I need to warn you that there is going to be a little language in this post and if that’s off-putting you can just skip it and join me in rolling your eyes as the language is not just because I’m discussing an article on sex in marriage, its also because I will be swearing at its author, sex therapist and obsessive male apologist Bettina Arndt.
Fuck you, Bettina Arndt. That feels better, so now the article, which is Happily Married Sex from a current copy of The Bulletin, see here. The premise of the article is that Arndt believes there is a sex crisis going on in marriages because women got a little too uppity during the womens’ movement and now they are refusing to put out for their poor husbands unless they themselves feel like having sex. The nerve of some wives.
Reading the article you’re supposed to join her and a bunch of who knows how many silly old buggers in mourning the dawn of enlightenment when the women’s movement allowed us to recognise that women have the right to only have sex willingly (gasp!). In fact I’d go further and remind the old farts that to force your wife to have sex unwillingly is rape and hasn’t that little legal landmark killed the fun of marriage.
Sex in marriage isn’t what it used to be. Gone are the days when sex was simply part of women’s wifely duties. Now most men find themselves on the back foot, feeling very much at the mercy of women’s whim. And that makes for lean pickings given the large numbers of women who go off sex.
There seems to be a universal epidemic of women not wanting to have sex. Or at least not wanting as much sex as their partners.
Yes, marriages were much better in the good old days when women were at the mercy of men’s whims for sex and whatever he demanded of her she had to provide. How restrictive that you’re only supposed to have sex these days with someone who wants to have sex with you. And I’m not sure what the numbers in this universal epidemic are because Arndt is too busy relying on anecdotal evidence to provide any data but I can reveal to you that Arndt is watching a bit of daytime TV because her sources include a guest on Oprah. Might I match her with some anecdotal data of my own and say that I don’t hear of women being turned off sex in their droves from the people in my life, including the women I know in my mother’s generation. In fact maybe men aren’t raving beasts of uncontrollable libido – maybe both men and women are complicated beings with varying libidos and different approaches to sex across the course of their lives.
Speaking of that old stereotype about men wanting sex all the time and women wanting hearts and flowers instead, Arndt also uses some tired old theories about sex and hormones, as in, its all in the hormones. Men have more testosterone on average than women and because testosterone is all there is to libido all men have higher libidos and poor things can’t help that and therefore women have to have sex more often that they’d like to fulfill the biologically-driven needs (not wants) of men. Sadly Arndt’s conversation with Susan Davis (Monash University’s professor of women’s health and a world leader in the study of hormones affecting female drive) doesn’t support this theory. Golly gosh, Davis has found that there’s a huge variation in libido in both genders and very little of it is due to hormones.
Never mind the scientific experts, Arndt has an anecdote to support her theory that men are super-charged sex machines and women are quivvering, virginal types.
Amy continues: “Even if I refused him, I’d be so upset that I’d lie awake at night thinking, ‘Why did I say no?’ I might as well have let him have it because the next day he’d be so grumpy.” “That’s right,” Jim acknowledges ruefully, “I was a great sulker.” Even on days he didn’t approach her, Amy says she was nervous. “He’d be snoring loudly and I’d still lie there worrying that the hand was going to come creeping over.”It’s now almost 30 years since Amy lay rigid in bed, dreading the creeping hand.
Is that lying rigid or frigid in bed? Something about this story sounds so familiar. This anecdote has the ring of days gone by when bad sex lives were assumed to be a result of the wife’s sexual dysfunction. Oh hark the frigid woman who recoils from normal marital gestures! Its hard to imagine why Amy doesn’t feel all sexed up by this emotionally manipulative seduction routine because as Arndt sees it, women should be thankful that men are pestering them for sex and are not repulsed by their undesirable ageing body. And if thought processes like this don’t put you in the mood then you’re clearly frigid.
How reassuring that, despite the sags and bulges of a less-than-perfect body, you are still wanted.
Now that we’re quite sure that the problem in this marriage is Amy’s frigid state we can explore what leads women like Amy to become so frigid. You might guess it was the way sex in Amy’s marriage has become so tied up with obligation and her husband’s and not her own needs? No, its the feminists of course.
But there was another huge stumbling block – in Amy’s head. This was the 1970s, a time when women’s sexual rights had become a rallying cry.
Women were to reclaim their bodies for their own pleasure and that meant having sex only when they felt like it. Female desire must come first, pronounced the famous sex researchers Masters and Johnson.
The recognition that women should only have sex when they want to isn’t prioritising female desire over male desire, its valuing women’s and men’s desire equally. Is it just because it is more difficult to force an unaroused man into heterosexual sex that we don’t bother to entertain the idea that men should have to have sex for the sake of a wife’s higher libido or is it because we don’t in fact prioritise female desire over male desire, far from it? Arndt’s got it nailed, in her simplified world men always have strong libidos and the simple solution to any libido mismatches is that women should always accomodate them.
She’d got it all wrong, Amy now realises. As we all have had it wrong. The assumption that women need to want sex to enjoy it has been a really damaging idea that has wreaked havoc in relationships for the past 40 years.
Yeah, that’s the problem with sex today – women think they should have the same right as men to choose when they want to have sex. Because imagine the compromise involved in considering just one partner’s willingness to have sex and then multiply that by two. Oh the hardship. Now you’ve got a whole lot of concessions and negotiations going on, and you know what that’s called, that’s called a fucking relationship. It can be complicated, it involves some give and take, you might not get to have sex as much as you’d like, but you know what the pay-off is – you get to have sex with someone willingly, you get to have sex with someone who isn’t freaked out about your hand touching them!
