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The Vagina Dialogues: Do women really want less sex than men?
In every healthy young man the instinct of sex is present, controlled or allowed to run riot according to his strength of self-control and elevation of mind. Some young women possess it in as great, and in rare cases even a greater degree; but in the majority of healthy women before marriage it lies in a more or less dormant condition, and occasionally is altogether absent.
Margaret Stephens, Women & Marriage: A Handbook (1910)
My nine-year-old son recently found the DVD case for a documentary that explores positive celebrations of female sexuality in India, Cuba, China and Uganda. He read out the title, The Sunny Side of Sex, then asked me: “Is there a stormy side too?”
“Oh, yes,” I replied.
When Rebecca Jordan-Young, a socio-medical scientist at Columbia University, interviewed psychobiological researchers of sex differences, she was repeatedly told that “masculine and feminine sexuality are simply ‘common-sense’ ideas”. As one scientist told her: “Most people … don’t have any problem understanding that male sexuality is different from female sexuality. It’s a no-brainer.”
Yet, argues Jordan-Young in her recent book Brain Storm, “from this side of the sexual revolutions of the 20th century, it is easy to lose track of just how much has changed, and how rapidly”. As she shows, only 30 or 40 years ago scientists categorised so many sexual behaviours as distinctly masculine – the initiation of sex, intense physical desire, masturbation, erotic dreams, arousal to narratives – that it was hardly an exaggeration to say that “sexuality itself was seen as a masculine trait”. The psychobiologists’ account of normal female sexual feelings and behaviour all but rendered ‘female sexuality’ an oxymoron. Female sexual imagination was restricted to “wedding fantasies” (presumably not of an ‘Ooh, Reverend!’ variety). As for tens of millions of women finding sexual titillation in Fifty Shades of Grey? To the psychobiologists of the time, this would have indicated an epidemic of abnormal sexuality on a catastrophic scale.
A 1968 scientific report captures the romanticism, passivity, emotionality and exclusivity ascribed to female sexuality. Women, the authors assumed, don’t experience anything so crude as genital arousal “such as might lead to masturbation in the absence of a partner”, but rather a “sentimental arousal … which leads to romantic longing for the loved one alone and which will, in his absence, require waiting for his return”.
The researchers were exploring the idea that testosterone permanently “masculinises” the brain in utero, resulting in ‘male’ and ‘female’ brains with distinct sexualities (as well as divergent interests and skills). However, the ‘common-sense’ notions of the feminine and masculine sexualities that testosterone differences might explain shifted, presumably in belated response to changes in attitudes and behaviour sparked by the 1960s sexual revolution. From the 1980s onwards, elements of bodily desire and agency – like genital arousal and libido – became common-sense features in scientific models of human, rather than male, sexuality. Yet the changes went unremarked by the researchers, who didn’t draw attention to, or most likely even notice, the fact that the male and female sexualities supposedly explained by in utero testosterone had significantly changed. This meant that the psychobiologists “reinforced the notion that ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ sexuality are universal, timeless constructs and created the illusion of a seamless line of evidence supporting human sexuality as hardwired by hormones”.
The X-rated gender gap remains today and, as with the gaps in, say, science, politics, business or child care, many claim that it’s an inevitable consequence of essentially different male and female natures. Evolutionary psychology has provided one well-known explanation. Because females bear the substantial biological costs of nutrient-rich eggs, gestation, birth and lactation, their reproductive potential is mostly constrained by access to the material resources and support they need to rear a relatively limited number of young. Women therefore do best if their mating strategy is to seek a good provider within a committed relationship. This strategy can work for men, too, but unlike women they can score reproductive wins in casual sexual encounters, from which they walk away having invested only a little time, some pleasurable effort and a mere teaspoonful or so of sperm. And so, this kind of account claims, men evolved a sexual nature more powerful, persistent and promiscuous than that of women.
