pick in Basic Instinct, Gloria Swanson’s lethal self-obsession in Sunset Boulevard, Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina hurling herself under the wheels of a train – “Her death was the death of a bad woman, a woman without religion.” A quick scan through much of the classic literature and cinema the last few centuries have produced and we see that rapacious desire is almost always attributed to the depraved and deranged among the fairer sex. Certainly not your mother, definitely not your sister, and absolutely not your wife.
“Seduction was never a casual sport for me; it was more like a heist, adrenalising and urgent,” wrote author Elizabeth Gilbert in an essay for The New York Times. “I would plan the heist for months, scouting out the target, looking for unguarded entries. Then I would break into his deepest vault, steal all his emotional currency and spend it on myself.” The essay’s called Confessions of a Seduction Addict, and in it Gilbert boldly owns up to the years she spent at the mercy of her desire – for sex, for romance, for the thrill of the hunt, the high of the conquest. All the delights and compulsions we usually associate with the male drive here laid out by a woman, speaking aloud the truth about her carnal cravings and their persistent tug on her psyche.
They say that men think about sex roughly every seven seconds (a yet-to-be proven, seemingly random, alarmingly high number; do men not have jobs?) and yet to my (and Google’s) knowledge there aren’t any widely accepted assumptions about how often women think about sex because, women think about sex? What Gilbert bravely exposes in her confessional is a truth that our culture seems bent on keeping securely in the dark, suppressed and distorted through silence, shame and the perpetuation of the classic ‘evil temptress’ narrative. The truth is that sexual desire – irrespective of the maternal urge to nest and nurture – is as alive in the female as it is in the male. And, if Gilbert herself is any kind of testament, acting on that desire as a woman doesn’t necessarily lead to personal ruin, or even social condemnation. As far as I can tell Gilbert isn’t (and never really was) a sex-crazed nymphomaniac casting spells over cauldrons to ensnare unsuspecting male victims. She’s just a woman, and as such her sexuality is far more nuanced, complex and indeed potent, than cultural rhetoric would have us believe. Even now, in what is proving to be an epochal moment for female liberation, the true nature of female desire is still lurking behind a smokescreen of myth and misunderstanding.
The 2017 Weinstein scandal and subsequent Me Too and Time’s Up movements precipitated a kind of second-wave sexual revolution – one that stationed justice, disclosure and equality at the centre of the discourse around gender and sexual politics. As women, we discovered the power of our collective voice in combating the abuse, misogyny and oppression that has been deeply ingrained in our culture for millennia. We are rightly teaching our sons and daughters that consent is a mandatory requisite of any sexual encounter. That saying ‘no’ to sex is a woman’s right – anyone’s right – and a boundary that under no circumstances should be crossed. We are raising strong young women who we hope will know how to draw those lines and never have to feel coerced, bullied or forced into the act of sex like so many who have gone before them. But while establishing boundaries is, and should be, the keynote of the dialogue, it shouldn’t be the entirety of it.
“As important as the conversation is about female consent, consent is not the last or only word when it comes to female sexuality,”
said Gilbert in a recent interview. “There is also such a thing as female desire, which is a very different thing from consent. Consent seems to imply that a woman is passively waiting, being attractive, and then a man will come and say ‘can I have this and that?’ and she’ll say either ‘yes’ or ‘no’. My own experience with sexual desire does not look like that. There are seasons of a woman’s life where she is a predator.” ‘Predator’ is a loaded word, especially in 2020, but while I hesitate to speak for Gilbert here I’m pretty sure she isn’t referring to, or condoning in women, the coercive and deeply sinister behaviours of the Harvey Weinsteins of the world. The point I think she’s trying to make is that in the tangled debate over the nuances of consent we’re stopping short of a broader, deeper and more thorough exploration of the issue of sexual dynamics. When consent is where the narrative beings and ends, the onus of desire is placed squarely on men. The implication is that a man-predator will seek an outcome that is advantageous to him and his woman-prey will either give him what he desires or she will refuse him what he desires. “Men want sex more than women,” we hear, on repeat, from all directions. But do men really by nature have a monopoly on desire? Or is it just that female desire is operationally different because of the way women are socialised from a young age and therefore largely misunderstood?
