What Do Women Really Want?

New research challenges old ideas about female sexual desire.
Published on August 22, 2013 by Noam Shpancer, Ph.D. in Insight Therapy

What do women want? 

Sigmund Freud famously asked the question, but he didn’t have an answer. Even today, the question of what motivates female sexual desire continues to resound. Definitive answers have proven elusive.

What men want we understand quite well. In general, their sexual desire is orderly, consistent, and narrowly directed. A heterosexual man is heterosexual. If you show him heterosexual sex, his sexual physiology and subjective, reported desire rise in tandem. Homosexual sex will leave him cold both physically and emotionally. For men there is an excellent match between physiological arousal (as measured by penile tumescence) and level of reported desire.

Viagra’s success demonstrates the simplicity of the male mechanism. Viagra does not target desire, but works by increasing genital blood flow, allowing erection. This, apparently, is all that is needed. As the penis rises, desire is already waiting.

For women, the story is different. The female body, studies show, likes everything, or at least responds to everything (or does not know what it likes, some cynics will say). Female physiological arousal (as measured by vaginal lubrication) occurs in response to viewing most any type of sexual activity: man with woman, woman with woman, man with man. Even watching sex among Bonobo monkeys stimulates physiological arousal in women.

The Canadian researchers Kelly Suschinsky and Martin Lalumiere have proposed that this all-inclusive arousal pattern is an evolutionary adaptation. According to this theory, the vagina immediately becomes moist at any hint of sexual activity in the vicinity so as to protect the woman from injury in the event of rape or sexual violence. This arousal is not necessarily related to the sexual desires, intents, or preferences of the woman. After all, women do not really want to have sex with Bonobos.

Indeed, it turns out that unlike men, women’s objective bodily responses don’t reflect their subjective mental desires. This is one reason Viagra does not work for women. Physical preparedness does not imply desire. That the woman can have sex does not mean she wants to.

So what does she want?

This question, as Freud intuited, is not easy to answer.

On one hand, there is considerable evidence that women seek and place a premium on a sense of intimacy and emotional closeness with their sexual partners. The reasons for this seem clear and logical: Having but one uterus to fill with one fetus at a time, a woman gains no obvious evolutionary advantage from promiscuity. For women, possessing no seed to spread, sex with more people does not result in more potential genetic offspring. Moreover, women are at higher risk than men for sexual violence and sexually transmitted diseases, not to mention the unique risk of pregnancy. It pays for women to be careful in choosing their sexual partners.

In addition, the female orgasm is less reliably achieved than the male’s so their odds of enjoying casual or anonymous sex are lower. A woman who wants to increase her chances of enjoyment and minimize her chances of harm is better off getting to know her partner well before she gets to sex. From this logic follows the claim that women are bio-programmed to want relationships, not sex; that they need a stable, intimate relationship to feel aroused and are therefore built for sexual monogamy and marriage.

Problem solved?

Not so fast. First, more recent studies show that gender differences in reported number of sexual partners are reduced or disappear altogether if women are told that they are connected to a lie detector and that the information they provide will remain confidential. In other words, when women feel safe enough or otherwise compelled to tell the truth about their sexual behavior, the story they tell more closely resembles the male story.

Moreover, if women believe that they will not be harmed and that the sex will be good, their willingness to engage in casual sex equals that of men. The female tendency toward a roving eye can also be inferred, according to the work of evolutionary psychologist David Buss, from the very phenomenon of male jealousy, which is common in all societies and consistently related to men’s fears of potential cuckoldry. If women really do not want extra marital sex, then why are men so suspicious and jealous? Why put Stop signs on a street with no traffic?

Second, recent studies indicate that human sexuality is adapted for spermcompetition. In other words, our evolutionary past had programmed women to seek sex with different men in short succession, and have their sperm compete inter-vaginally for the right of paternity. So, while women may have no seed of their own to spread, they do have multiple varieties of male seed to select from. Recent studies indicate that the objects of female sexual attraction vary with the menstrual cycle. During their fertile days, women tend to fancy high-testosterone men who are not good candidates for monogamy but have healthy male genes. How many married women secretly act on this impulse is difficult to estimate, but this type of ‘sperm poaching’ appears to be quite normative among our primate relatives.

