sex

♀ Nine Parts

Photograph by  Asterio Tecson .

Photograph by Asterio Tecson.

Every February is Sex Month at my church. Scott Barger, my pastor preaches about sex every Sunday in February because—along with money, which he preaches about every January—sex both forms a core component of our existence and produces frequent strife in marriage. These series rarely fail to entertain and instruct, and this past Sunday (the first of the month) did not disappoint—except in one respect. I noticed throughout the sermon that Scott kept referencing stereotypes about women that erased their sexual desire from the picture.

You’ve probably heard the sort of thing I mean: “Men, I know you’re wondering if this means your wife has to have sex with you.” Or, conversely, “If a woman has to get sloppy drunk to want to hook up, sex must be more than just a fun activity.” These tropes are pretty common in our culture: men want to have sex much more frequently than women, and women never enjoy sex for the activity itself or the good physical sensations it produces. To be fair, I think Scott was just being a little mentally careless, making statements from his own perspective instead of a more universal one. Usually he is quite an egalitarian fellow; he has in the past asked women on stage to talk about female sexuality during Sex Month, and I’ve heard him say that in the majority of counseling sessions he’s had with married people the wife wants sex more frequently than the husband, not vice versa.

The notion dies hard in our culture, though, that women want intimacy as opposed to sex, that sex is something women “give up” in exchange for deeper relationship rather than something they participate in gladly, and that sex within marriage is a chore they grudgingly perform only when they must.

But the image of women as essentially asexual is actually a fairly new idea. In the Middle Ages, women were thought to be so overly sexual as to be virtually incapable of controlling themselves and to therefore require strict discipline in order protect society from the pernicious effects of their libidos. In contrast to the assumptions of today, when we consider men the oversexed ones who pressure and coerce women into premature sexual intimacy, the Church of the Dark Ages taught that men were holy and spiritual, while women were earthly and carnal. Men who wanted to live righteously had to guard against the lure of the vile temptress that was all womankind. Sound familiar, in a backward kind of way?

You can imagine how the story of The Fall, in Genesis 3, would inform this belief, casting the woman in the role of the weak-willed original sinner who then tempts the man into sinning along with her. Referencing the Creation/Fall Story has always worked to a nearly magical degree in persuading credulous laity with a flawed hermeneutic—or, as in the Dark Ages, a nonexistent hermeneutic—that a particular assertion must be true at a fundamental, unshakeable level. If it says so in Genesis 3, then women must at their core be hopelessly driven by their own sinful passions.[1]

The millenia-old but still-prevalent practice of female genital mutilation justifies itself with this same appeal to the essentially corrupting, uncontrollable female sexuality, carrying it even further by asserting that female sexual desire poses such a danger to society that it must be literally cut out of each individual woman. While some attribute the practice to Islam, in reality it not only reaches further back in history but runs counter to Mohammed’s actual teachings:

The journalist Geraldine Brooks points out in Nine Parts of Desire, her study of women in Islam, that “the lessening of women’s sexual pleasure directly contradicts the teaching of Mohammed.” Islam held, and still holds, according to Brooks, that “almighty God created sexual desires in ten parts; then he gave nine parts to women and one to men.” (Wolf, Naomi, Promiscuities. Random House, Inc., New York, New York, 1997, p. 189)

Of course, it’s easy to see how denying female sexual desire benefits patriarchal societies, possibly explaining the ascension of the phenomenon. To begin with, it reinforces the implicit or explicit concept of women as second-class humans, lacking one of the fundamental components of humanity. It also makes women passive, not active, removing their agency, which poses a terrible threat to patriarchy. The disparity between male and female sexual desire serves to excuse men’s sexual infidelity—since they possess such virtually undeniable sexual urges—while demonizing infidelity in women, who, lacking the excuse of overwhelming desire can thus be assumed to engage in adultery purely from faithlessness or a desire to cause grief to their husbands. Most importantly, acknowledging female desire opens the door for women to control their own sexuality, and women must be permitted no control over any aspect of their own beings if men are to continue as uncontested rulers.

In some ways, we are still shaking off the effects of the Victorian era, when the erasure of female sexual desire reached its zenith.[2] So subconsciously determined were medical professionals of the day to avoid any acknowledgement of female sexuality that they not only invented a medical condition—hysteria—to explain the symptoms of sexual deprivation but also performed what in hindsight was obviously doctor-prescribed and doctor-administered masturbation.[3] Not coincidentally, the sexual mores of the time waxed prudish beyond the dreams of all but the most conservative today, and as a result the United States in particular retains sexual ethics that blend prurience and shame to a bizarre and fascinating degree.

