Why Do We Live in a World That's Petrified of Women Who Love Sex?
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The following piece first appeared on"No Seriously What About teh Menz."
I recently came across an interesting post about a very interesting study concerning high-libido women. It was striking for me how much it resonated with my own experiences as a high-libido man, and very revealing in how it differed.
The study talks about how the women interviewed all described needing multiple relationships to be sexually satisfied, and I thought “Whoo, I know how that is.” It’s not practical for me to ask any one woman to be everything I want in a lover, so I stopped trying ten years ago. Polyamory has proven to be a much better fit for me emotionally and sexually. The study also talks about high-libido women consciously organizing their lives around sex to some degree, and again I thought “Oh yeah, right there with you.” I prioritize nookie over some things other folks might consider more important, and when I think about the things I consider successes in my own life, getting laid a lot tends to be near the top of the list.
Of course, that’s easy for me to say. My culture tells me I’m supposed to like sex, supposed to make it a high priority, indeed supposed to define my worth as a person by it. I’m a man, after all. The study also talks about very sexual women having to fight slut-shaming, both internal and external, and having to deal with a culture that wants to pretend they don’t exist. These are not problems I have as a very sexual man. One of the perks of male privilege, I guess.
Except that like all privilege, it’s got the fucked-up dark side. Yeah, I get validated by mainstream American culture, because I largely fit the stereotype of the horny dude. What about low-libido guys? They get erased and denied as much as high-libido women do, to say nothing of asexual folks. A guy who would rather finish his homework than fuck is basically flat-out told that he’s not a real man. That’s not cool, and it can’t be good for anyone’s GPA.
Hell, there have been occasions when I’ve told a sexual partner that I wasn’t in the mood. Of course, as a guy who questions gender assumptions and thinks deeply about these issues and so on, I was totally cool with saying that to them.
Nah, just kidding. It was awful. It was wrenching. I literally spent a lot of time trying to think of any alternative or excuse I could offer other than “I’m not in the mood,” and when I did say it, I felt like a failure. It felt like an admission of something shameful. I very keenly felt the idea that I had failed as a man by having one evening where I wasn’t wildly horny. And that’s going into it knowing that this stuff is bullshit.
So that’s the situation with regard to high-libido folks: horny men and horny women have, in my experience, a lot in common in terms of desires and lifestyles. However, we both deal with the same cultural shit that damages and constrains us in different ways. Not trying to say those ways are perfectly symmetrical or equivalent, just that I’m as validated by the current system as anyone is likely to be, and I still get mindfucked by cultural expectations.
Of course, assumptions about male libido, as godawful as they are, pale in comparison to the incredibly creepy cultural ideas about female libido. One of the earliest known postclassical joke books is the 15th-centuryFacetiae of Poggio, in which we find the following anecdote, presented in the painfully stiff English translation:
A woman who was once asked by a man, why, if the pleasure of cohabitation was equal for both sexes, it was generally the men who pursued and importuned the women rather than vice-versa, replied:
“It is a very wise custom that compels the men to take the initiative. For it is certain that we women are always ready for sex; not so you men, however. And we should therefore be soliciting the men in vain, if they happened to be not in the proper condition for it.”
Somewhat later, in the first season of Curb Your Enthusiasm, we find this bit, described thus in the DVD package for those who don’t want to watch the video:
Larry is drifting off when Cheryl asks him, “Why am I the one that always has to initiate sex?” Larry explains that he’s always available, and all Cheryl has to do is tap him on the shoulder. Otherwise, he tells her, “I’ll just be mauling you all the time.”
In other words, it is the exact same joke, but the genders have been reversed. (Also, the original version had a perfectly good boner joke, but 21st-century assumptions are forced to omit it. This is not a net gain, from a comedy-writing standpoint.) What the hell happened between the 15th century and the 21st?
Okay, admittedly, several things happened. But the one we’re concerned with is that women’s libidos went from being considered as powerful or more so than men’s to being essentially erased. Pre-Renaissance examples of horny ladies abound, from the Greeks onward: make your own list, but do include Chaucer. He’s such fun. This change in attitudes appears to have been religiously motivated, and based on the idea that women are more spiritual and sacred than men, meaning “less horny.” Again, make your own list of contemporary leftovers of this attitude: there are plenty.
By the 18th century, it was taken as read that a woman who did experience (or at least express) sexual desire was suffering from a disorder. One important 1775 study of the subject linked the problem to “secret pollutions,” i.e. wanking, and (I swear I am not making this up) eating too much chocolate. I guess that’d go a ways toward explaining this advertisement. Women were diagnosed with, treated for, and often operated upon for “nymphomania,” the dread condition that causes a woman to want sex. (Talk to your doctor; you may suffer from it yourself!) And yes, by “operated upon”, I mean clitoridectomy. And yes, that’s fucking appalling.
Now, this is not an attempt to draw an equivalency, but I for one can’t help thinking of drapetomania, a disease discovered in the antebellum South which causes slaves to want to escape. It sounds like a tasteless joke now, but back then, it was the subject of serious research. In both cases, we’ve got authority telling people how they’re supposed to live, and then labeling any desire not to live that way as a mental illness. Again, not saying women’s libidos are the same issue as slavery, but there’s a structural analogy between the two “diseases.”