Men, in turn, are designed for this sperm competition as well. BiologistRobin Baker of the University of Manchester found, for example, that the amount of sperm a man discharges during intercourse with his wife is not dependent on the timing of the man’s last ejaculation but on the time since his last sex with his wife. If a long time has passed (increasing the chances that someone else’s seed found its way into his wife’s vagina), the husband’s ejaculate contains more sperm cells, which increases his competitive odds. Sex after a long separation tends to be more intense and prolonged. This is because long intercourse increases the chance of the woman reaching orgasm. According to research by Baker and biologist Mark Bellis, the uterine muscle contractions that accompany the female orgasm help retain sperm inside the vagina and move them toward the ovaries, and fertilization.

Moreover, the evidence suggests that women initiate divorce more often than men, and benefit less from marriage than do men on measures of health, happiness, and wealth. Additionally, as is well known to clinical psychologists and marriage counselors everywhere, many women who feel close to a loving partner nevertheless fail to feel passion for him. Australian researcher Lorraine Dennerstein found that the decline in women’s libido over the years of adulthood is strongly linked to the loss of sexual interest in their long time partners.

If monogamy, intimacy and communication are the engines of female desire, why do so many women fail to ignite with a familiar and faithful man? Why does their passion fizzle in marriage? Why will they seek to secretly graze in foreign pastures? Why do they not benefit from the monogamous arrangement more? Why do they break it up more readily?

In light of the new research findings, the old narrative—that women desire relationships rather than sex and are thus built for monogamy—begins to crumble. Instead, a new narrative emerges in which female sexual desire is powerful, flexible, complex—and even subversive.

As additional evidence, developmental psychologist Lisa Diamond of the University of Utah found that many women experience their sexual interests as fluid and open, encompassing at different times men or women, or both. Richard Lippa of California State University has found that unlike men, whose sexual appetite narrows as it increases, sexually charged women display an increasingly open orientation. Women with higher libidos are more likely to feel desire toward members of both sexes.

Marta Meana, a researcher at the University of Nevada, has argued provocatively that the organizing principle of female sexuality is the desire to be desired. In her view, the delicate, tentative guy who politely thinks about you and asks if this is okay or that is okay is a guy who may meet the expectations of your gender politics (treats me as an equal; is respectful of me; communicates with me) and your parents’ preferences, but he may also put you into a sexual coma—not despite these qualities, but because of them.

Female desire, according to Meana, is activated when a woman feels overwhelmingly desired, not rationally considered. Female erotic literature, including all those shades of gray, is built on this fantasy. Sexual desire in this view does not work according to our expectations and social values. Desire seeks the path of desire, not the path of righteousness. It thrives not on social order but on its negation. This is one reason all religions and societies try to control, contain, limit and re-direct it.

Marta Meana had men and women watch erotic pictures of contact between a man and a woman and tracked the participants’ eye movements. She found that men and women focus on different aspects of the sexual event. Men looked at the women, while the women watched the two genders equally. They concentrated on the man’s face and the woman’s body. What turned them on apparently were the desired female body, with which they identify, and the man’s lustful gaze, for which they long.

Despite what is commonly believed, then, Meana argues that female sexuality is more self-centered than male’s. Mick Jagger’s lamentationsaside, male fantasies focus on giving satisfaction, not on receiving it. Men see themselves in their fantasies bringing the woman to orgasm, not themselves. Women see the man, set aflame by uncontrollable lust for them, bringing them to ecstasy. Men want to excite women. Women want men to excite them. Being desired is the real female orgasm, Meena says, and her words resound as a kind of truth. After all, wouldn’t more women be jealous of the desired woman who cannot orgasm than of the orgasmic woman who is not desired?

