3 min

Scrutinizing desire

“What does a woman want?” mused Freud, a line so bizarre it’s almost Woody Allen. Though what’s always struck me about the story is not the comic mystery but the note of condescension — the all-knowing professional surprised that he doesn’t know the inside of another human’s head. As though this were somehow a personal affront.

Nothing is more personal, intimate and even eccentric than desire and surely it’s up to the individual to decide what it consists of and even whether it is of any importance. (Some people, let’s face it, have survived and even thrived on very little.)

But apparently a new generation of young, female, “post-feminist” researchers doesn’t agree. They’re researching the mysteries of female desire in intricate scientific detail, according to a very long article in the New York Times Magazine ( and coming up with surprising answers.

One researcher — Queen’s prof Meredith Chivers, who conducted her research at Toronto’s Centre for Addiction and Mental Health — thinks women are divided against themselves, aroused by more than they know. Which is to say they’re sometimes aroused by stuff they don’t consciously consider arousing.

Another researcher says female desire is moulded by intimacy and is so malleable it almost overrides orientation.

A third thinks female desire may be more reactive than active, depending in large part on the other person’s desire. Narcissism plays a crucial role in female desire, she says. Women want to be wanted so much that they sometimes entertain fantasies of being overcome.

Maybe these ideas will help some women, either by validating past histories or suggesting new ones, but my first reaction was, “Oh, bother, more deterministic silliness.”

Studies purporting to show hard-wired differences between the sexes have been all the rage for at least a decade and this story seems both more of the same and subject to the same basic criticism: Surely some of this applies to men as well? Certainly I found myself nodding in recognition.

Divided against themselves? Who isn’t? I once dated a man whom, had you asked me, I would have described as unattractive and annoying, but who I continued to screw, a lot, over a long period of time.

“The desires of the heart are as crooked as corkscrews,” said WH Auden, or, as any number of humanist philosophers might have put it, the self is the starting point of all study and the last thing we know.

Then there’s the question of being turned-on by the other’s person’s being turned-on. God knows the number of people I’ve gone home with over the years simply because they were there, more or less presentable and, most important of all, interested.

Desire is a reciprocal, self-reinforcing system in which being wanted is as important as wanting. There’s not much point in being there if the other person isn’t interested. Everyone wants to be wanted.

One researcher had the decency to admit that in discussing desire she was speaking only about women in general, “the variability within genders may be greater than the differences between genders.”

But that doesn’t begin to address the other problems with the study, like the sheer anti-eroticism of studying desire in a lab — some of the subjects were wired with a plethysmograph, a gadget that goes over the penis or in the vagina — or the chimerical quality of the subject.

How do you even study desire? It’s not even as constant as its closest cousin, hunger. It’s more of an absence really, a state of suspense and uncertainty. It’s a will-o’-the-wisp, shifting with the currents, dependent on everything from culture to weather (difficult to feel desirous in a parka) to the availability of sexual partners.

A sexual entrepreneur once told me that gay men cruise when they’re bored, which is tantamount to saying we manufacture desire when we need it. I doubt we’re terribly different in this respect from any other group, male or female.

One of the researchers in this story complained about the difficulty of separating biology and culture. No kidding.

No sexual group aside from gay men has been more heavily regulated than women — with predictable inhibitory results — and, good intentions aside, this current crop of studies just seems like more of the same, another attempt to wrestle desire into submission.

Elemental and elusive, desire is more properly the province of the novel, a technology that allows for the decisive influence of the individual and his/her imagination.

What desire needs is not close scrutiny but intuitive understanding. In a complex, overly technological world sex is one of the last simple things. It doesn’t always work and many things must conspire before two people with matching interests can come together, but when it does it’s remarkably easy, carefree, cheap and, may I say it again, simple. Good free fun without a tech guide, help manual or 1-800 number. Long may it remain that way, beyond the belittling reach of science.

Brent Ledger’s column appears in every issue of Xtra. Ledger can be reached at