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Sigmund Freud once said: ‘The great question that has never been answered, and which I have not yet been able to answer, despite my thirty years of research into the feminine soul, is “What does a woman want?”' Through the relatable and moving stories of seven very different women, Maxine Mei-Fung Chung refutes this inscrutability and sheds light on our most fundamental needs and desires. From a young bride-to-be struggling to accept her sexuality, to a mother grappling with questions of identity and belonging, and a woman learning to heal after years of trauma, What Women Want is an electrifying and deeply intimate exploration into the inner lives of women.
Based on hours of conversations between Maxine and her patients, this book lays bare our fears, hopes, secrets and capacity for healing. With great empathy and precision, What Women Want presents a fearless look into the depths of who we are, so that we can better understand each other and ourselves.
To desire is an action. This extraordinary book liberates and empowers us to claim what we truly want.
What does a woman want?
Ernest Jones, The Life and Work of Sigmund Freud (1953)
In a footnote Jones gives the original German: “Was will das Weib?”
I’ll tell you what I want, what I really, really want
So tell me what you want, what you really, really want
I wanna, (ha) I wanna, (ha) I wanna, (ha) I wanna, (ha)
I wanna really, really, really wanna zigazig ah
Spice Girls, “Wannabe” (1996)
Mothers, and Other Lovers
The aliveness of a spring fevered night slicing through. She arrives, low-slung jeans, a tight-fitting vest. Mouth outlined and filled in with plum lipstick. The strap of her black bra is showing—but Terri knows this already—encourages it to fall like sin; all casual, all ease, an indicator of her carefree and confident self.
She rides her feeling of desire and strides toward the under-lit bar. Patiently she waits for the bartender: Jack D, straight up, and downs the amber liquid with one swig.
Her legs, hidden and long, have been scraped and moisturized, but the hot place between them has been stripped with wax because she honors that tender spot. It deserves a more dedicated removal; not the quick whizz of a blade in a hurried shower.
Earlier she was undecided—jeans or skirt?—and settled on the former because tonight she feels tall, edgy, a cool slice of androgyny thrown in for the thrill. Another night she might have chosen a silk dress and suede ankle boots, perhaps a pale lip. But she used that look last week and tonight felt the urge, the desire for something a little harder, grittier, more tomboy, less girlie girl.
She’d also removed her engagement ring: a pear diamond, three carat. Placed it in the tiny crystal bowl that she keeps in the bathroom, next to the toothpaste and razors. She struggled to feel the necessary guilt when deleting the ring—that will come later—and instead smiled at her reflection. She watched herself smile back.
Leaning into the bar, Terri notices a woman with long shiny hair, an eel of waist-length black. Tanned, demure shoulders and pretty eyes. She is talking with two friends, both women, and all three of them are sipping beer—pale and bottled. Terri notes how the woman laughs openly, tucks her jet hair behind an ear full of rings, and gazes just long enough for the woman to notice her watching. Then come the smiles.
Last week Terri’s desire carried her to a different woman with severely bobbed hair who glided over to say how much Terri reminded her of a young Demi Moore in A Few Good Men, but with red hair. Terri shined and spoke, I think Demi Moore is beautiful, and flicked her keen eyes to the floor. An hour later they were both dancing in a club, doing tequila shots. Kisses mingled with lime. When they eventually fell into bed together there was laughing, wrestling and goofing around. Terri enjoyed their tangling of limbs and the way her body hung loose the following morning. But this feeling was interrupted, stolen. Because Richard was due back after a weekend at a friend’s stag party and she’d made plans to meet him for brunch to discuss wedding plans. Their wedding plans.
Richard sensed her distant gaze over their eggs, fried and poached, and put it down to nerves and mild hysteria. Terri thought him teetering pathetically toward complacent and entitled. A satisfaction felt when she reached under the table and cupped her palm between her legs. The night before was still there, pulsating and needed—like a shot in the arm. So, what did you get up to last night? he asked. Nothing much, Terri lied. Just a quick drink after work, I was home by ten. Then a smile. A sip of freshly pressed juice.