Meana asserts that this aspect of female sexuality explains the prevalence of rape fantasies in the female fantasy repertoire. Rape fantasies, in this understanding, are actually fantasies about surrender, not out of masochistic yearnings to be harmed or punished, but out of the female desire to be desired by a man to the point of driving him out of control. By this logic, the fantasy is actually about surrendering voluntarily after the coveted man, in his inability to stop himself, attests to the woman’s own supreme desirability.

According to this view, monogamous marriage does work for women on a certain level: it provides security, intimacy, and help with the children. But it also suffocates female sexual desire. As the mischievous author Toni Bentley wrote recently: “There is virtually no female sexual problem—hormonal, menopausal, orgasmic, or just plain old lack of interest—that will not be solved by—ta-da!—a new lover.”

At the end of the day, the accumulating evidence appears to reveal a paradoxical element at the core of female desire, a tension between two conflicting motives. On the one hand is the desire for stability, intimacy, and security—picture the flame on the burner of a gas stove: controlled, utilitarian, domesticated, and good for making dinner. On the other hand is the need to feel totally, uncontrollably desired, the object of raw, primal lust—a house on fire.

Be sure to read the following responses to this post by our Bloggers:

19 thoughts on “What Do Women Really Want?

  1. Daar is ‘n artikel in The Atlantic, “Why is it so hard for women to write about sex?” waarmee ek nie heeltemal mee saamstem nie. Ek het al vuurige pielopspringwekkende seksbeskrywings van vroue skrywers in fiksieboeke gelees.

    Die artikel is deur ‘n vrou (Claire Dedeker) geskryf en die inleidingssin lyk al klaar verdag. Volgens haar is dit moeilik vir vrouens om oor seks te skryf, “Because it’s easier to titillate, shock, and lie than to get at the messy truth about female desire.” Wat kan messy wees van seksbegeertes al hou jy daarvan om seks te hê while swinging from the chandelier in a rampant thunderstorm. Ek dink ou Claire needs a good screw om reg te kom.


  2. Muslim dentist ‘told patient to wear a headscarf or go elsewhere’

    A Muslim dentist made a woman wear Islamic dress as the price of accepting her as an NHS patient, it is alleged.

    Omer Butt is said to have told the patient that unless she wore a headscarf she would have to find another practice.

    Later this month, Mr Butt will appear before a General Dental Council professional misconduct hearing, which has the power to strike him off.

    It is claimed that the 31-year-old dentist asked to speak to the woman in private after she turned up for an appointment at his clinic in Bury.

    According to the charges, he questioned her on whether she was a Muslim and told her that if he was to treat her she would have to wear Islamic dress.

    He is also said to have read out a number of religious rules to her.

    He then told his nurse to give the patient her own headscarf to wear, the accusation says.

    It is not known whether the woman was a Muslim.

    The charges to be heard by the General Dental Council say that Mr Butt undermined public confidence in his profession by discriminating against a patient and failed to act in her best interests.

    Mr Butt is the older brother of former Islamic extremist Hassan Butt, who once declared he had ‘no problem’ with terror attacks on Britain and who said that September 11 “served the pleasure of Allah”.

    He has since recanted and now calls for all Muslims to abandon violence.

    The dentist also featured in immigration hearings involving an asylum seeker suspected of providing a safe house for Kamel Bourgass, an Algerian terrorist jailed for life for stabbing PC Stephen Oake to death in Manchester in 2003.

    Mr Butt, the immigration hearing was told, was introduced by his brother to the asylum seeker, who at various points claimed three different identities.

    The tribunal was told that Mr Butt was “a respectable and responsible person who wishes to help devout and practising Muslims in difficulty”.

    He “did not regard the use of false names as unusual for asylum seekers”.

    The headscarf incident is alleged to have happened in 2005, at a time when between 4,000 and 8,000 people in Bury were unable to find an NHS dentist.

    According to the charges, Mr Butt “asked to speak to Patient A in private.

    “In the course of conversation with Patient A you: (a) asked whether she was Muslim; (b) told her words to the effect that, in order to receive treatment from you, she needed to wear appropriate Islamic dress; (c) quoted to her parts of the Ahadith.”