Last week I described how slut shaming condemns women for exhibiting nearly any amount of sexuality or sexual agency outside of marriage. I think this concept of women as asexual at least partially explains the origins and persistence of slut-shaming attitudes. Many of our current social scripts assume women’s sexual desire to be low or absent and cast women in a responsive, reactive role within sexual relationships. Consider, for example, how strongly the social convention of men as the initiators of romantic relationships lingers. We still view sexual roles through the lens of this erroneous belief, and we don’t know how to categorize a woman who subverts expectations by displaying control over her own sexuality without labeling her promiscuous.

Toward the end of his sermon on Sunday, Scott told the story of how he learned the term “walk of shame” in college. It naturally involved a woman, her hair and clothes in disarray, passing late at night by a group of men, who assumed that she had just come from a sexual assignation. I say “naturally” because you almost never hear this expression used about a man. Male sexual desire is seen as normal; female sexual desire, on the other hand, is aberrant, and therefore shameful. An unmarried woman who has had sex should feel ashamed because she has done what is unnatural to her—without the justification of obliging a husband who rightfully expects sexual satisfaction.

For the record, modern research continues to find more and more conclusively that women have plenty of sexual desire. Women want sex—not just for the warm fuzzy emotions involved, but for the actual experience itself. Why shouldn’t they? God created them from the same material as men, and breathed the same life into them. To return to one of Scott’s illustrations from Sunday, maybe the reason husbands proverbially experience so much difficulty arousing their wives has nothing to do with an absence of female desire. If wives see sex as a chore, maybe their husbands just aren’t doing it right.




  1. The modern reversal of this particular belief suggests strongly that we may want to loosen our grip on some of the other dogma whose best apology we find in references to the first few chapters of Genesis or appeals to “nature”.  ↩

  2. This is probably a good place to acknowledge how reductive and unsourced are the historical references in this post. I swear I’m not making any of this up, but I’m happy to be corrected if I’ve made any factual errors. Please contact me.  ↩

  3. The uncomfortable nature of this practice shortly led to the invention of the vibrator. No joke.  ↩

Pediatricians: Prescribe Emergency Contraception to Teens in Advance

The American Academy of Pediatrics has recommended that pediatricians begin prescribing Plan B ahead of time (where by “time” I mean “intercourse”) to women under 17, due to the difficulties teen girls often face in obtaining the drug:

A 2010 analysis of seven randomized studies of emergency contraception found that having a morning-after prescription in hand did not increase teens’ sexual activity or decrease use of standard contraceptives but did increase use of the pill and shorten the time before a teenager used it after sex.

I know I say this nearly every time I mention Plan B, but it does not cause abortions or prevent implantation.

Not the Best "Sexytime Talk"

I’ve written before about how Jezebel need to fire Karley Sciortino (“Slutever”), their new sex advice columnist. Look no further than her column from yesterday, in which she answers three reader questions and manages to say something anti-feminist in every single one. Content Warning: graphic and crude descriptions of sexual acts and offensive slurs.

"Selling Out on Contraception"

Libby Anne is pleased to discover that at least one element of the pro-life movement is pushing contraception as a means to decrease abortion:

What matters more, lowering the abortion rate even if that means encouraging contraceptive use among those who aren’t married, or ensuring that sex has consequences and is tied to procreation even if that in practice leads to a higher abortion rate? The pro-life movement establishment, partly because of Catholic influence, has long eschewed the former position and embraced the later. But as more people take seriously the rhetoric about “saving babies,” there may be a shift as more groups and individuals move toward the former position and reject the latter.

I’ve long agreed with the position Libby Anne ascribes to her husband Sean: that the pro-life movement is no longer really about controlling women’s bodies but about saving “people”. When this is unclear, I think it is for two reasons:

  1. As Sean contends, the movement simply hasn’t shaken off its old practices and rhetoric, so it frequently does and says patriarchal things out of habit.
  2. As I’ve said when discussing a different issue, people are not always completely logical, and logical people tend to forget this when they examine the beliefs and practices of others. The actions of the pro-life movement, partly for the above reason, don’t always jibe with their stated goals.

