A new book argues that women's needs are no great mystery

What DO women want? A career? An air fryer? Fabulous sex? Children? Or all of the above and more? A new book argues that women’s needs are no great mystery — but they are complicated

  • Sigmund Freud once wrote to a friend and asked ‘What does a woman want?’ 
  • Psychotherapist Maxine Mei-Fung Chung reveals several probably explanations
  • READ MORE: How a princess who couldn’t orgasm helped save Freud from the Nazis – The friends that were deeply damaged and completely loyal



by Maxine Mei-Fung Chung (Hutchinson £18.99, 304pp) 

Sigmund Freud, the founder of psychoanalysis, once wrote to a friend: ‘The great question that has never been answered, and which I have not yet been able to answer, despite my 30 years of research into the feminine soul, is: “What does a woman want?” ’ 

According to just one of his theories, women can harbour dark thoughts of penis envy, which turns them against their mothers. 

Do we want: a penis, an air fryer, new shoes, the Collected Works Of Germaine Greer? Or how’s about an exquisite orgasm every night? Or an ordinary husband to share TV suppers with? Or a PhD? Some want it all, but we’ve been told many times that’s impossible. 

Sigmund Freud once wrote to a friend and asked ‘What does a woman want?’ Psychotherapist Maxine Mei-Fung Chung reveals several probably explanations

All these questions keep psychotherapists and journalists in business,although more complex truths might be found in great works like Anna Karenina and Middlemarch. 

Obviously, it is as absurd to generalise about ‘what women want’ as it is to lump together all men as beery, footie mad oiks who think about sex every two minutes. 

What women ‘want’ depends on who we are and what we’ve gone through and how we intend to work towards our individual futures — as psychotherapist Maxine Mei-Fung Chung reveals through seven portraits of women who came to her clinical practice looking for explanations and (hopefully) solutions to a variety of issues. 

The word ‘variety’ is key. When Byron wrote: ‘Man’s love is of man’s life a thing apart; Tis a woman’s whole existence,’ I’d hope there was a feisty, independent woman bold enough to tell him where to get off. But of course, for others it will be true.

Maxine Mei-Fung Chung is also guilty of questionable generalisations. In her introduction she writes: ‘Women are not a mystery and neither are our wants and needs. But there is a complexity attached to our desire. What I want to understand more deeply is what it is that keeps us in denial, loveless, a constant state of longing.’ 

Really? Are we? I recognise none of those conditions in women I know. 

What women ‘want’ depends on who we are and what we’ve gone through and how we intend to work towards our individual futures — as psychotherapist Maxine Mei-Fung Chung reveals

She identifies a ‘feared longing’ within (by implication) all women — which may or may not be true, or might even be on a level with the ludicrous so called penis-envy. 

What becomes clear, reading this ‘love letter to seven patients I cannot name’ is that, thankfully, there is no ‘one size fits all’ about the therapeutic exploration the author embarks on with each client, in intense weekly visits that can continue for two or three years. That point is well worth noting. People often write to my Saturday advice column saying they have ‘tried counselling’ — and I’m afraid that phrase usually means just a couple of sessions. After which they give up. 

In these engaging and, at times, demanding chapters, Chung makes it clear that real psychotherapy, with a dedicated, experienced practitioner, is a complicated, time-consuming and interactive business. It is also, even if the therapist operates a sliding scale of fees, very expensive. 

Chung’s subtitle is, ‘Conversations on desire, power, love and growth’, but the word ‘desire’ is itself open to question, since these days we tend (rightly or wrongly) to attach it first and foremost to sexuality. 

I should have preferred the less weighted word ‘need’, since sexual desire may certainly be present yet is not central to most of these case histories. 

For example, Agatha, a retired nurse, is anxious about her extremely annoying adult son and needs him to accept her new love affair in late middle age. Ruth, a supermarket worker, aches to understand why her stepfather tormented her years ago, after her father had left the family. 

Marianna, a jazz singer, needs to trust her unfaithful partner and desperately wants a baby, even though she knows it would drastically interfere with her career and lifestyle. 

Meanwhile, Terri, 32, is engaged to a stable, older man but cruises to pick up women for hot sex and doesn’t understand why. 

What Women Want may make the fastidious reader feel uncomfortably voyeuristic

Her desire leads to her ‘skyfalling into sex with. . . strangers’. Yet it becomes clear that what she really, really wants (the Spice Girls are referenced) is the love of the mother who treated her with contempt. 

So this story is not so much about illicit lesbian sex, as an awareness ‘that growth and change was only possible once she was able to acknowledge the neglect she survived as a child’. 

Maxine Mei-Fung Chung’s analysis of why clients might come to her is straightforward on the surface: ‘With change comes loss. And pain is the agent of change. 

‘If our life is going well . . . there is rarely a desire to change anything. But if we are unhappy, fearful, bored, distrustful or anxious in our everyday life, that’s when we go in search of change. 

‘Therapy helps to explore and navigate what is wrong.’

Yet beneath that surface is a web of complexity, captured in the author’s hyperactive prose. 

This psychotherapist does not stand back; she places herself right there in the action — and just as interesting as the (pseudonymous) case histories themselves, is Chung’s honest, occasionally over-blown, tussle with her own feelings. 

I’ve no doubt Chung is an empathetic therapist; my concern, after reading these seven ‘case histories’ is that she is almost too aware of her own feelings and might even project them on to her clients. 

What Women Want may make the fastidious reader feel uncomfortably voyeuristic. 

On the other hand, the avidly curious will relish the no-holdsbarred plunging into stories, which occasionally read like fiction — especially when the author imagines moments, precise details of dress, and intense, private feelings occurring at times in a client’s story when she was not present. ‘How do you know?’ you think. 

I have no doubt that the seven women — Terri, Kitty, Ruth, ­Marianna, Tia, Agatha and Beverly, whose life stories form the basis for these chapters — were helped by their psychotherapy sessions. 

Whether the telling of their disguised stories will help others is, I’m afraid, open to question. 

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