    The Ahadith is a series of instructions on behaviour attributed to Prophet Mohammed but not written as part of the Koran.

    The charge continues: “You told Patient A that, if she did not wear a headscarf, she would need to register with another dentist. You instructed your dental nurse to give Patient A her headscarf.

    “The dental nurse took Patient A to another room where she was given the nurse’s headscarf to wear.

    “In seeking to impose an Islamic dress code on Patient A in order for treatment to be provided you undermined public confidence in the profession by discriminating against Patient A.”

    If the charges are upheld, the Porsche- driving dentist will be found guilty of serious professional misconduct.

    Penalties can range from a public warning to suspension and being struck off.

    Tory MP Sir Paul Beresford, a former minister and a dentist, said: “When a patient comes to see me I have no concern with their religion. I do not ask Muslim patients to read the Bible.

    “My practice tries to respect religious belief. For example, during Ramadan we try to help Muslim patients by making sure they do not have to swallow water when they are fasting. We do not ask patients to become Christians.”

    Women staff at Mr Butt’s Bury practice do not routinely wear headscarves while at work.

    One female patient said: “I think it is a pretty outrageous thing to ask but I have never felt as if I am being discriminated against at this practice as a Western woman.

    “If I was then I would certainly make a full complaint. If it is true then it shows a reverse prejudice bordering on racism.”

    Mr Butt was involved in another controversial incident earlier this year when police stopped his Porsche 911 and said they could not read its customised number plate.

    The dentist recorded the subsequent search of the car on his mobile phone and passed the video to the BBC, which broadcast it on a local news bulletin. It shows Mr Butt asking an officer: “Are you a racist?”

    The dentist was then arrested for racially aggravated behaviour. There were no charges, and a complaint against the police by Mr Butt is still being considered.

    Mr Butt was unavailable for comment yesterday. Staff at his practice said he was on holiday.



    • And then they state that women find it difficult to write about sex, thanx Molly that was a real turn on, butts and all and all.
      And you told us that the Muslims and jews don’t come knocking on your door?, not exactly the some thing but is he forcing his religious believes onto his pateints?, seeing a woman without a scarf and put your fingers in her mouth. . . .wel. . . why did he become a dentist in the first place, maybe it has nothing to do with Allah and all.


      • After my old Afrikaans dentist retired to the coast, I made the mistake of seeing a Muslim dentist. Unhygienic beard, the lot. He was appallingly rude, even hysterical, and that was the first and last time I go there.


      • Jews don’t ever try to convert the goyims or insult them. That’s what I miss about them, that and their professionalism. There are not many Jews in these parts.


        • I must confess, my dentist is Afrikaans and probably a Christian. He is brilliant though. He took my wisdom teeth out and I barely felt a thing. I don’t know if it is me that is so tough or him that was so good. Always cleanly shaved and hygienic and professional himself. He is still very young, but people like him make me think there are still young people out there who takes pride in their jobs. He studied at the university of the Western Cape.


          • This is what fundamentalist Muslims believe. This gives you a really good insight of how repellent men find women and offers an explanation for serial murder. All the same, you half wish there really was an after life for Muslims, but with 72 angry women with bad breath and hairy legs and armed with baseballs bats waiting for them. Not that fundamentalist Christians are any better with their gory crucifixion and rituals of drinking the blood and eating the flesh of their saviour.

            In Islam, the concept of 72 virgins (houri) refers to an aspect of Jannah (Paradise). This concept is grounded in Qur’anic text which describe a sensual Paradise where believing men are rewarded by being wed to virgins with “full grown”, “swelling” or “pears-shaped” breasts.

            Conversely, women will be provided with only one man, and they “will be satisfied with him”.

            They will be virgins who are so beautiful, pure and transparent that “the marrow of the bones of their legs will be seen through the bones and the flesh”, and that “the believers will visit and enjoy them”.