Terri is not always comfortable at the ease with which her lies are told. They happen mostly when Richard—eighteen years her senior, boyfriend of four years and fiancé for two—is out of town on business. Richard is kind and reliable. High-born and rich. Once incredibly hot with very few kinks that she’s aware of. He is also a photographer: commercial, pedestrian, and unfulfilled.
Terri loves Richard.
At 7 a.m., Terri arrives for her session.
I’m bad, just plain wrong, she says, before even making contact with the chair. Tell me what I need to do.
I ask that she pause, breathe, take a seat. What’s happened?
She stares at me from beneath her red, ruler-straight fringe, her pale skin and jaded eyes payback from the night before. Cheeks hollowed out with stress. It is early, and Terri wears last night like a fresh cut, inescapable and raw.
I did it again, she confesses, voice curling at the edge. I can’t help myself.
As a psychotherapist for close to twenty years, I’ve witnessed lies told in personal relationships to be risky, dangerous even, but not uncommon. We may excuse a white lie for an easier life or to save face, but most people are uneasy about the purposeful liar. Lies dismiss feelings and hurt lives. They claw at the psyche and slash the safety net of trust knitted between two people. A therapist walks an artful line when observing lies told by patients, but it is the lies patients tell themselves, along with their denial, that walk an even tighter line. These are the types of lies that can cause the patient to slip from a far greater height. And I believed Terri’s safety net was unraveling, the tightrope loosening. The fall, I sensed and feared, was just moments away.
Terri talks of her desire and how it infused her body last night as she removed her engagement ring, devoid of emotion or attachment to Richard, whom she is due to marry in less than six months’ time. She wonders aloud why she has found herself recently skyfalling into sex with several perfect strangers—more than two and less than six—whom she’s picked up in various bars across town, all women. I’m terrified, she says, I feel so claustrophobic at the thought of marriage.
I lean forward in my chair. We touched on this last week, I say, your fear of what you believe is the doomed fate of romance over time. You mentioned how risky it feels fusing love and desire?
Terri stares at her feet. No change there, she whispers.
This isn’t the first time Terri’s infidelity has gate-crashed the session. It is becoming uncomfortably familiar, almost domestic. I sense a wave of compassion buried in my chest for her marching, unfolding fear.
She tells me about Richard’s last-minute flight, a shoot for an advertising campaign—face creams. How she’d spent the night in a bar with a woman and her two friends who left around eleven, leaving Terri and the woman alone. She shares how alive she’d felt, the night ending at her place in Chelsea. Clare was soft and beguiling. Her tender strokes and keen mouth alive and delicious. When Terri left this morning, Clare asked if she had a girlfriend, a wife? No, Terri replied. Happy, for once, to be speaking the truth.
Clare kissed Terri square on the mouth and handed her a phone number written on the back of a brown paper bag that Terri inhaled on her way to my office: the almond croissant shared earlier with coffee still expelling its sweet marzipan smells. In six months’ time Terri will reckon with swallowing a jar of pills and thankfully survive her dark thought of suicide. And I will wonder if she remembers this moment of joy, her connection with Clare, the smell and taste of cloying almond paste. Clare’s mouth on her mouth. I guess, Terri will shrug in response, but if I’m honest that whole period is a blur. I wish I could hold on to the connection we had, but somehow it gets lost. It disappears.
Now Terri wipes her enormous gray eyes with the back of her hand. They are sad and afraid, damp and weary; an immediate appeal to respond to her. I do.
Do you want to help yourself? I ask.
Yes. No. She looks away, wet leaking from her eyes. I am so fucked, she says.
The Rules. Never work harder than the patient. A therapist who rushes in, fails to listen. Still, I find myself yielding.
Fucked, perhaps, I offer. But not powerless.
She leans forward, her body full of unnatural energy and purpose. I love Richard, she allows. But I don’t want him. I don’t desire him.
Have you ever wanted, desired him? I ask.
I guess; in the beginning. When we were fresh. You’d think we’d be so hot for each other, what with him working away the whole time. But there’s barely a sizzle. He suddenly feels very old to me.