Although the majority of gender differences in sexual behaviour and attitudes are small, the exceptions seem broadly consistent with received ideas. For example, women report sexual desires that are, on average, less frequent and insistent, and they are approximately twice as likely as men to report that they take little interest or find little pleasure in sex. This difference is prominently illustrated on the cover of sex therapist Bettina Arndt’s book The Sex Diaries. A man sits with folded arms at the leftmost edge of a bed and looks with frustration at the stop sign held by his female partner, who is positioned far right and wears an expression of beleaguered irritation. It’s an instantly understandable visual reference to the “fragile, feeble female libido” that is such a poor match for his “constant sparking sexual energy”. An early diary entry by one of Arndt’s volunteers, Nadia, a married mother of 41, captures it concisely: “My sex drive is zero and I really only do it for him.”
Women also report engaging less often in sexual activities that are largely bereft of emotional intimacy, such as masturbation, pornography use and casual sex. But although this is consistent with the idea that emotional context is more important for women, enjoying sexual pleasure for its own sake is stigmatised for females, and this may lead to under-reporting. For example, women who thought they were attached to a lie detector admitted to significantly more masturbation and pornography use than did women who weren’t hooked up to the bogus machine, and who thought their responses might be seen by someone else. (Similarly, that men apparently engage in more casual sex with women than women do with men is a longstanding mathematical mystery, the solution to which may well also lie in creative self-reporting.)
So thoroughly relationship-embedded is female sexuality often thought to be that hopeful heterosexual partners are advised by sex therapists that “foreplay is everything that happens in the twenty-four hours preceding penile insertion”, according to Louann Brizendine, author of The Female Brain. True, one can’t help but think this might be a helpful perspective for those performing at absolute rock-bottom. In The Sex Diaries, for example, Nadia’s husband describes, in the very same diary entry, both Nadia’s discovery that he has been masturbating to pornography in his truck when he hands over his semen-soiled jumper for her to wash – a gesture difficult to rival as the antithesis of romance – and his irritation at her lack of sexual interest in him. (Interestingly, when Nadia’s husband goes away, with the help of a vibrator her sex drive accelerates rapidly from “zero”.)
But the most recent popular book on female sexuality to hit the shelves, Naomi Wolf’s Vagina, seems to erase altogether the boundary between lust and emotional connection, in its emphasis on the importance of romancing and household chores for female sexual arousal. Wolf writes that “his gazing at her, or praising her, or even folding a load of laundry, is not merely rightly thought of as highly effective foreplay; it is actually, from the female body’s point of view, an essential part of good sex itself.” Certainly, there is little to object to in a pile of washing neatly folded by someone else. But for all that Vagina “radically reframes” its eponymous heroine as nothing less than the source of transcendental orgasms, the site of the female soul and, flatteringly, the centre of the universe, there’s something not just reactionary but also disappointingly mundane about a vision of female sexuality that sees such potent eroticism in laundry.
More than one startled reviewer has commented on Wolf’s blithe assumption that her prescriptions for a happy vagina are based not on highly culturally specific preferences – “perhaps shaped by romance novels and Laura Ashley bedroom sets”, as one Feministe blogger tartly suggested – but in our evolutionary past. It’s a crucial point. Certainly, the sexes differ, quite starkly, when it comes to their reproductive equipment and roles. The evolutionary principle that this should contribute to male/female differences in sexual feelings and preferences is compelling (although there are fascinatingly divergent views regarding what those differences should be, not to mention why, when and how). But it’s vital to remember how gendered behaviour has changed in the past, and to ask how it might change in the future. Over the course of several decades notions that women might, for instance, participate fully in the political process, go to university or practise law changed from dangerous feminist delusion to unremarkable reality. And it is not only outside the bedroom that females have been gradually acknowledged to be able to enjoy aspects of life previously considered exclusively masculine. In the early 20th century, access to reliable contraception decoupled female sexual activity from the costs of pregnancy, gestation and birth, enabling women for the first time in history to join men in sexual activity without risking lifelong consequences. The impact on their sexuality was revolutionary.