            Physical Attributes:
            Wide and beautiful/lovely eyes
            Hairless except the eye brows and the head
            White skinned
            60 cubits [27.5 meters] tall
            7 cubits [3.2 meters] in width
            Transparent to the marrow of their bones
            Eternally young
            Companions of equal age

            Sexual Attributes:
            Untouched / with hymen unbroken by sexual intercourse
            With large, round breasts which are not inclined to hang
            Appetizing vaginas
            Personality Attributes:
            Restraining their glances
            Modest gaze

            Other Attributes:
            Non-menstruating / non-urinating/ non-defecating and childfree
            Never dissatisfied
            Will sing praise


            • I tried to find what you post in the Koran, but couldn’t probably because of a lack of effort, but what imagination, personally I would never have thought of half the things they dished up. 27.5 meters tall, I think they long to be back in the uterus, as Freud(?) stated that we spent 9 months in a uterus and spend our whole life trying to get back in there.

              On the other hand, the atheist have no imagination, they “believe” without proof that when you “cross over” you know nothing just like you did before your birth (and actually for quit some time after). I think they use this “believe” to motivate themselves to make the most of this life and to show their “onge-ergte” attitude toward their inevitable death.

              The Christians have this utopia “believe” in the afterlife, life without pain, everything is just awesome, harps on the soft clouds and a King on a throne (al die smarag, prag en praal ). I read a book by a Chinese woman that actually been there – heaven – where the “dead” have houses too beautiful to describe, I’m not sure why they have houses, what for?

              But even there they only have the eternal moment to do their thing, the moment, this eternal moment is always with us. Eckart Tolle writes that the “moment” is the key to open the door to “life” itself. . .?


              • “I have seen the moment of my greatness flicker, and I have seen the eternal Footman hold my coat, and snicker, and in short, I was afraid.”

                ― T.S. Eliot, The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock and Other Poems


                • Dit is “scary” veral as mens Eliot se woorde lees en weet my “greatness” skiet vêr te kort as ek nie eens kan verstaan wat hy skryf nie, maar realtief gesien as dit kom by dit wat “geestelik” is, is ons almal gelyk en die een wat meer eerlik en ondersoekend is, het die voordeel in so vêrre dat “kuns” kan beskou word as die naderende versoening van dit wat materie is en dit wat “geestelik” is.


                  • Eliot realises that he has reached the point in his life where everything that comes after will not be as great as before. The eternal Footman who snickers refers to the sly humiliation of death. What he tells us is a universal truth, it happens to everyone.


                • As the poets have mournfully sung,
                  Death takes the innocent young,
                  The rolling-in-money,
                  The screamingly-funny,
                  And those who are very well hung.

                  WH Auden


                  • Jip we all have to go, and lay down our own little lives, all our stresses, and someday we’ll do something for the first time – for the last time, and sometimes I think what would be my last thoughts, how would it change my attitude towards life and what would I’ve done if I were where I’m now, in this moment. . .
                    And what am I doing. . .?
                    Am I communicating with a bunch of frustrated ego’s full of hatred and arrogance, or, am I just talking to the concepts in my mind that was created in your image, in the end talking to “myself” . . .?


                    • If you want to throw around boring cliches about nothing new under the sun, or pearls before swine, then yup, you’re talking to yourself.


                    • Your concept in my “self”, created in your image, just expressed hatred and frustrations yet again so there were no changes and nothing new, just a loose sphincter muscle.


                    • Johann, can you stop playing the victim and say something original here? I promise you, God won’t strike you down, I was just talking to the dude this morning about whether I should have Weetbix Lite or Weetbix Regular for breakfast.


                    • Victim, victim . . . I had to dig deep to find any reason for your “impulse” that I am a victim of some sorts. Are you implying that because there are neuron paths in my brain that holds your likeness, made in your image, that it cause me to be a victim of something? M.a.w. is ek ‘n slagoffer omdat jy ‘n plekkie in my kop het? You, Molly, being so full of hatred, opinionated, excitable, who’s “reality” is the urge to defecate, somehow, because you are in my head makes me a victim?
                      I don’t think so but it was a entertaining thought.


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