Are Women The Real Cheaters?

It turns out women may have more of a wandering eye than men do.

Last updated on May 10, 2023

whispering couple Kiselev Andrey Valerevich/ Shutterstock

By Joy Manning

What does a new form of "female Viagra" have in common with the book Fifty Shades of Grey? Both may be able to prime your brain for toe-curling sex.

That’s according to Daniel Bergner, whose 2014 book, What Do Women Want? explores the current research about female sexuality and turns long-held notions about women's sex drive inside out. He reveals why women may be more promiscuous and more aggressive sexually while being less inclined than men toward monogamy.


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So the question is: are women the real cheaters?

Prevention: Why did you, as a man, choose the topic of female sexuality?

Daniel Bergner: I stumbled into the lab of a researcher, and I discovered a world of research — but it's a small world. It's amazing when we're talking about something so central to the psyche [as sex] that we're hesitant to explore it, to look at it. The reason I chose this subject is that I believe sexuality is at the core of who we are as human beings.


There are many reversals of conventional wisdom in your book. What did you find most surprising?

There's this elaborate fable we've been told about the major differences between male and female sexuality, that men are designed to spread their genetic material, while women are naturally inclined toward monogamy. And there's very little evidence to support it.

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Most of us probably aren't ready to embrace some of the extreme measures couples took in the book, like swinging vacations. How can less adventurous women improve their sex lives?

I think there are two things couples can do. First, they need bravery and candor. Our reluctance to talk about our desires with our partners runs deep. We make ourselves very vulnerable to being hurt when we share our desires. Second, and therapists are willing to talk about this more and more, is the fact that emotional closeness may not spark desire. In fact, the opposite may be true. Instilling distance is probably better. That means recognizing that our love for one another is an everyday uncertainty. It's the mindset of distance that’s the most important.


The book touched on at least one monogamous couple who seemed able to sustain desire in spite of their years together. Can you speculate why?

There's a chapter in the book about one married couple that has kept their desire burning for years, and those 10 pages are really a model for monogamy. They maintained a sense of otherness, of distance. The woman revealed that leading up to and sometimes during sex, she fantasizes about men other than her husband.

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What do you think the outlook is for the so-called "female Viagra," the drugs that were undergoing the trials you wrote about?


I'm almost sure within the next three years, we will see a female-desire drug on the market. And, yes, I think it will sell widely.

How, from a scientific perspective, did the Fifty Shades of Grey phenomenon seem to enhance the libido of so many women?

This has to do with the concept of neuroplasticity, basically, the idea that the more you use certain pathways the stronger they will become. And a book like Fifty Shades of Grey taps into that, especially if it's read and re-read. It engenders more fantasy and more noticing of sexual impulses. It strengthens the [sexual] response.

So even if the spark of the familiar husband is less than it once was, a woman might be more responsive to it, and more likely to notice it. If women are thinking about sex more during the workday, they will bring that energy home.


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You describe a conflict in the current research with some experts believing that there's a narcissism at the heart of female sexuality — the desire to be desired — while another camp thinks that women are more self-centered and aggressive than they realize. Isn't it possible to resolve that conflict by admitting that women are very different?

Yes, I should have prefaced the whole book by saying there is infinite variation in individual women.

But I wanted to explore what might be generally true. Some research suggests that the desire to be desired, though it feels like a bedrock part of their sexuality, too, so many women, may actually be an example of the way it's constrained.


Over time, I would love to see the research tease out the layers, remove the veil of social conditioning, and the influence of the media’s constant sexualization of women, to find out the answers to the question the book poses.

Do you think men should read your book? What lessons can they take away from it to better understand the women in their lives?

I think reading the book can remove their blinders. And maybe they can stop fooling themselves about women’s desires.

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Joy Manning is the former nutrition editor for Prevention and is a James Beard–nominated food writer and the editor of Edible Philly magazine.