Terri hangs her eyes on me in silent inquiry, while I contemplate the meager sizzle and do the maths: old, plus lack of sizzle, equals boundless sex with many women—and a likely runaway bride.
They met four years ago at an art gallery in the West End. An exhibition of challenging portraits of people having undergone cosmetic surgery. Terri stared at the gigantic monochrome prints, a fish-eye lens used to capture unloved faces: skin with black pen marks, bruises and tiny thin scars. She felt a longing to stroke the portraits with her fingertips, wishing the subjects were more accepting of the features they were born with. And when she arrived for her session the following morning, Terri wondered what messages, -isms, and possible cruelties had been forced upon each of them.
Introductions came by way of the gallery curator, Joel. Hey, you guys must know each other, right? Terri here works in production at Blaze. Didn’t you do some test shoots over there too, Richard?
Richard had worked for Blaze, but way back, way before Terri was offered the role of producer on a popular series of fly-on-the-wall documentaries. Terri and Richard shook hands. Two hours later they were screwing in the bathroom. Richard had grinned, freed Terri’s blouse and placed their bodies in a unique position, cupping her chin in his hand as protection against the cold ceramic cistern. It was over way too quickly, Terri thought, adjusting her body and rebuttoning her blouse. Afterward they walked to Chinatown and ate dumplings.
Terri entered the relationship with a burst of desire and enthusiasm but quickly found her interest waning. She called it Couple-Cozy and rainbow-rolled her eyes. Weekends away swiftly descended into watching television with takeaway food, bottles of mid-range wine and a foot massage. Flirtatious phone calls were cut to perfunctory, with only the occasional flash of risk. Nicknames were agreed: Tezzi, Dimples. Terri missed the excitement, the zeal, the unpredictability. She wanted it all back, she said. But she also wondered whether she wanted it with Richard, given her attraction to women. I suspected Terri was using sex as a balm, or an antidepressant, a means of momentarily replacing her emptiness and loss with the excitement of being desired by other women. If Terri’s self-medicating was an attempt to disavow the reality of being gay, how long could she sustain her denial, and at what cost? I was beginning to feel a sense of urgency for her compromised and conflicted life.
Recently during sex with Richard, Terri had taken to creating fantasies in her head. Images of half-naked women—combative, and tender—crawling aimlessly over each other. To reach orgasm she would close her eyes, call back the picture that often ended with a woman holding her tightly. This confession made her cry. She had also started to explore how much of what she wanted in a lover came from what she needed from her mother, a functioning alcoholic. These painful insights had unsteadied her, sent her zigzagging into bars in search of women, in search of answers and in search of love. The kind of love her mother was, and is, unable to give her.
Richard suddenly feels very old to me, Terri repeats, and I wonder if she senses that my attention has wandered—and she’d be right. Moments of mindful diversion and internal reflection by the therapist are often sage reminders that a patient never arrives to therapy alone. She enters the consulting room with a blueprint of her interpersonal relationships—a world of family, friends, acquaintances, enemies and loved ones, past and present.
Old? I say, thinking of Richard. Say more?
He feels—a pause—really old, distant. We want different things. It’s as if we’re living on completely different islands.
And where’s your island?
Over there, she points, and Queer, she smiles. Terri stares at the bay window where she has pointed, her gaze adrift, at sea.
I wait, sensing Terri needs space to remember, forget, or possibly daydream. A moment to reflectively feel the words she has just spoken.
Where have you gone? I finally ask.
I was just thinking about Rebecca, Becks. She speaks softly. You remember, right?
I do, you’ve spoken of Rebecca often, I reply. You imagined your island and Rebecca followed? Is that what just happened, Terri?
Terri nods. Why couldn’t I just accept it then—when I met Rebecca. Why has it taken me this long to admit I prefer the company, and touch, of women?
I reflect on the times during our ten months of working together when Terri has shared her longing to feel loved, seen and wanted by her mother. The bribes, the conditions and the threats her mother made in an attempt to deny her the love and touch of other women. Of the times when her sneaky palms were used to slap Terri’s face. What becomes of a woman when she is unbeloved by her mother; when her desires are killed, or made invisible; when she is told that her life is wrong?