Bettina Arndt says in big letters that she has “new research (which) suggests a provocative solution” to the so-called marriage crisis epidemic but what she actually provides is a run-of-the-mill bit of couple negotiation underpinned by a disturbing and destructive rape logic. So here it is.
You know when one of you isn’t seriously in the mood for sex but the other is and the one that isn’t particularly in the mood thinks they might be once you both got going on it? That’s Arndt’s break-through. The fact that it is possible for women (and men, but Arntd thinks men’s libido never wanes) to achieve an orgasm during sex on those occasions is her evidence that women should put out when their partners want sex whether they like it or not. When she says no it really means yes. It seems to escape Arndt that if you have a good sex life, one based equally around both your libidos that you might be more amenable to trying your luck with your own desire when you’re not raring to go and more likely to end up enjoying it. In fact, equal respect for both partners’ libidos is essential for ‘trying your luck’ and without that trust its a dangerous proposition. Arndt also quotes from a survey showing that a majority of women sometimes have sex when they’re not in the mood (half of them believe they will be once they get started), so I ask you just how helpful is her breakthrough marital advice going to be for women who, duh, already do this?
Arndt appreciates the insights of another sex therapist, Michele Weiner-Davis who I’d discount just for her “what kind of vegetable are you” approach but anyway…
Weiner-Davis poses the revolutionary idea that there’s no point worrying about the reasons why women aren’t interested in sex – there’ll always be plenty of them: squalling infants, stress, tiredness, irritation that he won’t help with the housework.
So the logic goes, don’t worry about why women aren’t interested in sex anymore, just pressure them into it by threatening the future happiness of their families and pretty soon their libido will be bouncing right back. Melbourne University’s Professor Lorraine Dennerstein believes there is “no evidence that frequent sexual activity improves a low libido” but don’t let that get in the way. Amy’s been cured of her frigidity, don’t get the wrong impression though, she doesn’t mention loving sex, but she’s putting out and keeping her husband happy, and that is the measure of a successful marriage, right? Now she’s counselling other women at her church and advising them to do the same. You can’t expect love, intimacy, and closeness without giving sex to your husband, that’s her informed advice. You wouldn’t expect feminism to have done its nasty deeds on all the women of the church too would you, but these women think trading sex for affection with your husband is like prostitution. Yeah, trading sex for something is like prostitution, they’re craaaaazy. Bless ‘em.
If feminism can taint those lovely church women imagine what its effect has been on households everywhere? Arndt appreciates the thoughts of writer Caitlyn Flanagan.
Flanagan points out this has made life very difficult for the poor married man hoping for a bit of comfort from the wife at the day’s end. “He must somehow seduce a woman who is economically independent of him, bone-tired, philosophically disinclined to have sex unless she is jolly well in the mood, numbingly familiar with his every sexual manoeuvre and still doing a slow burn over his failure to wipe down the worktops and fold the tea-towel after cooking the children’s dinner. He can hardly be blamed for opting instead to check his emails, catch a few minutes of sport on television and call it a night.”
Why must he somehow seduce this woman? Because he feels like sex. So Arndt, he wants to have sex and it is too much to ask of him that he put some effort into engaging with his partner to see if she’d be up for some? When I feel like sex I have to consider my partner and his desires and willingness, that doesn’t feel so onerous. But wait, this husband has it harder than me, he has to attempt not to be boring in bed (if its not too much to ask) and he has to try and cope with his wife’s financial equality. Oh, the hardships. That’s not all, this harpy has him cooking dinner for his own kids and she expects him to not be leaving the kitchen in a big fucking mess afterwards. Oh my god, this is too much, no-one can possibly sustain an erection with those extraordinary demands. This would be super human.
And yet, Arndt argues that women’s libido is a fickle, difficult, easily distracted drive whereas men’s is “resilient, urgent and less dependent on the right conditions”. Well, well, well. I’m wondering if maybe, just maybe, men and women are both complicated beings, not hormonally-driven sex maniacs or hormonally-starved frigid freaks. If that’s the case, it might be worth worrying about the reasons why some women and men aren’t interested in sex anymore (thank you very much Weiner-Davis), especially if its your partner. More than likely, if you could tackle those reasons you might have a happier, more fulfilling, equal relationship with your partner and that relationship is more likely to include good sex. The answer to better sex and happier marriages doesn’t lie with women submitting to sex that they don’t want. We’ve had hundreds of years of that marital idea and it didn’t boast the happiest marriages.
Arndt, you’re so preoccupied with men’s desire but maybe if you valued women’s desire as much you’d find there were even some benefits for those poor married men. The women who aren’t continually analysing and criticizing their bodies, do you think they’re more or less liberated and uninhibited during sex? The women, who with their partners think an everyday, average, run-of-the-mill female body is attractive, do you think they enjoy their bodies more, and do you think that might mean they’re more likely to get more enjoyment from sex too? The women who believe their sexual desire and libido is as important as their partner’s, do you think they might be more comfortable in their sex life? That’s called feminism. So Arndt, consider this. Feminists have better sex.
To the husbands referred to in Arndt’s article, here’s some free sex advice. No-one owes you a fuck; married, partnered, or single, theres not a guarantee in life that your sex quota will be filled. Sex is a participatory act, it is not something that you do to someone else or that someone lies there and tolerates from you, and would you even want it to be? If you want to get off but you don’t care about someone else’s participation, that’s called masturbation, not sex. And masturbation is the answer to those times when you want sex and she doesn’t. If that gets boring then buy yourself a bag of sex toys and work on your imagination. But hear this – Do Not Bully Or Guilt Or Coerce Someone Into Having Sex With You.
Incidentally, Ardnt is seeking more subjects for her sex study.