Among the stereotypes that saddle men and women, it's commonly understood that male sexuality is rather, er, straightforward, while female sexuality is complex and shrouded in secrets. Hence, the theory of feminine wiles.
In his recent book, "What do Women Want?," Daniel Bergner aims to peel back the layers of mystery enshrined in female sexuality like a Georgia O'Keefe flower.
What does he find? That yes, women's sexuality is far more nuanced than men's. As one researcher puts it, men turn on like the switch of a single button; for women, there's an assembly of buttons, and we're not sure which does what. Part of that owes to limited research on female sexuality, which Bergner attributes, in part, to the historically male dominated field. He notes, for example, that scientists have only recently realized the broad extent of the clitoris and have yet to clarify the existence of the elusive G-spot.
However, he describes several research efforts underway – many of them led by women – that suggest long-standing assumptions about female sexuality are wrong. Here's the biggie: Monogamy may be more challenging for women than it is for men.
Among several examples, Berger cites research of rhesus monkeys at Emory University's Yerkes National Primate Research Center. Here, the females initiate sex, and when her partner tires, she finds a new one, explains Kim Wallen, a psychologist and neuroendocrinologist who studies the monkeys. Wallen wonders aloud whether women feel this drive but, due to social constraints, "don't act on or even recognize the intensity of motivation that monkeys do," and then answers his question: "I feel confident that this is true."
That theory is borne out in several examples throughout Bergner's book. Landmark cases come from Meredith Chivers, an assistant professor of psychology at Queen's University in Kingston, Ontario, who found that women's perceptions of arousal did not match their actual arousal. Using sensors to measure genital blood flow while watching porn, she found that women who claimed to be turned on only by heterosexual images were, in fact, aroused by straight sex, lesbian sex, gay sex and even, to a lesser degree, sex between bonobo monkeys. (Gay and straight men, incidentally, accurately reported their sense of arousal, and the bonobo monkeys did nothing for them.) Another of Chivers' studies found that women became most aroused by stories about sex with strangers, even though they claimed to feel more enticed by the idea of sex with longtime lovers.
Low libido in women as a result of long-term relationships is a point Bergner emphasizes in his book. The dive in drive that can flow from menopause could easily be restored by a new partner, he says, citing Australian research that found an inverse relationship between the duration of a relationship and a women's libido.
"Sometimes I wonder whether it isn't so much about libido as it is about boredom," says Lori Brotto, a Canadian psychologist who supervised the section on female desire in the American Psychiatric Association's latest edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. Brotto helps women restore libido through the use of mindful practices and positive affirmations like, "My body is alive and sexual." But her treatments fall short of helping women recover the sense of craving they once felt for their partner. "She couldn't provide that, not without a semimiracle or someone new in the patient's bed," Bergner writes in his book.
A woman's diminished libido in a long-term relationship is partly due to her partner's own lessening of lust over time – and the idea that her partner is no longer choosing or chasing her, according to Marta Meana, a sex therapist who ties women's sexuality to narcissism. Being relentlessly desired often unlocks women's own desire, according to researchers. But according to Meana, striving for emotional closeness with a partner quashes the separateness required for lust. "Melding left no separation to span, no distance for a lover's drive to cross, no end point where the full force of that drive could be felt," she says.
At least one couple profiled in Bergner's book seems to get monogamy right. Despite sharing three jobs and as many kids, the duo talks candidly about their sex life. Even if Sophie, a baseball afficionado, occasionally fantasizes about the Yankees' Derek Jeter during sex, she says their union works. "We never stop admiring each other. I'll say, 'You got your hair cut; it looks great.' And he still tells me all the time how good I look," she says, and then shares what she calls one of his subtlest lines: "I love you in those jeans. Can I get in them?"
That ability to communicate openly is one of the key lessons of the book – along with the notion of "how culture shapes who we are," Bergner says.
Bergner says longtime couples continue to approach him on his book tour to explain that the strength of their relationship depends on free-flowing communication about sex and desire. He advises readers to follow suit and then to listen to their partners, "despite the feeling of fear, of trepidation, of feeling threatened."
In his own five-year-long relationship with his female partner, Bergner says his research has raised "all kinds of conversations." He adds: "That gives me some faith that the advice I just gave about having candid conversations can actually work."
[Read: How to Make Love Last.]