January 27, 2009

What Do Women Want? The NY Times Isn’t Sure

Natalie discusses the NYT latest piece on "What Women Want" and the trouble with trying to make women into one group with homogeneous wants and needs.

Print More

This week’s Sunday edition of the New York Times featured an article titled “What Do Women Want?” which attempts, and in my opinion fails for a variety of reasons, to explain the complexity that is female desire (and arousal, but we’ll get to that).

I was directed to the article because it features quotes from Kinsey Institute director, Julia Heiman. She does a great job in speaking about sexuality historically and its connection with both the study of female sexuality and work by female scientists. Hieman shows this appropriately balanced commentary when she states that “no one right now has a unifying theory” and reminded readers that “it is important to distinguish between behavior and what underlies it.” Exactly.

The article gets murky when it tries to use data about behavior or physical response to make generalizations about female sexuality as a whole, when it’s really unfair and problematic to do so. The authors seems to recognize this, as there are certain admissions throughout the article about things like the fluidity of female sexuality or complicated relationship between hormones and sexual behavior.

Arousal And Desire

I think one important distinction the article fails to make early on is the difference between arousal, as measured by physical changes in the body such as genital arousal, and desire, or what a person wants or is attracted to in a partner or sexual act. Overall the piece seems too cluttered and is sort of set up for failure because “what women want” is complicated, as is what men want when it comes to their sexuality.

I think the best quote I read dismisses this automatic gender dissection by pointing out that the “variability between genders may be greater than the differences between genders” – and affirms again the complexity of lust.

A more appropriate title for the article (although perhaps less eye-catching) might be “What Arouses Women” or “What Women’s Vagina’s Respond To” or “What Women’s Brains Do During Ovulation” since it seems a little naive to assume that one article or one scientific study or one researcher can answer such a complicated question.

Bloggers Respond

Other bloggers have had some similar criticisms about the language used in the article – how it makes it seem like there are only a small number of female researchers exploring sexuality, true to a certain extent but that was one part of the article I liked – the fact that it highlighted the work of female researchers in higher education. The blog response I’ve enjoyed the most so far has been by gregdowney on the blog Neuroanthropology. His response highlights some of the important flaws of the article as well as linking to some other interesting blog posts from their site and a funny conclusion that’s worth a read.

An interesting pictorial representation of “what women want” from idealisms on Flickr.

Edit: There have been quite a few female bloggers weighing in on this article with some interesting things to say about Berger’s take on female sexuality.

Check these out:

More Women Talk About What Women Want by Anna & Megan from Jezebel

Narcissism: The secret to women’s sexuality! by Tracy Clark-Flory at Salon

Women want less condescending articles about what we want by Amanda Marcotte at Pandagon

New York Times’ Post-accurate Framing of Female Desire by Courtney at Feministing