All the Horny Women, All the Overwhelmed Men

My column this week looks at the remarkable new book by Daniel Bergner that is shattering a lot of treasured old myths about gender and libido. An excerpt from Turns Out Women Have Really, Really Strong Sex Drives: Can Men Handle It?

The research suggests that though both men and women struggle to extricate themselves from traditional gender roles, women are generally doing a much better job of it than are men. From the workplace to the university, women are far more willing to move into traditionally male spaces and adopt traditionally male behaviors than men are to do the reverse. Too many men are still stuck in the “provide, protect, and perform” model that requires women to be passive, focused more on pleasing than on their own pleasure. The “catch-22” in which women find themselves is largely a result of men’s fear of being unable to perform up to women’s expectations—and to satisfy desires that men have only just begun to realize are as intense and earthy as their own.

Freud’s famous question, “What do women want?” has always invited another query in return: “Can you handle the answer if we tell you?” The widespread coverage of Bergner’s book raises at least the possibility that some men are. And what is at the heart of that answer? Though some women surely still want to play at passivity while men protect, provide, and perform, plenty more women want another “p” word: partners. Flexible, unintimidated, and (as Bergner shows) playful partners in the bedroom, in the kitchen, and in public life.

Read the whole thing.

Of vibrators, clitoridectomies, and the story behind the Hysteria movie

I’m back from baby hiatus with a new Genderal Interest column at Jezebel today: Vibrators and Clitoridectomies: How Victorian Doctors Took Control of Women’s Orgasms. Riffing on the popularity of the new movie Hysteria, the article looks at the different approaches to women’s bodies — and women’s pleasure — in Victorian England. Excerpt:

It’s as easy to celebrate Dr. Granville, the vibrator inventor and hero of the Hysteria movie, as it is to demonize his genital-mutilating contemporary, Dr. Baker-Brown. But the two Victorian physicians had much in common. Not only did both believe in hysteria as a legitimate medical condition, they both believed in men’s responsibility to exert complete mastery over women’s pleasure. One wanted to make women orgasm in his office, on his terms, and with his invention. The other wanted to ensure that women didn’t orgasm at all, thanks to his procedure. Their patients obviously experienced different results, and we’re rightly more outraged by Baker-Brown than by Granville. Those differences shouldn’t obscure the reality that each made his reputation by proposing new techniques to help men control women’s sexuality.

Granville and Baker-Brown agreed on something else: the dangers of female masturbation. It was only in the mid-19th century that medical texts began to discuss the clitoris and its evident purpose. Doctors were as troubled by its location as by its possibilities; why was the clitoris located within easy reach of the average woman’s fingers but not inside the vagina, where it would be more easily stimulated during intercourse? The obvious conclusion — that women are designed to experience sexual pleasure without relying on a man –- was enormously threatening to the medical establishment (and plenty of ordinary men as well.) Female masturbation (something that some male doctors had once considered impossible) represented women’s independence. Neither Granville nor Baker-Brown could countenance that.

Testosterone, fatherhood, nurturing

I have a brief blog post up at Good Men Project on the new fathers-and-testosterone study: Hardwired to Nurture: What the New Testosterone Study Really Says About Men. Excerpt:

One of our great enduring myths about males is that we are biologically hardwired for violence and promiscuity, and that any attempt to encourage us to take on a nurturing, tender role is destined to end in failure. The “Caveman Cult” crowd, which includes a great many popular writers on gender, suggests that female physiology is optimized for caregiving while male physiology is optimized for conquest. And when pressed to cite the chief factor in this supposed male inability to care for children, these defenders of traditional gender roles almost invariably cite the overarching influence of testosterone.

What this exciting new study shows is that men are far more biologically malleable than we had previously realized. Our male bodies are not obstacles to empathy or tenderness. Indeed, once we make the commitment to become active fathers to our children, it seems our hormones naturally shift to help sustain us in this all-important work of caregiving.

Of orgasms, oxytocin, and myths of misery: UPDATED

My friend Monica sent me a link to this MSNBC story: Post-coital blues plague a third of young women. Based on a very small sample of 200 young Australians, researchers at the Queensland Institute of Technology found that 1 in 3 women had felt post-intercourse melancholy at least once, and 1 in 10 experienced it regularly.

