Today, I read an enlightening interview with Daniel Bergner whose book, What do Women Want?, takes a look at the science behind female desire. What science, once scientists moved beyond the cultural biases, has to say is very contrary to what culture teaches us. Just as Joan Roughgarden questions the portrayal of females as the coy ones of the species – “comparatively passive,” as Darwin put it – Bergner shares evidence of female monkeys very actively pursuing the males they desire. And it’s not just monkeys. Human females also display a lot more desire than we’re allowed to admit: Physical measures of arousal show much more arousal than women disclose. We have been culturally trained to suppress our desire.
The force of female desire is dangerous for the status quo. Monogamy is challenging for both men and women because it’s not natural, so women have been trained to believe that they are responsible for upholding relationships to ensure that monogamy works (sort of). Thus, we have been taught to rechannel desire rather than act on it because acting on it could undermine the whole cultural structure! If we take Aristotle’s (and others’) claim seriously that the nuclear family is the building block of society, female desire that leaps outside of the monogamous restriction threatens all of society that is built around the nuclear family. There’s something very subversive, then, about a woman’s desire!
Why is maintaining the status quo so important? We are living in a highly hierarchical culture. The hierarchies are maintained, in part, through shame (another big part, of course, is overt violence): Stepping outside of the cultural norms is shameful, so most people don’t dare do it. They stay coupled (for example) even when they’re miserable just because being single is undesirable since there’s something wrong with singles (so the myth goes). If we were to leave the idea behind that we have to be coupled, if we were to allow ourselves to follow our desires, rather than suppress them, we might end up developing more collaborative ways of living because we’d still want to take care of our offspring. We might just end up with more alloparents than biological parents, which according to Sarah Bluffer Hrdy’s research actually comes with a slew of benefits for that offspring, including lower infant mortality and more resilience.
To circle back to the beginning of this post: The taboo against relationships beyond marriage is designed to channel a woman’s desire so that the hierarchical structures of society are maintained along marital lines. People busy suppressing their desires don’t have time to create a different, more life-affirming (and desirable) culture.