Well… I say, pausing for effect. There was the complicated issue with your mother.
Together, Terri and I revisit a memory.
It had been a sweltering September night. A tent hammered into the ground. Terri’s mother was entertaining—a flurry of hot single women and mostly married men. Her latest man-friend was a guy called Rick who wasn’t married this time and worked in sales. Rick traveled a lot, up and down various motorways selling air-conditioning units, and ate microwaved fast food from polystyrene cups. Terri watched her mother reach out to touch Rick’s arm with her fingertips while chugging down her third tumbler of vino. She noted her mother’s sway in a dress that she might have worn.
He’s a keeper, slurred Terri’s mother, so be nice. And make sure you play with Rebecca.
I’m not a child, spat Terri. And you’re drunk—again.
Rebecca was Rick’s daughter. Blush hair, gold hoops, freckles. A slim waist. She lay on the grass beside the tent, tearing the heads off dozens of daisies and checking her nails as though they might fall off—acrylics, square and French-tipped.
Go talk to her, said Terri’s mother, wrist flicking the air like she was shooing a dog.
She’d like that, sweetie, added Rick, wine moving in his glass.
Irked, Terri walked toward Rebecca and asked if she wanted a drink.
Got any vodka? said Rebecca.
How old are you? said Terri.
Same. And your dad lets you drink?
As the night wore on, Terri and Rebecca—Becks—had some fun. They teased the curiously attentive men; the loose straps of their fitted dresses casually dropping from their shoulders; a quick flash of teeth and legs. The men looked on, trying to disguise their thrill, then moved in closer, inquired about school. School’s good, they both chimed and giggled, then gawked at the men with clear distaste before charging their plastic cups. You’re both so pretty, one man said. He had small animal teeth and wore a large Hawaiian shirt, a foam of silver hair fizzing out like a gray cloud. At some point Terri and Rebecca escaped the garden and climbed the soft stairs to Terri’s bedroom. An hour or two spent on the Xbox, a change of lip gloss and drunk dancing to Justin Timberlake. Outside, an outdated sound system leaked Phil Collins and Chris Rea. Old people music. The grays love that crap, scoffed Rebecca.
Terri leaned out of her window and spotted Rick’s hand disappear beneath her mother’s dress and winced. She distracted Rebecca by asking her to pass the remaining vodka. No point in both of them suffering, she thought.
The rest is a pleasant, drink-fueled blur.
Terri felt Rebecca’s hand reach for her bra strap, snapped it right open. Rebecca’s fingers touched her back lightly, possessively, and a welcome quiet fell over Terri, like it would in class, or at church. They watched each other move with pleasure. Hands, teeth, tongues. Scissoring their soft parts until a tremble reached their throats. Then, finally, intoxicated wonders and sleep.
The morning was wrenched open with a scream and a yank. Terri stared at the twist of black lace underwear on the floor. Her arm pulled so violently that she’d howled. Becks—or rather, Rebecca, get up. Now! What do you think you’re doing with my daughter?!—tried to cover herself with the cotton bedsheet. Both naked, the girls cowered and fawned under the gaze of a raging banshee. Terri watched her mother’s hand opening and closing a fist before she finally relented and slapped her daughter’s face.
You’re disgusting, her mother screamed. Get out!
Shame. Terri and I visit shame frequently. Often she will ask me the same question, over and over: What’s the opposite of shame? And each time I pause, offering again: Beloved.
I remind her that she has asked me this question many, many times. But today she has no recollection of such a question, no recall of even thinking it.
She reaches inside her bag, collects the familiar red notebook and fountain pen that she uses for our sessions. Her memory to date has been faltering, sporadic, and frequently amiss. I have reflected upon this in clinical supervision, her struggle to digest and remember our conversations. What else have you forgotten, Terri? What other happenings are too distressing to recall?
All too often, fixed points of memory are denied, ignored, disbelieved and dissociated from to protect the self, to conceal what was too painful to feel before. The role of the therapist is to create a secure base from which difficult memories can tentatively return. This requires special care and attunement. Because in this endeavor one discovers that no feeling is final, that further challenging feelings will most likely follow. Truths and realities return and are tended to with devotion and care.