It’s easy to point out the obvious problem with the study: the sample is very small, for instance, and the focus on intercourse to the exclusion of other forms of sexual activity is problematic. But the real impact of these studies is in how the mainstream media report them, and the danger here is that a small and relatively inconclusive project can get framed as “sex makes women sad.”

One of the cleverest techniques used by the religious right in recent years has been the deliberate co-opting of feminist language. One of the standard tropes used by many savvy social conservatives is that women have been misled by the language of feminist liberation. By downplaying women’s “natural” drive to bond monogamously with one man, by maligning women’s central role as nurturers, we feminists have (wittingly or no) led countless millions to unhappiness. Conservative theories of natural law and sexual complementarianism are depressing to read, but when one does read them, one learns that women are inclined to profound unhappiness when they pursue pleasure for its own sake rather than relationship. And by emphasizing women’s sexual, economic, and educational liberation — rather than their God-given role as wives and mothers — we have seduced women away from the source of their true fulfillment. From Kay Hymowitz to Phyllis Schlafly to Christina Hoff-Summers, a cottage industry of right-wing pundits has sprung up to drive home the point that pleasure-seeking feminism just makes women miserable.

But they don’t just drive home this message in op-eds and books. They drive it home in abstinence-only education. A student of mine told me that she was taught in a church youth group that masturbation would leave women depressed.

We were told (by a volunteer pastor who had some church-sponsored pamphlets) that when we orgasm, women’s brains release oxytocin, which is the ‘bonding hormone’. It’s meant to bond us with someone who will be with us for life. But if we orgasm by ourselves, our brains will flood us with feelings of loneliness. We were told that women who masturbate usually cry themselves to sleep. Masturbation made boys into sex addicts, my youth pastor said; it made girls clinically depressed.

I’ve asked her for a copy of the pamphlet, and she’s working on it. But I’m asking more out of curiosity than the need for proof. I’ve heard this sort of pseudo-scientific hooey before. And I wish that more young people could laugh it off for the lie it is.

The bit about lonely women masturbating in their beds and crying themselves to sleep has become a pop-culture joke; see this (work-safe) e-card and even this weird Goth video. A good friend of ours, poking fun at the cultural expectations about single women’s unhappiness, told us that she was headed home for the evening one Saturday. “Gonna watch reruns of Glee, pig out on ice cream, pull out the vibrator, and then cry myself to sleep. What single gals do these days, dontcha know?” She wasn’t serious — but she was using humor to jab at the cultural myth we have about the connection between sexuality and female melancholy,a myth reinforced by studies like this new Australian offering.

Both men and women can be sad after sex for any number of reasons. Thinking from my own experience, I’ve been sad after sex because the sex was disappointing; because I knew that I’d soon have to put my clothes on and go home and I didn’t want to leave; because I’d just had sex with someone I wasn’t supposed to and the guilt rushed in after the orgasm; because I was sleeping with someone with whom sex was the only good thing we had; because what had been intended to be make-up sex hadn’t erased the real hurt. I could go on. Lots of sexually experienced people of all genders can identify with that, I’m sure. It’s hardly a uniquely female phenomenon. Continue reading

Biology still isn’t destiny: on creating safe childhoods in an age of ever-earlier puberty

I’m easing back in from hiatus with a fresh post.

In 2006, I wrote about the historic drop in the onset of menstruation and the rising age of marriage. It’s a topic familiar to many of my women’s history students. The basic premise is that the average age of first menstruation (menarche) dropped by about five years (from about 16 to about 11) between 1900 and 2000 in America, while the average age that women first married increased from about 21 to about 27. Meanwhile, studies have shown that the average American girl (if there is such a thing) loses her virginity around age 16.

What’s the interesting point? Call it the “constancy of five”. Today, the “average” American girl first has heterosexual intercourse approximately five years after menarche. In 1900, if we can make the dangerous assumption that at least a fair percentage of American young women were virgins when they wed, they too were having their first intercourse approximately five years after they began menstruating. The five year gap is the one constant even as all the other variables have shifted.

