Clarissa Sebag-Montefiore in Aeon (Photo by Ozgur Albayrak/Gallery Stock):
In What Do Women Want?: Adventures in the Science of Female Desire(2013) the American writer Daniel Bergner argues that female sexuality is as animalistic – if not more so – than male. ‘We’d rather cast half the population, the female half, as a kind of stabilising force when it comes to sexuality,’ he explains. The idea that monogamy is more suited to women is no more than a ‘fairy tale’. Bergner claims another misnomer is that visual stimulus is not especially important for the average woman. Studies with a vaginal plethysmograph (a tool used to measure blood-flow and lubrication) have shown that female response to visual stimuli is visceral, immediate and, in some cases, more pronounced, to a wider variation of sexual images than with men.
In one experiment in 2007 by Meredith Chivers and colleagues at the Center for Addiction and Mental Health in Toronto, both men and women were made to watch videos of sex, ranging from heterosexual penetration to fornicating bonobo apes. The apes proved a turn-on for women, whose blood-flow soared, while men reacted in much the same way to the primates as they did to mountains and lakes. But here comes the telling part: when asked, the women themselves reported less arousal than their bodies let on. At the root of this gap – between physical urges and psychological restraint – sits societal shame.
In a 2011 paper, Terri Conley and colleagues at the University of Michigan found that women are no less interested in casual sex than men. But they are happier to engage if they expect the experience to be sexually satisfying and if they can remove any risk of stigma.
Male escorts might satiate an impulse for variety and novelty in sexual partners – as important, Bergner argues, for women as for men. Despite cultural norms, female sexuality is not, for the most part, ‘sparked or sustained by emotional intimacy and safety’, he writes. In an email, Bergner told me: ‘Track the level of desire in long-term relationships – not the level of love but the level of desire – and a different reality emerges, a reality that might lead to a male escort now and then.’
Yet, while women finally taking hold of the pay cheque might seem like good news – a sign of their sexual unshackling – the escorting industry remains beset by gender stereotypes that act in the opposite way, reinforcing pre-existing, and often out-moded ideas about gendered sex roles.