Terri licks her finger and swipes the pages of her tiny red notebook, again writing the word: Beloved. I contemplate asking her to pause, to see whether she might find the word repeated—an agony of organized words—but quickly decide that further exposure, further potential shame, can perhaps wait for another day.
When Terri was a child she was called disgusting, worthless, a big fat waste of space. When the vino was really flowing, words tended to be even crueler, if that’s possible, because they hammered, chipped away and drowned out who she was. Who she is. They attempted to rock her core self. And shame her for preferring the touch of, firstly, a girl named Rebecca, Becks. Later, more young women—too many to mention—who were made into formidable secrets because her mother would disown her, throw her out, and wreck any remaining scrap of self-worth Terri was desperately clinging on to. Terri has whispered the words dyke, lezza, lesbo, fucking queero. Her mother’s words. And I have attempted to hold my nerve, my rage for the violence and injustice forced against her. It is still alive, and searing, beloved Terri.
I’m so sorry for the loss of what ought to have been a good enough childhood. It must have been incredibly painful for you as a teenager, trying to make sense of your desire.
She hesitates, and casts her damp eyes about the room, landing them finally on my eyes. I’m sorry, too.
After her session, Terri makes a call to Richard’s mobile phone. We need to talk, she barely speaks.
Richard senses that something is wrong, the note in his voice rising when he reluctantly asks, Have you just been to therapy?
She says that she has, but that’s not the reason she needs to talk, It’s something else, something really important. They agree to have dinner at home after work, around eight. Shall I pick anything up on my way home?
No, Terri says, I’ll make dinner. She figures it’s the least she can do.
For the rest of the day Terri seems to go in and out of consciousness. Almost like she’s living and existing outside of her body. She takes out her tiny red notebook and flicks to the page with the word dissociation and reminds herself what is happening: Dissociation is one way that the mind copes with too much stress, such as during a traumatic event. It is a mental process of disconnecting from one’s thoughts, feelings, memories, or sense of identity.
Terri steadies herself. Makes a mug of sweet tea. Removes her boots and prepares her body to cry. The office is quiet today, so she cries, and drinks her sweet tea, and forces her thick-sock-covered soles down hard into the rough, carpeted floor. Later she calls her best friend Kirsty who knows everything: what’s been keeping Terri awake at night, why her drinking wine has turned to spirits for the past six months. I love you, says Kirsty, you’re doing the right thing. Terri ends the call on a slight smile and feels mildly better after that.
At eight-thirty Terri calls Richard. A simple meal of chicken and leeks prepared and resting in the oven. No wine. Just fizzy water, because she needs to keep her head and hold her nerve. I’m five minutes away, Tezzi, sorry, Richard puffs. Tubes; they’re a living hell.
Terri feels her stomach clench. The smell of food-keeping-warm not helping in the slightest. She refrains from saying, Okay, Dimples, because that would be misleading and cruel. Instead, she offers, Okay, see you shortly. We’re having chicken and leeks. She also misses out the I love you part, because that would also be cruel. Instead, she lassoes a memory of the time when, on their third date, she’d told Richard, I love your dimples, they’re gorgeous. He’d grinned, the dimples even more delicious and pronounced. I didn’t know you could see my ass, he’d beamed. They had both laughed. The memory has Terri temporarily off-balance. Perhaps wine would have helped.
The front door opens. The clanking of keys. I’m home, he sings. Sorry I’m late, Tezzi. Something smells good. Terri is standing when Richard enters the kitchen and the look on her face, ashen and frightened, must worry him because he sits before kissing her cheek, as he so often does when arriving home from work.
There’s no easy way to say this, she musters.
What is it, Terri? What’s wrong?
I can’t marry you. I want out. Please forgive me.
7 a.m. again. Morning larks. Terri adjusts a stubborn leather glove. Contact lenses have been switched for her large, heavy-framed black glasses. I know she does this when she’s been crying and the lids of her eyes are too sore to be touched or messed with. Today, I can see clearly there is something in her eyes, her gait—a live wildness—that disquiets me. How are you? I ask.