This is statistically intriguing, but has huge implications for those who wish to foist nineteenth century morality onto twenty-first century minds and bodies. Parents who expect (as many parents from traditional cultures expect) their daughters to marry as virgins, but to only marry after finishing a degree and starting a career, are asking their girls to “wait” three times as long as women “waited” a century ago. When the old folks lament the “declining morality” of the younger generation, they miss the fact that what they’re asking their daughters to do is considerably more than was expected of their great-grandmothers.

I thought of all this when the study came out last week showing that girls are continuing to enter puberty earlier and earlier. Since 1997, when Joan Brumberg’s indispensable Body Project: An Intimate History of American Girls was published, the percentage of girls aged 6-8 who exhibited early breast development has doubled among whites and gone up 50% among African-Americans. (Thelarche is the term for the beginning of secondary breast development, btw.) There has been a corresponding increase, other studies report, in the percentage of girls who have their first period before their tenth birthday.

Whatever the reasons (obesity, a diet heavy in meat, etc.) there’s little question that the real challenge for feminists is to focus on the needs of this very vulnerable population. There’s no question that fifteen year-olds are better (if imperfectly) equipped to deal with the challenges of menstruation and changing bodies than are girls five years younger. There has been no concomitant rise in the rate of emotional maturation to go along with the declining age of menarche. As school nurses across the country can attest, adapting advice about menstruation to an ever younger group of girls presents special challenges, the anxieties of parents not least among them.

It’s important to remember that earlier maturation doesn’t need to lead inexorably to premature sexualization. We need to distinguish these as two separate issues. Physiological changes that cause preteens to develop breasts and hips do not cause adult men to leer. The fetishization of young women (pedophila chic, as some have dubbed it) is a cultural response to men’s anxiety about women’s increasing power. Part of the anti-feminist backlash is the sexualization of the very young. For those who fantasize about a pre-feminist world in which women are pliable and submissive, it makes perverse sense to focus desire increasingly on the very youngest girls whose capacity to set boundaries and to exercise agency is obviously limited. The growing physiological reality of early puberty serves as justification for sexualizing preteen and “tween” girls. The vulgar expression “Old enough to bleed, old enough to breed” dates back at least as far as the Second World War (and may be much older) — but read in the light of a dramatically falling age of menarche, it becomes more unconscionable to repeat with each passing decade.

We can start to carve out safe space for this vulnerable population of pubescent youngsters by committing ourselves individually and collectively to a zero-tolerance policy on their sexualization. This doesn’t mean forbidding your eleven year-old daughter from wearing a miniskirt. It means holding adults (parents, teachers, strangers on the street, Uncle Bert) responsible for seeing these girls in women’s bodies as children still. It means watching our language; for some, it may mean watching their eyes. It means sending a message to girls and to everyone who interacts with them that their bodies are theirs and theirs alone. It means redefining our notion of development so that ten year-olds who have already entered puberty continue to be allowed to be children safe for as long as possible from the harassment, the leers, and the judgment that is so much a part of female adolescence in our society.

The next time you hear an adult man make a sexualized remark about a teen girl –even a celebrity such as, say, Miley Cyrus — call him on it. Make it clear that a girl in what appears to be a woman’s body is still a girl, and that adult men are fully capable of distinguishing between eroticising a well-developed 13 year-old child and a woman twice her age. Men are not so weak, so stupid, or so blind that they cannot make these distinctions in their actions, in their words, and in their very thoughts. Now, more than ever, we need to commit ourselves to empowering a generation of girls who are confronting unprecedented challenges. And we empower them by giving them the safe space to mature emotionally at their own pace, regardless of the ever-increasing speed at which their bodies are developing.

“I’d be more nurturing if I thought it would get me laid”: how the straitjacket of masculinity is reframed as women’s fault

In a comment below last Thursday’s post on the myth of male inflexibility, SamSeaborn wrote:

…mating, at least in the early stages, is dominated by female choice, and women do have a tendency to prefer doers, not feelers as partners. Sure masculinity and feminity are ever-adjusting, but the problem at this point is, it seems to me, that masculinity is squeezed between an expanding concept of feminity (the best man for the job may be the woman) and the reality on the ground that forces most men to compete more intensely for the fewer places in the sun because, put in overly simplified terms, it’s those men most women seem to be interested in. I’m not saying men have no power in sexual negotiations, but those who have tend to be the ones who are in scarce supply, and that’s those who managed to get through the fiercer competition.

