In response to yesterday’s reprint, I got an email from Joni.
…every time I run across this idea that (most) boys/men just want sex I’m reminded of just how destructive that myth has been to MY self esteem as a woman. When I was growing up (I’m 36) I was told over and over and over again about how “boys only want one thing”. I gave the boys I knew more credit, but not much more, if I’m honest about it. I knew that there was more to them and to their emotional lives, but on a certain level I still deeply believed that boys really just wanted sex, when it comes right down to it. I also believed that they pretty much wanted it all the time.
Imagine my surprise when I made it out of the supercharged teen years and the boys I was dating didn’t want sex as much as I did. To this day I’m not sure if my sex drive is unusually high, but it’s certainly higher than that of any man I’ve ever dated. Or at least, that’s what I tell myself now. But really, on some level, I take it personally. I believe, deep down, that the reason the men I date don’t want to have sex with me as often as I want to have sex with them is that I am unattractive in some way. I’m not a waif, so I already have society telling me I’m too fat, even though I know that’s not really true. (I could lose a few pounds, but really, not a lot.) I’m not exceptionally beautiful, but I think I’m pretty. But regardless, when my boyfriend doesn’t want sex when I do, it’s hard for me to give him the credit he deserves and give myself the credit I deserve, and recognize that he may just not be in the mood, or want to do something else, and it’s not a negative reflection on me.
Joni’s poignant message raised one of the sad corollaries to our myths about male hyper-sexuality. If a woman, like Joni, finds herself in a heterosexual relationship in which she is consistently the higher desire partner, the myth suggests that she must be fundamentally undesirable. A man whose female partner has a lower sexual drive can comfort himself with the reassurance that this is natural; his girlfriend’s lesser libido is not an affront to his masculinity. She wants sex less not because he’s not handsome or sufficiently masculine, but because she’s a woman. Women like Joni don’t have that source of reassurance; the myth of uncontrollable male desire suggests that a woman’s naked (or even partly disrobed) body ought to drive a boyfriend or a husband wild — every damn time. If it doesn’t, then the fault is with her. And if she lusts for her guy more than he lusts for her, then she’s an unfeminine slut.
We live in a culture, as feminists point out over and over again, that expects women to be sexy but not sexual. Women’s sexiness has a function; we are taught that in a world in which men have barely controllable libidos, desirability is female currency. “Men will do anything to have it”, we are all told, and a great many women believe it. In a world where women are systematically disempowered in countless respects, they are reassured that their status as objects of desire grants them leverage in their relations with men. Of course, that leverage is contingent on an assumption about the male inability to exercise self-control. In a world where men are expected to have sexual self-control, women’s desirability loses its allure as a bargaining chip. If sexiness had less potential value, then women would be encouraged to develop other skills — and might well begin to make more insistent demands for equal treatment.
Social conservatives — the sort who believe in traditional gender roles — need the myth of male weakness as the foundation of their worldview. Over and over again, they remind women that “feminine power” is the power to direct and manipulate fathers, husbands, and sons. The myth of male weakness suggests that men lack the verbal skills, the sexual self-control, or the wily intuition that women naturally possess. Women, the traditionalists insist, are fools to compete with men directly. Rather, a clever woman gets what she wants through her beauty, her charm, her nurturing instincts. Of course, the moment we start to believe that men are no more pliable than women, the whole house of cards collapses.
This is a huge part of the reason why we still doubly shame women like Joni. In her horniness, she’s appropriating a man’s role, abandoning “nature itself.” For that, she must be slut-shamed. And in the reality that her randiness often exceeds that of her partners, she’s shamed for being insufficiently womanly to arouse the naturally much-greater male libido. At its most misogynistic, the cultural message to a woman like Joni is that she’s a whore for “wanting it” so much, and she’s an ugly one to boot.
As the Times reports today, many feminists are pushing back against the pathologizing of low sexual desire. Lest one think that the drive to market a pill to increase women’s libidos serves to undermine the argument I’m making, let me be clear that our culture has no problem with a woman wanting sex. She just needs to want her male partner most of the time that he wants her — but certainly not more so. “Frigidity” is as problematic as “sluttiness”; the “good woman” apparently needs to have a libido that is only slightly less intense than that of her boyfriend or husband. If she errs too much in either direction (towards total lack of interest or towards nymphomania), she’s failed. The chances that on any given day, she will be judged to be either insufficiently or excessively horny are very high indeed.
One other note. A popular myth is that male sexual desire tends to peak in the late teens and early twenties, while women’s libidinousness hits its apex in the thirties. There may be a few grains of truth to this, and we all may know people for whom this assumption has turned out to be true. But there are far too many exceptions to this rule for it to have any usefulness, and for young people of either sex who find themselves on the “wrong side” of the equation (horny young women, sexually disinterested young men), this cultural truism can do tremendous damage. In my more than two decades doing sex education, I’ve talked to lots of teen girls who wonder if it’s “normal” to want sex as they are; I’ve counseled just as many teen boys who express anxiety about their own lack of horniness.
The labels “slut” and “fag” have tremendous power. So many of the girls and boys whose desires deviate from the cultural expectation that young men should always “want it” while young women shouldn’t (at least not until they’re older) beat themselves up with these labels, even if they rarely (if ever) share the truth about their libidos with their peers. And while it is of course important to reassure these young people that they are normal and healthy regardless of where they fall on the horniness spectrum, it’s also important to remind folks that our narrative about desire is about more than sex: it’s about reifying and maintaining the traditional gender roles that, in the end, do violence to us all.
UPDATE: Sarah at Feministe has a fine post up today on a related topic, touching on sex, pleasure, and guilt.