In The Long Sexual Revolution, Birmingham University social historian Hera Cook notes that eighteenth-century English women were assumed to be sexually passionate. Cook draws on economic and social changes, fertility-rate patterns, personal accounts, sex surveys and sex manuals to chart the path towards the sexual repression of the Victorian era. This was a time of reduced female economic power due to a shift from production in the home to wage earning, as well as a lifting of community pressure on men to financially support children fathered out of wedlock. In the absence of well-known, reliable birth-control techniques, “women could not afford to enjoy sex. The risk made it too expensive a pleasure.” Victorian women turned to sexual restraint to control fertility, argues Cook, “a course of desperation that could be sustained only by imposition of a repressive sexual and emotional culture, initially by individuals of their own accord, and then … upon succeeding generations.” Cook describes the trajectory of Victorian women’s sexuality from the mid to late 19th century as one of “increasing anxiety and diminishing sexual pleasure”, evidence for the lack of enjoyment in sexual intercourse being “remarkably consistent, with only occasional hints of pleasure”. Only with the increasing availability of reliable, accessible contraception in the early 20th century was there a gradual relaxation of sexual attitudes and growing acknowledgement of the existence and importance of female sexual desire, culminating in the introduction of the birth control pill and the sexual revolution.
Cook’s rich perspective provides a useful reminder of the sheer newness, still, of the possibility of female economic and reproductive autonomy. The historical view forces the reader to consider the continuing effects of a “long sexual revolution” that is surely still taking place, as society continues to divest itself of the remnants of Victorian sexual mores. Take, for example, the moral discomfort felt by couples about the cervical cap. As the author of a 1934 birth control manual observed, since use of the cap suggested premeditated desire on the part of the woman, many couples disapprovingly regarded the mere act of insertion as “wanton” and an unfeminine “invitation to sexual intercourse”.
There are clear remnants of this attitude in contemporary claims that female sexuality is naturally more passive, receptive to the desire of others rather than the active author of its own. This was the basis of Arndt’s controversial recommendation that women submit to men’s approaches and ‘just do it’, since even without prior feelings of desire they can “end up enjoying sex if they simply put the canoe in the water and start paddling”. This cultural belief in female sexual passivity is likely to have psychological effects. A vast, decades-old research literature has shown that gender stereotypes influence the way we behave, without us necessarily becoming aware of their influence. Particularly when gender is salient – for example, when a lone woman sits on a corporate board – our social interactions and perception of others and ourselves become more consistent with gender stereotypes. Yet this gendered behaviour is malleable rather than fixed, and male/female differences can even disappear altogether when gender is pushed into the psychological background.
This may be difficult to achieve in the bedroom. In fact, it’s hard to imagine a social context in which femaleness and sex could impinge on the psyche more effectively than during heterosexual relations. Recently, Rutgers University psychologist Diana Sanchez and her colleagues have been researching how gender stereotypes play out in the sexual domain. They’ve shown that women, but not men, automatically associate sex with submissiveness, and note other research indicating that the psychological effects of this link play out in non-sexual behaviour. Women take longer to interrupt a person who is talking on the phone after being exposed to sex-related words and images, and they even sign their names in a smaller hand. (Men’s signatures, in contrast, are enlarged by sex-priming.) As for sexual behaviour itself, a growing literature suggests that an internalised notion of female sexual passivity can be detrimental to female sexual pleasure. Heterosexual women with stronger mental links between sex and submission have greater difficulty getting aroused and achieving orgasm, and women who take a submissive role during sex experience less arousal (a correlation that isn’t due simply to a lack of desire affecting both behaviour and arousal). Their sexual dissatisfaction, in turn, reduces their partners’ enjoyment.
