Now women know what we've been missing

August 17, 1999|By Susan Reimer

I'VE HAD PLENTY of sex and given birth to two kids, but it seems I have done all of this with less solid information than is traded at a late-night dormitory gabfest.

I have just finished reading Natalie Angier's new book, "Woman: An Intimate Geography," and I wish I could start my sexual life all over again.

If nothing else, I would certainly laugh a lot more.

Angier, a Pulitzer Prize- winning science writer for the New York Times, took me on a funny, edgy, breezy sail through the scientific literature of female anatomy.

Mixing feminism, biology, cultural anthropology and life among our relatives, the primates, she tosses over the side all the old baggage about a woman's sexual passivity, her desperate need for monogamy and her eyelash-batting search for older, more successful male providers.

She makes the case that misguided male Freudians and social Darwinists have forged cultural and societal constraints around women, and then declared them sexual cripples.

Her thesis is that biology and environment shape our sexual behavior, but one is described by men and the other prescribed by men. How would you expect that story to end?

Sex, Angier counters, is too important in too many ways for women not to care about it, as men suggest.

"We may love men and we may live with men, but some of them have said stupendously inaccurate things about us, our bodies and our psyches," Angier writes.

Angier's book is a best seller, and it has gotten great reviews, but it has also been criticized as junk science and a bio-feminist polemic. And she does oversell her point of view: Why does every woman writer want to put such a happy blush on menopause?

Angier's book begins by describing a woman's body structures -- "the art objects of our anatomy" -- the egg, the clitoris, the uterus, the breast, the ovaries. Then she undertakes to explain our hormonal and neural systems -- "the underpinnings of our actions and longings."

Along the way, she makes headlines by declaring, for instance, that a woman's clitoris is not a vestigial penis, as Freud suggested, but a far superior organ because it is dedicated to pleasure alone. It has 8,000 nerve endings in its tiny self, compared to only 4,000 in the penis, which branch out through a woman's pelvis like the U.S. highway system.

So much for that ancient debate between Zeus and Hera.

She also describes a woman's egg as "the true sun, the light of life." And her microscopic description of fertilization turns the traditional version -- a million motorized sperm laying assault to a helpless egg-target -- on its head.

Instead, she says, the woman's egg "devours a bumbling little flagellote" that survives the fierce surveillance of the egg's outer layers.

It may be necessary to err on this side of excess if we are ever going to get away from this idea that men are the standard and women are the second sex; if we are going to stop comparing ourselves to men because there is no comparison; and if we are going to stop listening to men when they try to tell us what we are feeling.

Besides, your gynecologist will never make you laugh like this.

Buy this book. It is a quantum leap from "Our Bodies, Our Selves," the '70s woman's health guide that first took women inside themselves.

Read it, and understand better how your body works -- how it has been working all these years. It is a revelation.

Then pass this book on to a young woman you know and care about.

There is no reason why she should go through life having sex and having babies with only as much information as she'll get in a late-night dormitory gabfest.

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