So yeah, this ugly idea that women are the gatekeepers of sex, doling it out carefully as a reward, the entire conception behind “sexual economy” nonsense and most misogynist conceptions of women: made up by the church 400 years ago. Total construction, and a relatively recent one at that. Commence dismantling all worldviews and Cosmopolitan articles predicated on it, please.
So, those are the two gross, ruinously fucked-up stereotypes we’ve got: men are expected to be constantly-horny fuckbeasts, and women are expected to not want sex all that much, but trade it for things they do want, like trinkets, cuddling, and babies. Both of these are wrong, but they remain insanely prevalent.
Take, for example, the “porn for women” joke done both by 30 Rock and the utterly godawful Porn For Womenseries of books, calendars, and assorted junk. The joke here is that women don’t want men to have sex with them, they want men to do housework, listen to their tedious female jabbering, and explicitly promise not to fuck them. So since women hate sex, porn for women should depict no sex whatsoever! Tee-hee!
In the real goddamn world, porn for women looks nothing like the joke. The two examples linked are all about images of hot men, but as the late, lamented On Our Backs demonstrated, lesbian porn for women is also hot and joyous. The disconnect between the joke and the reality is too wide to be funny.
We live in a world where yaoi manga sells too fast to be kept on the shelves, where slash fiction is one of the largest gift economies on earth, where romance novels comprise fifty percent of all paperback book sales, and we’re told women don’t like porn. Some of you may think romance novels aren’t porn. I suggest you read one. That’s how deeply invested our culture has become in the women-don’t-like-sex lie. We have to throw out basically all of the data to make that theory fit, so we blithely do just that.
This grotesque misrepresentation of women’s experience has, with the usual cruel duality of gender stereotypes, created a terrible problem for men. Because straight or bi men want to have sex with women. That’s… kind of the definition, really. We are told, however, that women don’t want sex. Thus, those of us who desire women must believe that we our desire is unwelcome, barely tolerated, and kind of gross. It’s like being biologically driven to fart in crowded elevators.
This, of course, feeds rape culture. Because after all, if there is no situation where any woman genuinely wantssex, then having sex with women who don’t want it… well, that’s just how it works, isn’t it? So if you have to trick her or get her insensibly drunk or lie to her or ignore all the times she says no… that’s basically how everyone does it, right? And there we start down the road of a lot of rape apologists, the “I’m entitled to sex, and women dole out sex as a rationed commodity, so if I rape a woman that’s basically like a starving man stealing bread” theory. I trust I don’t have to explain to anyone reading this how impossibly fucked up that line of thinking is. Short explanation: REALLY fucked up.
The other rape-apologist meme that arises out of this set of cultural assumptions is “Men always want sex, so they can’t help themselves.” Geez, your honor, she shouldn’t have tempted my urges like that. You shouldn’t dress that way because you know what men are like. If you dangle meat in front of the animal cage, don’t act surprised at what happens. You’ve heard these lines. They’re a perfect example of dual-direction ugliness, as they reduce men to animals and blame rape victims for the crimes committed against them. That’s horrible coming and going.
Male rape victims being mocked or disbelieved, or simply afraid to come forward? Arises from the same shit. Because after all, how could he say he didn’t want sex, when everyone knows all men constantly want sex? It’s on simply every sitcom! These poor guys may even tell themselves they must have wanted it, it couldn’t have been rape, because they’re normal healthy guys, right, so they couldn’t have not wanted sex. People will go a long way to rationalize something if it means finding a way to live with it.
The libido meme feeds the same culture from yet another angle too, with women who are afraid to give enthusiastic consent because they don’t want to be seen as one of those women, those rare freaks who really like to fuck, those awful sluts. Unable to ask for what they want or even admit how much they want it, they end up feeding the same kinds of thinking, the same stereotypes, the same ugly behaviors. Lacking the freedom to say yes, they lose the ability to say no, leading to a terrible and all-too-common outcome: a woman who wanted to fool around a bit with a guy, but didn’t want things to go as far as they did, and now she isn’t sure if it was wrong, because if she wanted something, she must have wanted everything, right? There’s no middle ground in the virgin/whore dichotomy.
High-libido women may not get caustic agents up their ladybusiness any more, as was a popular 19th-century treatment for “nymphomania”, but they still get slut-shamed for being on the wrong side of that same old dichotomy. Being told that only sluts and whores want what they want may lead them to decide “Okay, I’m a slutty whore” and behave according to what they think that means. This can lead to a lot of bad and painful choices, when thinking “I’m a woman who likes plenty of sex” might have led to some better ones.
Then, too, there are the low-libido fellas, the guys for whom fucking just isn’t that high a priority. They’re told that they don’t exist, that they’re not men, that their experience is either mythical or deeply wrong. A lot of these guys will try to have sex just to prove that they’re “normal,” and being driven by a desperate need to fit in, rather than by their own natural urges, may lead them to make bad choices. Maybe they’ll hurt themselves with those choices. Maybe they’ll hurt someone else. Maybe they won’t hurt anyone, just feel lonely and freakish and wrong their whole lives. None of these outcomes are okay.
The way we think about libido in our culture now is deeply broken. It involves denying the experience of damn near every person alive, everyone who doesn’t fit into a binary men-horny/women-not framework, and since human experience falls into a spectrum far more subtle and complex than that, that’s everyone. Feminism has made a good start on helping women embrace their sexuality in a healthy way, as some of our blog friends are living exemplars of, but that’s only a start. We have a lot of work yet to do.