The Science of Sex


Katherine Rowland interviews Daniel Bergner in Guernica:

Guernica: In the book, you reference a quote by the British gynecologist William Acton, who wrote in the Victorian era: “The majority of women, happily for society, are not very much troubled by sexual feeling of any kind.” The message there being that women’s sexuality, if unleashed, could upend civilization. Times have changed, but your book suggests that elements of that logic persist.

Daniel Bergner: If we cast back to Victorian times as they’re encapsulated in that Acton quotation, we see this really severe denial of women’s desire, and that denial is mixed in with a level of fear. That carries forward to our society. Women’s sexuality surrounds us, but right beneath that there’s this other standard for women’s desire that’s still informed by uneasiness. It’s linked, ultimately, to the comfort that we all get—men and society as a whole—from this idea that women are somehow less desiring than men. We can still lean on women a little bit to keep society stable. The dichotomy that’s set up is that men are animals and anarchic in their lust and women are civilized and civilizing in their sexuality.

Guernica: This assumption that women’s sexuality exerts a civilizing force seems to even carry over into the efforts to develop a female Viagra. You write about researchers concerned that the pills they’re developing might be too powerful.

Daniel Bergner: To be clear, the FDA isn’t going to talk to me and say, “We’re going to consider rejecting a drug because it had too strong an effect and would create a generation of nymphomaniacs.” But it was the drug companies themselves that were worried that if the effects were too strong, the FDA might reject them on those grounds. Was I surprised that those conversations were happening inside the drug companies? Yes, I was staggered.

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