Her gaze wanders toward the bay window. Without make-up she appears humble and much younger than her thirty-two years, and the clothes she has chosen—gray marl sweatpants and a matching hoodie—give off the delicate scent of fresh soap.
Not good, Terri says.
The session is almost wordless. The occasional sentence offered to describe Richard’s hurt and confusion; his angry need to move out; the burnt chicken and leeks; their wedding plans—killed. I cast my eyes low, but their focus lets Terri know that I’m here. That I am listening.
When I began practicing as a psychotherapist back in the early 2000s, prolonged silence would unsettle me. A rookie need to feel engaged with my patients, I guised my fledgling anxieties of not being a good-enough therapist with words. Effectiveness often resembled, in my mind at least, action; alongside audible engagement that turned into conversations, suggestions, and sometimes—I wince writing this—interpretations. Back then, the therapist who guided me while training and with whom I was in therapy for eleven years had asked what it was about silence that unsettled me. I’d responded that it brought to my mind both a disconnected life and feelings of aloneness. He had frowned, tipped his head. Can you say more? he’d encouraged. I recalled times of longing for connection through respectful conversation, rather than the frequently feared and challenging demands made on my voice as a child when it was suggested that I not bring any dead air to the dinner table; entertain us; for God’s sake say something interesting, or leave. Fearful of annihilation and going hungry, I instead carried the fire and desirous feelings I held inside my body, which later resurfaced when I began training to become a psychotherapist.
Over the years I have grown more comfortable with silence, perhaps because I now welcome, wholeheartedly, solitude in my life. For therapy at least, these silences afford valuable reflection time for both therapist and patient and allow feelings to surface that otherwise might be disavowed when words, superfluous or futile, enter the room. I have come to regard moments of busy audio as a “wall of words” that prevent intimacy and connection. The busy therapist misses much.
Terri shifts in her chair. We have been silent for five minutes.
I miss him, says Terri finally, shifting again in her chair. I feel like a child. It’s just like the times when I needed Mum but she wasn’t there for me—not in the way I wanted and needed her to be.
She wipes her damp cheek. Different islands, she says.
- "Chung is an immersive storyteller, bringing us into the lives of these women in the most honest and fascinating way. This book will certainly leave readers feeling a bit less alone, and a bit less afraid to want what they want.”—Shondaland
- “The cases are told in detail and include moments when the patients interact with their families at home. . . [Chung[ demonstrates empathy, care, and skill as she guides each to safer ground. Ultimately, women want what men want: to be accepted and recognized for themselves. Chung offers a pathway.”—Booklist
- "[Chung's] sensitive renderings of her subjects and commitment to the “premise that women want. Period” uplifts. Readers will be touched by Chung’s compassionate approach."—Publishers Weekly
- "A rich and intimate examination of female desire, Maxine's book is full of wisdom and insight. I cannot recommend it enough."—Julia Samuel, bestselling author and psychotherapist
- “From renowned psychotherapist Maxine Mei-Fung Chung comes a non-fiction book that reads like a call to arms. . . This is a gripping debut that is searing in its honesty and vulnerability. Exploring trauma, gender, sexuality and mental health, the insight on female desire is so though provoking, the stories of these women dealt with in a captivating and gentle way. Read it.”—Glamour UK
- "This début from a leading psychotherapist is an enthralling, intersectional investigation of female desire."—Caroline Sanderson, The Bookseller
- "I couldn't stop thinking about these women's stories. The best book on female desire and longing since Three Women."—Abigail Bergstrom, author of What a Shame
- "Maxine's book is insightful, tender and brilliant. I am enraptured by these women's stories."—Katy Hessel, Sunday Times Bestselling author of The Story of Art without Men
- "A compelling read."—Sally Huband
- "Brave, deeply honest, and beautifully written, What Women Want makes the personal universal."—Joanna Briscoe
- "Fascinating. . . Makes a valuable contribution to a wider debate about how women are permitted to own and express their desires in a patriarchal culture that still prefers us quiet and non-disruptive."—Observer
- On Sale
- Sep 19, 2023
- Page Count
- 304 pages
- Grand Central Publishing