Sex & Relationships

If Women Do Have Lower Libidos, It Would Make Sense

The word slut describes women, not men. We still live in a world where Good Girls Don't. No wonder many women have trouble being sexual.

Another Valentine's Day, another round of features on sex and love, and another bout of studiously ignoring the role sexism might play in diminishing women's sexual desire. Consumer Reports published a sex poll, and once again women's on-average lower sexual desire is treated as an unfortunate but largely inexplicable phenomenon.  In this, they stuck to the mainstream media trend of talking about women's desire -- the lack of it, really -- without addressing any social causes for why that might occur.  Most media outlets treat women's desire as a free-standing, unchangeable misfortune brought on by fate or biology, but certainly not worth exploring in depth.   

Journalists refuse to explore polling data demonstrating a reported gap in men and women's sexual desires for the same reason people refuse to really tackle the issue in their own relationships. Even in the polling data citing the top six reasons people don't feel desire, two of the reasons given, constituting 59% of respondents, were just a restatement of the problem, and not really a reason.  (Forty percent of respondents said they just weren't in the mood, and 19% were too busy watching TV, which is a polite way of saying they aren't in the mood, since people in the mood use Tivo.)  But really addressing the reason men and women feel this gap in desire means asking hard questions about how our society treats men and women differently, and doing that means signing up for defensive responses.  No wonder journalists writing pieces on the issue avoid the question strenuously. 

The New York Times Magazine recently devoted a lengthy feature story to the "mystery" of what women want, a feature that at least took the step forward of involving women in the answer to the question, when tradition dictates that men ask each other this question and continue to be baffled that they can't come up with the answer.  ("Mad Men" took on the issue humorously, portraying a roomful of bright men who can't figure out how to find out what women want, with not a single one coming up with, "Let's ask them," as a solution.)  But despite going on for several pages on the issue, Daniel Bergner managed to avoid even entertaining the notion the our sexist society turns women off, preferring instead to dwell on portraying women as inherently perverse, narcissistic, and even masochistic.  After all, the weirder women seem, the easier it is to shrug off the responsibility of really understanding women, since it seems like an impossible task. 

Ignoring the differences in how men and women's sexualities are regarded in our society is an interesting omission, considering how obvious and pervasive these differences are.  And by "interesting," I mean, "somewhere between annoying and offensive."  The double standard between straight men and women hasn't gone anywhere, but in fact has barely been eroded by an intensive, multi-decade onslaught from feminists.  It's still women who are instructed to worry about their "number" being too high.  It's still women who have to hear that having prior sexual experience makes us legitimate targets to rape.  The words "whore" and "slut" describe women, not men.  Sexual mores have loosened somewhat, but we still live in a world where Good Girls Don't.   

To add to it, sexual desire in our culture is almost solely contextualized as something straight males have and not anyone else.  Images of nubile (presumably straight) women with no clothes on still signify "sex" in our culture.  Half-dressed women greet straight men everywhere they turn with beckoning smiles and lidded eyes, titillating men and inspiring men to think about sex constantly.  Straight women don't get near the provocation on a daily basis -- is it any wonder that 60% of the men who answered the Consumer Reports survey thought about sex once a day, but only 19% of women? 

Add to that the well-known housework and child care gap.  A recent Parenting Magazine survey found a lot of women suffer a great deal of resentment towards their male partners, who they view as refusing to take on their fair share of child care and housework responsibilities.  Add it all together -- the stigma against desire, the overwork, the feeling of being underappreciated, and the lack of provocation -- and the mystery is not that women watch their libidos sink under the waters, but why anyone wants to chalk this up to inherent biological sex differences first. 

Not that having a low libido necessarily means trouble for the woman supposedly suffering from it. Only 12% of the women diagnosed with sexual dysfunction like low libido were bothered by it, which makes you wonder how they were defined as having a problem in the first place.  (Short answer: because men decide what's a problem in our culture.)  This study surprised a lot of people, but it shouldn't have.  When you live in a culture where Good Girls Don't, sexual desire is rarely experienced as an unalloyed good, but often brings fears of moral turpitude for women, and they may feel relieved to have desire abate.  That, and less sex, means more time for housework and paid employment, not insignificant issues in our economic times.  Considering how many women suffer body image issues, too, it's probably a relief not to feel like you have to get naked and expose yourself to judgment for many women.   

It's an indicator of how male-dominated our society is that the fact that women have diminishing libidos and don't seem to care that much about it is treated as the problem, when in fact it's merely the symptom of a larger problem -- that women feel overworked, underpaid, underappreciated, understimulated, and shamed about their bodies.  If we treated the actual problems that women face, higher libidos would be the happy result, I'm sure.  But in order to do that, we'd have to treat male domination like a problem to be solved, and since few people really want to do that, instead we're left with articles that note women's lack of libido, but carefully resist asking why.

Amanda Marcotte co-writes the popular blog Pandagon. She is the author of It's a Jungle Out There: The Feminist Survival Guide to Politically Inhospitable Environments.
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