Peggy Orenstein is a researcher and author of The New York Times bestseller Girls and Sex. In her work she explores the discrepancies in the way girls and boys are raised to relate to their own sexuality and how that manifests psychologically and behaviourally into adulthood. “Whereas discussion of male puberty includes the emergence of a near unstoppable sex drive,” she writes in her essay Don’t Call Me Princess, “female puberty is defined by periods and the possibility of unwanted pregnancy. When do we talk to girls about desire and pleasure?” Orenstein suggests that it is this lack of dialogue around female pleasure and reciprocity in the early education of young people that leads to dysfunction for all genders later in life. She identifies that from the outset a man’s sexuality is characterised by his desire for sex whereas a woman’s sexuality is characterised by being desirable, which is an entirely passive position in the sexual dynamic between men and women. “Young women today are sold the idea that sexiness is the same as sexuality,” she writes, “that being desirable is more important than understanding their own desires.”
Virginity, we’re told as girls, is ‘sacred’. It’s something we give away, something a man (specifically a man) ‘takes’ from us and once he has it’s ‘lost’ forever. Dialogue around our first sexual encounter is rarely approached in our culture as a shared experience, one that’s supposed to be pleasurable, fun and, of course, consensual for both parties – man and woman, or no man at all if that’s the preference. Instead we’re bombarded with jarring red flags – the risk of STDs, unwanted pregnancy, sexual violence, along with, if we’re lucky, a few anatomical diagrams and a brief mechanical description of the “act of intercourse”. Apparently, that’s all we need to equip ourselves to handle the tricky, emotionally complex world of sexual relationships. Of course STDs and unwanted pregnancies are a real thing and we should be taught how to avoid them. Of course it’s important to teach our daughters that it is their right to say no, and to teach our sons to hear and respect that, but as Orenstein says, “if we truly want young people to engage safely, ethically, and yes, enjoyably, it’s time to have an open, honest discussion about what happens after ‘yes’. And that includes breaking the biggest taboo of all and talking to young people about women’s capacity for, and entitlement to, sexual pleasure.”
The first step in unlocking the Pandora’s box of female desire is taking a critical look at some of those rampant truisms we’ve been sold for eons and seeing if they hold up to scrutiny. Unsurprisingly, most of them don’t. Take the common assumptions that men are wired to want more sex than women and that women are naturally monogamous creatures while men are born with an insatiable urge to ‘sow their seed’.
We know that monogamy is a fairly recent practice in the history of human mating habits. For most of history we were ‘cooperative breeders’, existing in close collectives called tribes and sharing the responsibility of child rearing as much as food sourcing and shelter building.
But less widely known is the increasing consensus among scientists and anthropologists that women in particular evolved to be even more promiscuous than men.
In 1981 primatologist Sarah Blaffer Hrdy published her extensive research on primates in what was then a highly controversial book called The Woman That Never Evolved. In it she suggests that the females were more strategic and self-serving in their mating practices than evolutionary theorists like Charles Darwin ever gave them credit for. She observed that a female would seduce and copulate with numerous males potentially as a way of maximising her chances of being impregnated but also of giving the illusion of paternity to more than just one guy, which ensured a wider support network for herself and her offspring. According to Hrdy the traditional view that females naturally take a passive role in sexual selection is a result of relatively recent social ideologies and is neither evolutionarily or biologically relevant.
Ah – but we are not apes, you say. No, we are not. We are far more complex and, hopefully, hygienic. But when you consider that most of the assumptions made about what constitutes ‘natural’ human mating tendencies have been drawn by evolutionary biologists as a result of observing our closest cousins, it’s worth noting that some of those assumptions are, on further analysis, proving to be wrong. It’s no secret that nature incentivised the propagation of the species by making the means by which that happens an enjoyable thing, so if both men and women are involved in procreation why would the primal urge to do so be stronger in men? Because it’s probably not. Based on the emerging evidence from research like Hrdy’s, nature wired women for pleasure; it’s society that tells us otherwise.
It makes sense when you consider that the only organ in human biology that exists solely for the purpose of pleasure belongs to a woman. The clitoris, which historically has been misunderstood, mislocated and flat-out ignored, serves no function other than to generously deliver orgasms to its host. And just to give you some sense of the extent to which female pleasure has been scientifically and culturally neglected, the full anatomy of the clitoris (which, by the way, is more like an iceberg than a mere lemon seed) wasn’t properly mapped until 1998. That’s right, we’d mastered space travel, eradicated smallpox, and invented the internet before science figured out how to find its way around the clitoris. The sexual revolution had come and gone and yet the mystery of female anatomy remained.