Again, I’m all *for* changing that, but I don’t see female CEOs being interested in male kindergarten teachers. This is the crux of the problem, and feminism isn’t really offering any advice.

He got a number of replies, of which La Lubu’s was both typical and cogent:

Where I come from, teaching and nursing do not take a man out of the “wanted pool” it’s the polar opposite. Those are considered decent jobs. Are female CEOs (yeah, there sure are a lot of those) dating those men? No. But are women of the same social class dating and/or marrying them? Hell, yes. People — men and women both — date within their social class. Men of high socioeconomic status might recreationally fuck a woman of lower status, but they sure the hell don’ marry them (or even introduce them to their country-club friends).

Who do you know, in your life, that has rejected a man with a decent paying but below six-figure job because of his earning power? If you don’t have any anecdata, what statistical evidence can you show me that states this? I have never seen that ever. I see the opposite: heterosexual men who hold those jobs that you (as a male) regard as unmasculine, are almost always married. Evidently, women have a different measure of what constitutes masculinity. We don’t really give a hot damn who is King of the Mountain.

The argument that SamSeaborn advances is basically this one: “Men don’t like wearing the straitjacket of masculinity, true. But women want us to. In fact, the only way we get laid is when we engage in stereotypical male behavior. Therefore, it’s women’s fault that we’re suffering from the constraints of manhood, and women have only themselves to blame that they cannot find the male partners they claim to want. If women would only change their sexual decision-making, then men would behave better. But as long as women reward hyper-masculine asshole-dom with sex, then men have no incentive to change.”

I hear this argument frequently from anti-feminists of both sexes.

Stay with me for a second: I’m old enough to have gone to elementary school when they still showed movies in class: proper films, the sort that came on reels. Students fought for the privilege to “thread the projector”, a term that will be meaningless to anyone under thirty. And many of the films I remember best came from Disney’s “True Life Adventures” series. These had been filmed in the 1950s, but they didn’t seem dated in mid-1970s classrooms. I remember film after film exploring the wonder of mating. Everything was G-rated, of course, but the basic idea was obvious: males in the animal kingdom do all that they can to put on impressive displays in order to attract a female. The latter had all the power when it came to sex selection. Reading Sam’s comment, I can’t help but wonder if his sexual worldview owes more to Disney nature films than to 21st century human reality.

I hear from a great many young men the familiar complaint that “girls just want bad boys”. There are lots of reasons why we socialize young women to want disaffected, hostile, and brooding young men. Mostly it has to do with the “my love can change him” notion I wrote about in this post. It’s a phenomenon of the very young, however; relatively few adult women continue to buy into the delusion that they have the capacity to love a violent and unreliable man into compassionate responsibility. The point is, a great many young men oversell the “good girls only want bad boys” trope because they sense the obvious benefit: if they then themselves mistreat women, they are not doing it out of any defect in their natures, but out of a rational strategy for improving their mating odds. It is women themselves who have made these rules, these boys and young men say (often with sincerity); we fellas just have to adapt as best we can. It’s yet another corollary to the myth of male weakness: bad male behavior gets cunningly reframed as an evolutionary adaptation demanded by women, and the blame for everything falls nicely once again on the shoulders and hearts and libidos of the be-uterused.

Sam is talking about the grown-up version of this. In a world which is still in some sense a jungle, he argues, even the most well-educated and successful woman wants a man who can take care of her. This may be more likely to mean “make lots of money” than “beat up creepers who ogle me”, but it’s still the lament that women’s hearts and sex drives don’t really match up with feminist politics. Though all of the evidence suggests that more men don’t seek out nurturing professions because of a combination of socialization and fear of ridicule by other men, many anti-feminists suggest that women’s refusal to take male nurses or kindergarten teachers seriously as potential mates is the primary force driving men away. When real-life women like La Lubu and Mythago and the others in the comment thread suggest that this is just so much pap, their experiences and desires are dismissed as anecdotes that are entirely unrepresentative of the mass of “real women” about whom the likes of SamS apparently know so much.

