This is somewhat in response to Artemiss’s piece “Sue you for no screw” (5th October) (https://doublegentendre.wordpress.com/2011/10/06/sue-you-for-no-screw/), and has also been niggling at me to be written for a while.
Since one of feminism’s greatest achievements in the 60s and 70s – namely the recognition of rape in marriage and sexual abuse within relationships – the cultural conversation about sex in monogamous relationships is now conducted almost exclusively by women.
Before I go further, let me limit the scope of this article: the sex to which I refer is that between two consenting adults, typically in long-term relationships. I am not referring to instances of violence or coercion. I use hetero terminology in this article not because many of the arguments do not relate to non-hetero relationships, but because on a cultural level these issues arise out of the stereotype of a long term hetero relationship where women stop wanting to have sex with their husbands, who are still as randy as ever.
So in the cultural discourse about this kind of sex (i.e. non-violent, hetero, long-term relationship sex), men don’t really get a say. With shows like Sex and the City and the climax of attention (har-har) in pop culture on the female orgasm, the discourse is dominated by women.
Bettina Arndt has commented extensively on this topic – in fact, she’s conducted research which has resulted in two books and numerous lectures. Her characterisation of the dominance of women in the cultural conversation about sex has stuck with me – the image of women in talk-show audiences such as The Oprah Winfrey Show wagging their fingers and tutting (often prominent) men who are caught with their pants down. Overt, rampant or simply uncontrolled sexuality is shamed, and is seen as something particular to men, whereas women are stereotyped as being able to control their sexuality, and hence questions such as “why can’t you keep it in your pants?” seem reflect the general social attitude towards sex.
But is that attitude simply driven by women? I’m not sure. I mean, it works the other way – if a woman is ‘overly’ sexual, she’s labelled a nympho. I think there’s much more behind it than just one sex determining social attitude towards sexuality. I’ll save the discussion of religion’s role for another day. But there is a definite value attributed to the control, I might go so far as to say repression, of sexual desire and sexual activity. And why do we value the ability to not be controlled by sexuality? Michel Foucault’s work deals with this question in detail, and for my purposes I won’t today – so for now, it’s just rhetorical. Instead, I want to query the vehement shaming and silencing of the male voice on sex in monogamous relationships.
In terms of the discursive dominance held by women on this topic, you only have to look as far as Bettina Arndt’s success in getting this discussion out there: imagine the outcry and intolerance for her message had she been a man. Certainly, there is controversy surrounding her books and arguments, but I think it’s fair to say a male writing such things would not have gotten as far.
So, men can’t say that they wish they got more sex from their long-term partners without being shamed, or at least aren’t taken seriously: “can’t you keep it in your pants?” “Why can’t men think about anything but sex?” “Haven’t you grown out of it yet?” Yet, according to Arndt and the many men she interviewed, this is a serious issue. Sex is that important, and just as much as many women don’t want to have sex, many men do, and because of the acknowledgment of rape in marriage, the person who says ‘no’ trumps the person who says ‘yes, please’. Obviously, this is the correct stance – rape in marriage should be acknowledged as something which occurs and not tolerated, permitted or accepted.
However, if we are to have true equality of the genders – which I believe we must strive for – does that extend so far as to exclude the voice of one gender on any issue, whichever gender that is? That is, equality of the genders doesn’t mean that women have discursive dominance on some issues, and men on others: both sides need to get heard (particularly if we are aiming to break down the gender dichotomy!) This is what Arndt has done – in a truly egalitarian step, she has given a voice to the men who have been silenced on a topic which is important and close to many hearts (and no, that’s not a euphemism for penis).
But women have been silenced for centuries in so many arenas, I hear you cry – and I know! But, as feminists, we do not need to see men in only symbolic terms: men do not each represent the Phallic Army against which feminism has (necessarily) waged its war. Men are individuals, with feelings and desires, and why must those feelings/desires be silenced and trumped, especially by their beloveds’?
I am not arguing that men ‘getting a say’ means they can take sex by force (whether physical or emotional) from their partners, but merely that they should feel able to voice their desires without fear of being shamed. Whether or not those desires are heard is the next step. Arndt argues for intimate relationships based on true equality, where men and women can share their desires and hopefully reach a compromise, truly recognising the value of each party’s position. The controversy and outrage which has met Arndt’s argument commonly comes from people who have either not read or have misunderstood Arndt’s premise. Arndt is not advocating rape in marriage, nor is she undermining the right to say no – she is promoting understanding, compassion and harmony within long-term relationships, including in the bedroom. She is a sex therapist after all! And as Artemiss has pointed out to me – women are the ones who have been stereotyped as the ones who attach emotional value to the act of sex. We shouldn’t deny these men who experience ongoing rejection in the bedroom at the hands of their long-term partners the chance to share their feelings, which has been Arndt’s primary achievement.
P.S. I know there are many couples in the reverse situation, where the women are the ones being rejected/not having their desires fulfilled in the bedroom, however, my discussion aimed to address the stereotype of men wanting more sex than women (a stereotype substantiated in Arndt’s research). As I said, I am also aware that this only addresses hetero, monogamous relationships. I wonder how this argument would work for polyamorous relationships?