Friday, January 13, 2006

I want to want what she's having

Today's New York Times has an article about the expanding culture of middle- and old-aged female sexuality. I've read several articles like this, and they always bring up mixed emotions for me, probably all amplified by the general fear of aging anyone has. The articles tend to have the same sort of arc: old and oldish women still like having sex and they're talking about liking it, some people think old ladies are too gross or fragile for sex, and some of these people who think this are old ladies.

Whenever female libido is discussed, there tend to emerge two opposing camps: those who believe women do not naturally (I'll get to how troublesome this word is later) like to have a lot of sex, and those who believe that women naturally want to be having sex constantly. I'll call these parties the prudes and the pro-sex feminists, respectively. While I know for a fact that there are women who like sex and women who do not, what I find most troublesome about the arguments is that male sexuality - or at least what is assumed to be true about male sexuality is the given ideal. People don't argue about how much sex women want, they argue about how much more or less sex women want than men do. And, while it would be convenient for men and women to have perfectly equal libidos, I see two problems with this approach.

First of all, people of the same gender do not share all the same characteristics. One woman's libido will differ from another's.

Secondly, I have to question why women have to catch up to (or slow down to, depending on who you talk to) the libidos of men. This is exactly the problem explored in my hands-down favorite feminist book The Mismeasure of Woman: Why women are not the better sex, the inferior sex or the opposite sex. This is yet another example of the "Men are normal, women are deficient," assumption that has proven a huge stumbling block for feminists. When it's put in these terms, it becomes obvious that women don't need to change to be more like men, but that men and women need to be able to accomodate each other in the way that is the most comfortable for both sexes.

Women have been engineering their biology for years so that they will fit more comfortably into a patriarchal society. What I'm talking about here is birth control, and I'm not trying to knock it. In fact, I think birth control is the greatest recreational drug there is. It's been a great tool for throwing off male control of female sexuality and female life in general. Still, men don't have to be certain to take a tiny pill every day to keep their grip on their lives and careers and sexualities. I don't believe that birth control is necessary in any absolute sense for achieving equality between the sexes, but I do think getting to where we are today would have been a much, much, much harder and longer battle than it was with the advent of reliable, female-controlled contraception.

I recently read a very depressing letter in Ann Landers (or whoever it is that's writing that column now) where a post-menopausal woman was asking what she could do to liven her libido and please her husband. Advice was written in that said that it was absolutely a wife's responsibility to recover her libido, should it dip due to menopause, and that medical and psychological solutions x y and z should be sought. One letter, however, suggested the possibility of libido-dampening drugs for her husband.

Initially, the idea seemed crazy to me, but I've come around to it a bit after some time. I read so many magazine articles and advice columns about what women need to do to have more orgasms or want more sex, and I find them very depressing. Even worse are the letters to advice columns where women say that what they're doing to achieve more orgasms feels like work, or that they try to masturbate and still don't like it. The worst part is that the advice is always to see a doctor or a psychiatrist.

My advice? If you don't like it, don't do it. You don't have a desire for more than one orgasm per week? Don't bother. You are the only person who feels your orgasms. They are your own and if you suspect or feel they're not worth it, they're not. I realize that there are many women who have not explored the potential of their sexuality, and could use a little encouragement. On the other hand, to a woman who is not certain of her capability to even have an orgasm, writing about hypersexual, multiple-orgasmic women is not encouraging, it's downright intimidating.

Sex is fantastic, but it is not all there is. I don't doubt for a second that there are women to whom menopause does irrepairable damage to thier libidos. I have no idea of knowing how many women this includes, but that's not the point. There are any number of things that can screw up a person's sex life, even if menopause is not a culprit, and because of this, putting too much stock into the idea of sex as the key to happiness is a dangerous thing. As it says in the NYT article:
"Sex's importance is constructed," said Lenonore Tiefer, a professor of psychiatry at the New York University School of Medicine. "It can be very important or not so important. The trouble for me is when the answer for that is uniform. That's an oppressive message."

For women to take possession of their sexual pleasure is a beautiful thing. But pro-sex feminism relies too much on it being a reliable way to empower women. Even if a woman has an orgasm at the drop of the hat, she still gets paid 75 cents to the dollar that a man makes. Let's not mistake female sexual pleasure - something which is often commodified anyway - for female equality or female happiness. Eventually, it ends up feeling more like and orgasm contest than the pursuit of one's happiness. And most of all, let's not make the mistake of using men as the yardstick by which we measure female behavior. Empowering women to take hold of their sexuality means women taking hold of it on their own terms.

UPDATE: I have a critic or two. And a response.

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