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When Women Wanted Sex Much More Than Men

And how the stereotype flipped.

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Womens’ supposed greater sex drive was an argument for their inferiority, but once the assumption became reversed, no one argued that mens’ lustfulness was a sign of a fundamental irrationality that should preclude them from business and politics. Rather than a handicap, a large sexual appetite was positive once it came to be seen as a characteristic of men. Women, being passionless, supposedly lacked the drive and ambition to succeed. Much like sex, the public realm of work was dirty and distasteful, hardly suitable to womens’ delicate sensibilities. Since their instincts were maternal rather than sexual, they were best suited to staying virtuously at home with the children. Black women and poor women, on the other hand, were firmly shut out from the dainty flower role. They were still seen as suitable for both work and for satisfying white mens’ sexual urges that were no longer appropriate for their wives.

But perhaps the longest-lasting consequence of the rise of the passionless woman was the ushering in of a sneakier type of sexism--whose evidence we see in any number of fast-food and beer commercials that portray men as a bunch of dim-witted five-year-olds in the bodies of adults. Women are smarter, more responsible, more caring and upstanding; not like men, whose instincts are base and appetites carnal. Since men are utterly unfit for helping to raise their own children (as they are little more than children themselves), that job must fall to women. Since men are too incompetent to do housework, their stolid, levelheaded wives must do it. Since men are unable to restrain themselves, women must keep their skirts long, stay away from alcohol, refrain from flirting. For women, the failure to have appeared passionless enough means that they are now the ones responsible if they are raped. “The purity of women is the everlasting barrier against which the tides of man’s sensual nature surge,” as one nineteenth-century reformer put it, and this attitude still persists today.

Even when gender roles change, sexism has a remarkable ability to adapt--and historical amnesia enables this ability. The association of men with lust is as much an artifact of recent times as the association of girls with pink and boys with blue (less than 100 years ago, this system of gendered color-coding  was also reversed). Yet even with all this switching-around, some things have stayed suspiciously the same. When women were sexual, their proper place was in the home as caregivers and mothers. When women became passionless, their proper place was still in the home as caregivers and mothers. Isn’t it funny how that works? Gender roles gain their power from the fact that they appear natural and eternal. By looking to the past, we can draw aside this veil and see these categories for what they are--made by people, and able to be changed by people.

Alyssa Goldstein is a contributing writer at Jewish Currents magazine and an intern at Verso Books. She can be reached at

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