It is axiomatic that heterosexual men and women regularly misunderstand what the other sex wants. These misunderstandings are reinforced by a media that hypes absurd caricatures of masculinity and femininity, leading young boys to imagine that without an eight-pack on their tummies, they are destined for lonely celibacy — and leading girls to believe that all young men insist on being partnered with those who have bodies like Khloe Kardashian’s. These misperceptions are excusable in adolescents, less so in adults a decade or two (or three, or four) removed from puberty. Too many men and women assume that their acquaintances of the other sex are lying when they say things that deviate from culturally-imposed expectations. So when a man hears a woman say, “No, I really do want a partner who will be an equal rather than a non-communicative workaholic”, he may tell himself, “Bullshit. She’s just saying that. I know what women really want.” This “knowledge” is often rooted in random anecdote, or his own imagination, or some slick purveyor of misogyny masquerading as common sense like Tom Leykis or Laura Schlessinger. (To be fair, many women have a hard time believing that male weakness really is a myth rather than a biological reality. When a man says to his partner, “Honey, I only want you”, she may have been so conditioned to believe in the impossibility of male fidelity that she too thinks her own quiet “bullshit.”)

To the extent that men really are being “left behind” in the new economic and educational paradigm, it is because of the inability of so many men to slip the surly bonds of traditional masculinity. The problem isn’t female teachers who “don’t understand boys”, the problem isn’t “feminism”, and the problem isn’t the imagined disconnect between heterosexual women’s politics and their libidos. The problem is a hopelessly constrained vision of what it means to be a man, a vision largely created and maintained and passed on by men. Fathers and brothers and peers; rappers and ballers and professional pugilists; these are the all-too-faithful perpetuators of the myth that women will only accept “sturdy oaks” who “give ’em hell” and never, ever, display grief or vulnerability.

Individual men suffer from what is, in the end, a collective masculine crime; we are, to paraphrase an old AA saying, the architects of our own adversity. The relentless attempt to shift the blame to women’s irrationality or inconsistency cannot long obscure that hard and heartbreaking truth.

A survey on attitudes towards casual sex

Heather Corinna, founder and executive editor of the indispensable site Scarleteen, is doing a large study on multigenerational experiences with and attitudes about casual sex. The data will ideally be used for publication, but answers are completely anonymous and will only be used anonymously.

There’s a lot of buzz now about “hooking up,” the newest term for casual sex, though casual sex isn’t new at all — nor does it only belong to the current generation, despite often being presented that way. Unlike most of the buzz out there, she’s not interested in telling anyone how to have sex, warning people off any given kind of sex or in presenting any one kind of sex as “the best way.” She’s just looking for what’s real, both in sexual attitudes and experiences among a diverse array of ages, genders and sexual identities, races and sexual ideologies/constructions. The only requirements for participating in this study are being over the age of 16, and having had some kind of sexual partnership before, even if none has been casual. The study will take around twenty minutes.

She would like the study to show as diverse an array of people as possible, especially since so often media representations or cultural conversations about casual sex are usually only about heterosexual white women or about gay men. She particularly wants to be sure LGBT people, people of color, those over 45 and social conservatives are adequately represented, so please share this link with your networks after you take the survey yourself, especially if your networks include people in any or all of those groups. I know I have a number of readers who fall into those groups, and urge them to take part.

You can take the survey by clicking here.

If you don’t know who Heather is, she’s been working in human sexuality for around 12 years. She is the founder and executive director for, does sex education outreach at youth shelters and women’s clinics in Seattle, and has been a sex columnist and writer online for sites like The Guardian and RH Reality Check. She has also been published in a handful of anthologies and is the author of S.E.X.: The All-You-Need-to-Know-Progressive Sexuality Guide to Get You Through High School and College (DaCapo Press), a book which I regard as the single best sex education text available anywhere.

If you have any questions, you can contact Heather at

HPV and boys: new concerns

My sources tell me that today, the immunization committee at the CDC (Centers for Disease Control) is debating whether to recommend the use of Gardasil, a vaccine against HPV, for use with male patients. HPV, or the human papillomavirus, is the most common of sexually-transmitted infections; the CDC estimates that 50% of sexually active adults will acquire HPV at one point over the course of their lives. Some suggest that the percentage is higher still.