“Women are multiply orgasmic, women’s biology sets them up to seek out pleasure,” says Wednesday Martin, a sex researcher and author who’s on a mission to demystify female sexuality and help propel a shift in public perception. “The clitoris has a very important back story about female human sex, which is that our sex evolved for the purpose of adventure.” One of the themes Martin explores in her bestselling book Untrue: Why Nearly Everything We Believe About Women, Lust and Infidelity is Wrong and How The New Science Can Set Us Free is the loss of desire experienced by many women in long-term monogamous heterosexual relationships.
Referencing the work of researcher and PhD professor of psychology Marta Meana, Martin relays that when surveyed women are far more likely than men to report sexual dissatisfaction in a long-term relationship even if they’re having sex on a regular basis. But we all know women simply have lower libidos overall, right? Apparently not. Because, as Meana observed, when these same women strayed within the relationship or ended the relationship to begin another affair, their libido magically reappeared like a rabbit out of a hat. This suggests that while, generally speaking, men are happy just to be having sex, women get bored and begin to crave variety much sooner and with greater intensity. Meana’s findings may be surprising but are far from anomalous – they have been mirrored in several other longitudinal studies conducted over the past decade.
So if what these researchers observe is true, and women might actually be the ‘seed sowers’ of the human species, why does the picture of female desire look so distorted through our cultural lens? The reasons are many, but I believe sexual violence and ‘slut shaming’ are probably the most pernicious. Sadly, it’s simply not safe – physically and socially – in many instances for a woman to proudly own her sexuality and openly pursue pleasure. Centuries of male domination, violence towards women, and derogatory slander like ‘slut’, ‘whore’ and ‘man-eater’ cramming the dumpsites of collective female shame, have driven female sexuality underground.
A commonly cited study conducted in 1989, which helped establish the bias that men purely want sex more than women, was taken from a sample of 60 heterosexual men and women who were asked whether or not they’d be willing to engage in sex with one of a selection of strangers presented to them. Unsurprisingly, men were more likely to jump at the chance whereas women were reluctant. Unsurprising, because the study failed to control for cultural context and the risk of sexual violence. Many years later, researchers from Johannes Gutenberg-Universität Mainz in Germany were suspicious of the 1989 findings and decided to re-create the study, only this time ensuring the safety and anonymity of the women involved – no risk of violence, no risk of slut shaming. Lo and behold in this study women were just as likely as men to accept an offer for casual sex. It turns out that it may not be anything innate in female biology that puts a dampener on desire, but the threat of violence, humiliation and shame.
It’s a sad reality that academic studies are needed at all to validate the fact that for far too long female sexuality has been denatured by cultural narrative – by the binary Madonna-whore archetype upon which we’ve built a distorted definition of femininity. That even in our progressive technological society, even in this new age of sexual enlightenment, even as we begin 2020 – a time when we’re getting set to travel to Mars – the true nature of female desire remains obscured by false assumptions, outdated science and an oppressive sociopolitical agenda.
In The Sadeian Woman: And the Ideology of Pornography, Angela Carter writes: “To be the object of desire is to be defined in the passive case. To exist in the passive case is to die in the passive case – that is to be killed. This is the moral of the fairy tale about the perfect woman.” And I don’t think the answer to this stifling, erroneous fairy tale of the perfect woman is to thrust her from the passive into the active case – from the performative feminine to the performative masculine. It isn’t to more closely align her sexuality with that of a man, or even to attempt to extract it from its relationship to a man’s. As Simone de Beauvoir once said, “To emancipate woman is to refuse to confine her to the relations she bears to a man, not to deny them to her.”
To liberate female sexuality from the confines of cultural myth is really to understand and legitimise all of its manifestations, but also to transcend all imposed limitations.
The siren and the saint, the Madonna and the temptress, the loving mother and the desirous lover – as the pendulum swings from one end of the dyad to the other it touches a multitude of holons in between. It is in each of these spaces that female desire resides, from black to white to the palest shades of grey, dancing unpredictably around a mile-long spectrum. If today she is happily single and celibate, content to go to bed with a good book, then tomorrow she is the seduction addict juiced up on rekindled passion and a newfound love of salsa dancing.
“Sexuality is less about the actual act of having pretty good sex,” wrote Sera Beak, “… much more about surrounding yourself with an ever-simmering sensual energy, pulsing just underneath your daily life and infusing everything you do.” The irrepressible, magnetic force of a woman in full ownership of her sexual power, in righteous possession of her own body, is not some hysterical perversion of femininity but femininity in its fullest expression. To deny the dark, rich layers to female sexuality is ultimately to plug the faucet of feminine power and creativity. Which was maybe the point all along. But it will not hold. Because the stuff we’ve used to seal the dormant volcano is as flimsy as paper and string, and her eruption has begun.