So when Libby Anne says:

If the pro-life movement’s goal is to reduce the abortion rate they should be focusing on things like contraception and a social safety net that makes raising children more affordable. When they instead focus only on overturning Roe and banning abortion—the goal of all of the major pro-life organizations—one begins to wonder if the goal really is to save “unborn babies” from being “murdered” as is claimed.

I think she is giving the movement too much credit for logical consistency.

Undeniably, though, the pro-life movement desperately needs to move past caring whether unmarried people have sex and care instead about the best proven method for decreasing the abortion rate: contraception.

If you consider yourself pro-life you really should be reading all of Libby Anne’s posts on the subject, if only to keep yourself intellectually honest.

Female "Viagra" Enters Clinical Trials

Called Tefina, it’s a testosterone gel that is sprayed up the nose about an hour before a sexual encounter (how romantic). The developers say the drug could boost female sexual arousal and satisfaction.

Worth reading just for the discussion of gender politics.

Good News: Vaccinating Your Daugher Against HPV Will Not Make Her a Slut

A recent study shows that giving girls the vaccine does not increase their likelihood of having sex:

Unlike previous studies that have largely relied on self-reported sexual activity, the new study measured clinical signs of sexual activity over several years, like whether the girls had been tested for a sexually transmitted infection, received contraceptive counseling or become pregnant.

“What we’ve done here is take a more objective approach and use clinical data to look at outcomes that are related to sexual activity and compare them,” Bednarczyk said.

This fuels my skepticism regarding the efficacy of scaring teens into celibacy.

OH JEZEBEL NO

Content Warning: Graphic Descriptions and Discussion of Sexual Activities

I’m posting this mostly in the interest of fairness, because earlier this week I wrote a very critical piece about The Good Men Project in which I asserted that the site as a whole is doing a poor job living up to its own ideals with regard to engaging women and feminists in ways that won’t offend them.

One of The Good Men Project’s resident feminists, Ozy Frantz, calls out Jezebel for posting a piece of rape advocacy in the form of advice on getting a man to agree to anal penetration. I won’t quote from the Jezebel piece; those who feel they can stomach it can read it for themselves. I will point out, though, that it is by a guest writer, Karley Sciortino, who goes by the handle Slutever, and it is the first of a new sex column.

I say it should be the last. In the above-referenced post, regarding the writer of the rape pornography The Good Men Project published, I wrote:

Even if Bjorklund was certain to produce nothing but woman-friendly content from now on, posting rape pornography is the kind of mistake that should disqualify you from a second chance.

I’m going to make the same call about rape advocacy. Jezebel should find someone else to write their sex column.

Sex, Women, and “Giving”

Libby Anne performs a smart analysis of a conservative Christian infographic titled “Why Wives Need to Give Their Husbands More Sex”. The whole concept stinks of the now-disproven-but-still-won’t-die denialism of the female sex drive and the only slightly less sexist belief that men are somehow helpless to control their own libido.

One little bit I think Libby Anne missed: the bar graph labeled “A Neglected Sex Life Spells Trouble” tries to create an impression of correlation between sex-deprivation and other kinds of marital trouble by simply putting them next to each other on a chart. Sadly, I know there are people who fall for that sort of thing.

The Sex Funnel

Dan Griffin addresses the conflation of sex and intimacy communicated to men in our culture:

If you are a heterosexual man, how many times have you felt close to another man and held back from expressing those feelings? Said differently, how many men feel attraction to or affection for a man and recoil or instinctively distance themselves, if only momentarily, from the man because they are not able to separate the feeling of affection or closeness from sex.

I could do without the stereotyping of male and female attitudes toward sex and love in the first paragraph, but it’s hard to deny that American males typically inherit a stunted concept of intimacy.

Via The Good Men Project.

Domestic Labor Gender Gap

Sarah Innis of xoJane responds to research suggesting that women find men more sexually attractive when the men do housework:

I know that while my partner wants to live in a clean house, he doesn’t actually want to do the cleaning. I cannot bear to ask him to do chores because, in my experience, a) it sounds like nagging b) it still won’t get done until he is good and ready, which inevitably is long past the time when I am good and ready to see the job completed and c) refer back to “a.”

I remember the pastor who did our premarital counseling telling us we should compete to see which of us could outserve the other.