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When Women Wanted Sex Much More Than Men

And how the stereotype flipped.
 
 
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In the 1600s, a man named James Mattock was expelled from the First Church of Boston. His crime? It wasn’t using lewd language or smiling on the sabbath or anything else that we might think the Puritans had disapproved of. Rather, James Mattock had refused to have sex with his wife for two years. Though Mattock’s community clearly saw his self-deprivation as improper, it is quite possible that they had his wife’s suffering in mind when they decided to shun him. The Puritans believed that sexual desire was a normal and natural part of human life for both men and women (as long as it was heterosexual and confined to marriage), but that women wanted and needed sex more than men. A man could choose to give up sex with relatively little trouble, but for a woman to be so deprived would be much more difficult for her.

Yet today, the idea that men are more interested in sex than women is so pervasive that it seems almost unremarkable. Whether it’s because of hormone levels or “human nature,” men just need to have sex, masturbate, and look at porn in a way that simply isn’t necessary for women, according to popular assumptions (and if a women does find it so necessary, there’s probably something wrong with her). Women must be convinced, persuaded, even forced into “giving it up,” because the prospect of sex just isn’t that appealing on its own, say popular stereotypes. Sex for women is usually a somewhat distasteful but necessary act that must be performed to win approval, financial support, or to maintain a stable relationship. And since women are not slaves to their desires like men, they are responsible for ensuring that they aren’t “taken advantage of.”

The idea that men are naturally more interested in sex than women is ubiquitous that it’s difficult to imagine that people ever believed differently. And yet for most of Western history, from ancient Greece to beginning of the nineteenth century, women were assumed to be the sex-crazed porn fiends of their day. In one  ancient Greek myth, Zeus and Hera argue about whether men or women enjoy sex more. They ask the prophet Tiresias, whom Hera had once transformed into a woman, to settle the debate. He answers, “if sexual pleasure were divided into ten parts, only one part would go to the man, and and nine parts to the woman.” Later, women were considered to be temptresses who inherited their treachery from Eve. Their sexual passion was seen as a sign of their inferior morality, reason and intellect, and justified tight control by husbands and fathers. Men, who were not so consumed with lust and who had superior abilities of self-control, were the gender more naturally suited to holding positions of power and influence.

Early twentieth-century physician and psychologist Havelock Ellis may have been the first to document the ideological change that had recently taken place. In his 1903 work  Studies in the Psychology of Sex, he cites a laundry list of ancient and modern historical sources ranging from Europe to Greece, the Middle East to China, all of nearly the same mind about women’s greater sexual desire. In the 1600s, for instance, Francisco Plazzonus deduced that childbirth would hardly be worthwhile for women if the pleasure they derived from sex was not far greater than that of men’s. Montaigne, Ellis notes, considered women to be “incomparably more apt and more ardent in love than men are, and that in this matter they always know far more than men can teach them, for ‘it is a discipline that is born in their veins.’” The idea of women’s passionlessness had not yet fully taken hold in Ellis’ own time, either. Ellis’ contemporary, the Austrian gynecologist Enoch Heinrich Kisch, went so far as to state that “The sexual impulse is so powerful in women that at certain periods of life its primitive force dominates her whole nature.”

 
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