HPV has been conclusively linked to cervical cancer. Since 2006, Gardasil has been approved by the FDA for use in inoculating women against HPV. Because the best form of protection is prevention, many health experts recommend vaccinating girls before they become sexually active. Given the grim reality that HPV can be easily transmitted through non-consensual sex, and given the ease with which the virus is spread through oral sex, vaccinating girls before the onset of puberty is encouraged. (This has led, of course, to predictable howls from the religious right, who are less concerned with protecting young women’s health and more concerned that a vaccine against HPV might encourage pre-marital sexual exploration.)

But as an article in the brand-new issue of Ms. Magazine makes clear, HPV poses a greater threat to men and boys than was previously known. The Adina Nack piece is not available online, but here’s a quote from what’s available on your newsstand:

While it is fears of cervical cancer that
have motivated young women to get HPV vaccines,
that’s not the only cancer caused by this virus: It can lead
to oral, anal and penile cancers as well. In fact, the combined
U.S. death rates for these cancers are at least twice
that of cervical cancers… Some researchers, in fact, believe that
HPV may soon cause more oral cancers in the U.S. than
alcohol or tobacco combined.

As a result of this research, the CDC may well soon recommend that boys and young men also be inoculated with Gardasil, as the connection between HPV and oral/anal cancer becomes as apparent as it already is with cervical cancer.

Nack emphasizes that men’s health is a feminist issue:

Women’s health—especially reproductive health—is usually
the focus of sexual-health discussions but men’s health
also deserves women’s attention—and not just because
women care about their sons, male partners and male
friends. It almost goes without saying that women can also
be infected by their intimate partners, and since the great
majority of women primarily have heterosexual relations,
that usually means by men.

In fact, men’s health is an even larger feminist issue.
“Feminists have a vested interest in advocating for policies
and circumstances around the world that shape men’s ability
to develop healthy sex lives, which, by definition, has
to include respect for the rights of those with whom they
partner, regardless of gender,” says Patricia Rieker, Ph.D.,
a sociologist at Boston University and Harvard Medical
School and coauthor of Gender and Health (Cambridge
University Press, 2008).

The truth is, if women don’t prioritize men’s health,
we’re not just losing a chance to foster the overall health
of our communities, we’re actually putting ourselves and
future generations at risk

It is axiomatic that women of all ages are more willing to seek medical treatment than are men. The “sturdy oak” myth of robust masculinity makes it difficult for boys and men to acknowledge vulnerability. Our cultural narrative about heterosexuality tends to suggest that women are emotionally and physiologically more fragile — and more likely to “suffer” from sex. That “expectation of female suffering” (associated with everything from first penetration to pregnancy to increased vulnerability to STIs to the guarantee of heartbreak after a break-up or abortion) is matched with a narrative of male imperviousness to harm. We like to pretend that boys are dense, violent, and comparatively shallow. But boys do cry, and boys do get hurt, and as the latest research shows, boys do get HPV-related cancers too.

Feminists have done much to dispatch the myth of female frailty. They have also been on the frontlines of fighting against this myth of the invulnerable male. It is no surprise then that we find this important clarion call for male sexual health in the pages of Ms. Magazine.

The plasticity of desire: new and comforting research

In many of my posts (most recently, here), I’ve made the case that sexual desire is more malleable than we think it is. I tend to argue against reparative therapy (the pseudo-science of helping gays become straight, repudiated by every serious professional body of psychologists and psychiatrists) not on grounds of inevitable ineffectiveness but on grounds that it attempts to fix something that isn’t broken. I do think we can shift our desires, and that to a far greater degree than we realize, our desires are less inherent in our make-up and more a response to external influences. I realize that the pendulum of popular thinking is in the opposite direction — the last quarter-century has seen the hegemony of the evolutionary psych crowd, the sort who insist that virtually every aspect of our identity is coded in our genes and driven by our hormones. In the nature v. nurture debate, the trendy thing to believe now is that nature has won in a cakewalk. But — to mix my metaphors recklessly — pendulums do swing back, and I think the turn of the tide approaches.