It might be argued that our minds merely acquire, and magnify, a biologically decreed gender difference in sexual agency. But when we consider how much female sexuality has changed in the century since a wife’s use of contraception was considered a “wanton” expression of desire, we should surely feel obliged to stretch the imagination as to what changes might lie ahead. A glimpse of a possible future – and a surprising potential intervention for the present – comes from the positive effects of feminism. Women who endorse feminist beliefs report enhanced sexual wellbeing on several fronts – and not, apparently, simply thanks to the effects of those beliefs on men’s propensity to fold washing. Such women are less likely to endorse old-fashioned sexual scripts, are more likely to have sex for pleasure rather than compliance, and enjoy greater sexual satisfaction through a heightened awareness of their own desire. And, in a happy win–win story, women’s feminism is good for the sexual satisfaction of their male partners too.
These considerable cultural shifts point to the difficulty of trying to tie the moving target of ‘female sexuality’ to biological roots. In fact, although gender differences in sexuality are often chalked up to hormones, the research paints a dauntingly complex picture at odds with breathless popular claims. While Wolf, for example, claims that “oxytocin is women’s emotional superpower” that puts them at risk of feeling “more love, more attachment, and more affection” after sex than do men, a comprehensive 2005 academic review of the endocrinology of sexual arousal came to an utterly deflationary ending in its section on oxytocin. “It is difficult to draw clear conclusions,” the author writes. “The reader is entitled to feel confused,” he adds, a little mournfully. Nor is there even clear-cut evidence from healthy adult humans for the popular belief that testosterone is deeply implicated in sexual desire. Most studies have failed to find relationships between testosterone levels and libido in healthy men and women, and in a study published this year in Archives of Sexual Behavior, University of Michigan neuroendocrinologist Sari van Anders tested and rejected the hypothesis that men’s higher testosterone levels explain their greater levels of sexual desire. More often, observed relationships are the other way around: sexual behaviour influences hormone levels.
This growing body of research offers concrete examples of the insight that a gendered sexual culture, as a social phenomenon with the power to inhibit or license particular sexual thoughts, feelings and decisions, is literally incorporated into female bodies. It’s bold to assume that somewhere in the fluid, intertwined mess of biology and culture from which sexual development emerges uniquely for each individual, over a lifetime, there is a universal, timeless and distinctly feminine sexuality.
However, it’s an idea that may be hard to give up.
Cook notes that those who were against contraception in the 19th and 20th centuries “believed that it would lead women to become promiscuous and adulterous, that the institution of marriage would collapse”. She adds, with charming insouciance, “to a remarkable extent, it appears they were correct”. But the sexual revolution also, Cook observes, changed the meaning of sex itself.
In Rachel Cusk’s novel The Country Life, the prim protagonist, Stella, is confused to find herself “increasingly attracted to someone of whom my opinion correspondingly descended”. Stella suspects that his appeal lies in the fact that
without a rival intelligence to negotiate, without the whole vast and varied territory of taste, intellect and conversation to be explored and cultivated, the sexual domain lay invitingly close by, ripe for momentary plunder … the cheapness of my desire did not make it any less urgent.
Women’s increasing freedom to both feel and act on ‘cheap’ desires has increased the amount of sex being had, but at the same time “made sexual acts less important in people’s lives”, writes Cook. “When having sexual intercourse with a person of the opposite sex was tantamount to choosing them as a lifetime partner the act had immense emotional, economic, and symbolic weight attached to it.”
Today, such significance is optional, and this has led to many expressions of anxiety about a descent into increasingly disconnected, objectifying and emotionally meaningless sex. While in Renaissance Europe it was men’s greater rationality-based restraint that was assumed to keep sexual relations elevated above women’s more base desires, now it is respect for females’ emotionality that some hope will save us. But just as women can enjoy cheap desires, so too can men crave emotionally rich ones (even though the separation of emotional intimacy and sex has become more pronounced for males, too, over recent decades). In every realm of life, as gender gaps narrow, we are reminded that “love, tenderness, nurturance; competence, ambition, assertion … are human qualities”, as masculinity scholar Michael Kimmel observed, “and all human beings – both women and men – should have equal access to them”. So if the long sexual revolution should lead to a point where the preciousness of sex itself needs preserving – where the sunny and stormy sides of sex become too imbalanced – let it be done not just for women, but for everyone.
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