To that end, this very interesting article in last weekend’s Science Blog: ‘Straight Men, Gay Porn’ and Other Brain Map Mysteries (h/t to reader Jo for sending it along). It opens:

For most of the last century, neuroscientists were convinced that adult brains were pretty much set. Now, recent neuroscience reveals that our brains are surprisingly plastic throughout our lives. By learning techniques that help us sidestep unwanted wiring, we can even direct the re-wiring process—with seemingly miraculous results.

Read on. It’s nice to have something I’ve been saying for a long time validated by some of the latest research. It doesn’t end the argument, but it’s the beginning of a counter-narrative.

Men killing women: maternal mortality, heterosexual desire, and the work of male transformation

Back to school with much work to be done.

After Friday’s post (immediately below) about male sexuality and its perceived dangers, I got an interesting email from blogger Erin Solaro. She wrote:

The reason male sexuality has been viewed as dangerous and yet at the same time men are supposed to push women has a great deal to do with biology, and no, I don’t mean that men have a higher sex drive than women…

…I mean that 1940 was the first time in America that the mythical average woman’s chance of dying in childbirth dipped below 1 in 100. (For black women, it was higher, about 3 times as high.) In modern Afghanistan, it’s about 1 in 7, which may be pretty close to the historic norm.

Until we understand that, we aren’t really going to understand why we think about men, women and sexuality the way we do.

It’s an interesting point. Any women’s history class must take into account the history of birth-related maternal and infant mortality. While it’s difficult to get accurate historic statistics, the 1 in 7 figure that Solaro cites for contemporary Afghanistan is probably lower than it was in many other time periods. It is generally assumed that until the 20th century, childbirth was the leading cause of death for all women of childbearing years; in some societies that maternal mortality rate may have reached 40%, while other medical historians prefer a lower figure of 1 in 4 or 1 in 5. Given that many women in the developing world still have half a dozen children or more, as they did in previous centuries, the overall risk is compounded by the sheer number of pregnancies carried to term.

Our cultural memory of this devastating toll is limited. We have a Mother’s Day, of course, but we have no public rituals to honor our countless female ancestors who died — quite literally — so that we could live. There is no Tomb of the Unknown Mother in Arlington, though more American women died from childbirth than male soldiers did in war for the first century and a half of our republic’s history. This legacy lives on best in fairy tales, replete with stories of single fathers (Beauty and the Beast) or wicked step-mothers (take your pick). When I ask my students what happened to Cinderella’s birth mother, it drives the point about maternal mortality home.

Whatever the exact figures, childbirth has probably killed more women than any other single cause in human history. Until very recently (a miracle two millenia ago in Palestine notwithstanding), the only possible cause for pregnancy was heterosexual intercourse. So if childbirth kills women, and sex causes pregnancy, then by the logical transitive property, heterosexual intercourse has been, not so indirectly, the most lethal of all human activities for one-half of the population. To put it even more bluntly, men have killed far more women by ejaculating inside of them than they have by any other method. Semen has killed more people than any other body fluid (and yet it is menstrual blood that is considered far more “unclean” in many Western traditions.) (This, by the way, is a good moment to note how absurd the argument is about AIDS being “God’s punishment for homosexuality.” Even if we were to assume that AIDS was primarily transmitted through same-sex sexual activity, the number of deaths globally from AIDS has not yet risen to the historic levels of those from childbirth. If God punishes by death those who engage in forbidden sexual activity, how then to explain that the leading cause of death for women for centuries was having intercourse with their own husbands?)

Very few, if any, men ever presumably sought to kill their wives or lovers through intercourse. But men did devise patriarchal power structures that forbade women from using contraception or from refusing sex to their husbands. From both a moral and a statistical standpoint, cultures that don’t allow women access to contraception — as well as the right to say “no” after marriage as well as before — are complicit in the death of countless millions of women. Of course, many women surely enjoyed sex despite the risks; many women surely longed for children even in the face of the grave dangers that attended pregnancy, labor, and delivery. All the more reason to honor the bravery and the sacrifice of those who fought for life against death on a battlefield far more lethal than those on which their husbands, fathers, and brothers struggled. Continue reading