Culture / Essays

Great Sexpectations

IMG_0472What’s the most frustrating thing about preconceived ideas? They’re usually wrong. And damaging.

Case in point – the way society catergorises and limits the sexuality of women, a stereotyping exercise that’s centuries old, and unendingly frustrating.

A few months ago, a gay man, a lesbian and a straight woman had a drink at a bar (although, this could have been any Friday night for me). After a few drinks the conversation inevitably turned to sex, and how often we’d preferably like to engage in it.

Why, you may ask, is the sexuality or even the sex of the people in this conversation relevant? Because what comes of the discussion is that our libidos are pretty similar. Man, woman, straight, gay, in a relationship or not – we all have similar “sexpectations”.

And that, we’ve been led to believe through years of socialisation, makes us weird.  Because we’ve all been told men want sex more often than women (and gay men are at it like rabbits, to drop in another stereotype).

My friends seem to be thinking about sex a lot more than they used to – or, maybe, we’ve just gotten to the age where we care less about hiding our opinions on it.  Either way, we’re certainly pretty open now to talking about it.  Which means it’s easier to measure our expectations and experiences against the real lives of the people we know.

What comes up for me all the time in these conversations is how different life is to what we were taught as teenagers to expect. The Friday night banter came about because we were discussing Bettina Arndt (I know, we’re a riot). Arndt’s common refrain is that women need to stop selfishly denying men sex, and put out when men want it.

The tone of much of Arndt’s work is characterised by this critique of women. Women are fussy. Women emasculate men by wearing “provocative” clothing and then not letting men have sex with them. Women are the problem.

After I got home that night, I settled in to bed with Hilary Mantel’s Bring up the Bodies, the sequel to her Booker-prize-winning fictional account of Thomas Cromwell: Wolf Hall.  Arndt and her message about sex kept flitting through my mind as I read. I don’t think it spoils Mantel’s work to say Bring up the Bodies is a fictionalised account of the period of Henry VIII’s reign when Anne Boleyn was queen, through the eyes of Cromwell.

Women were low on power in 16th century England, and their main currency – in both fiction and reality – was their allure. They were property, bartered and sold. Largely, they didn’t get to chose who they had sex with, when, or how. Little wonder then that many of the women in Mantel’s narrative show scant interest in the activity, with their husbands or anyone.

If women can’t chose who they are having sex with how can they be expected to enjoy it? Why would they want to? And why should they have to?

Desire is fundamental to sex. That’s why women are constantly objectified in the media – because their currency in our society for so long has been their desirability.

Was there ever a man who exemplified this better than Henry VIII? Obese, gout-ridden, bloodthirsty Henry, who threw one wife over for another four times (Seymour, his third, died in childbirth, Catherine Parr, his last, outlived him) and created a new church to accommodate his desires.

How awful, I think, curled up with Mantel’s glorious portrait, to lose control of your own body, and have no say in who will have it.

And so I think some more on it. About how mine is one of the first generations of Australian women who have truly controlled their sexual power and exercised it as they see fit. No wonder I have a hard time finding a contemporary who fits the stereotype of a woman perpetuated over and over again by Arndt: don’t enjoy sex, don’t want to have sex.

Our economic freedom, won by our mothers and grandmothers, allows us to reject notions of marriage based on security and financial dependence. Our high rates of education have allowed us to enter the workforce in larger numbers than ever before. Our right to bodily autonomy is theoretically unassailable.

We are not afraid to say we like sex; that we like having sex – because now we get to choose who we’re having it with. Men have been doing that for centuries. No wonder they are happy to be seen to enjoy it.

It is impossible to talk about this without raising Sandra Fluke, the American college student who in February 2012 was vilified by shock jock Rush Limbaugh after she appeared before a House Democratic Steering and Policy Committee saying university health cover should also cover birth control.

“What does it say about the college co-ed [Sandra] Fluke, who goes before a congressional committee and essentially says that she must be paid to have sex, what does that make her? It makes her a slut, right? It makes her a prostitute. She wants to be paid to have sex,” Limbaugh said.

“She’s having so much sex she can’t afford the contraception. She wants you and me and the taxpayers to pay her to have sex. What does that make us? We’re the pimps… The johns? We would be the johns? No! We’re not the johns… Yeah, that’s right. Pimp’s not the right word. Okay, so she’s not a slut. She’s “round heeled”. I take it back.”

I didn’t get that round-heeled business, so I looked it up. The Oxford English Dictionary says it means: “a woman: sexually promiscuous; giving in easily to demands for sexual intercourse”. The way Bettina Arndt complains about women, I would have thought this was a compliment.

But it’s not of course. We all know women shouldn’t want to have sex. Unless it’s with the man who they’re married to, and even then, that man should expect their wife to turn them down.

Women who exercise sexual power, or even express a preference for sex, are punished because they threaten a status quo that allows men to be the active participants in sexual exchanges.

A woman who likes sex – as Anne Boleyn was rumoured to – must be a “slut”. “Off with her head”: and so off it comes.

Arndt speaks for a cohort of people who live unhappy lives mired in the reality of a passionless existence. You don’t need to be a man to feel sexually rejected, but Arndt – almost a decade older than my mother and of a very different time – doesn’t seem to get it.

Rachel Hills is writing a book about Generation Y and sexuality. I went to university with Hills, and we sometimes chat over the internet (she’s based in London these days) about feminist-y things. While following a speech Arndt gave at Melbourne’s Wheeler Centre about women needing to put out more I was immediately reminded of a piece Hills wrote for Cleo in 2011 about women who want more sex than their partners.

“Olivia, 19, says she and her boyfriend are “pretty sexually active”, but that doesn’t stop her from “sulking or getting angry” on those occasions he turns her down. Ana, 27, tells me she’s never had an orgasm, but the one time her boyfriend couldn’t come, she thought, ‘What the hell has happened here?’” Hills wrote.

Hills said recently that while interviewing women for her upcoming book The Sex Myth that issue has come up time and again.

Women are confused. They are raised to seek out fulfilling, sexually empowered, loving relationships. But they are socialised to believe that inevitably men will always want more than they can give. Men, who are also told they should have an insatiable appetite, are similarly confused.

What a pickle.

I’ve tried not to talk about HBO “dramedy” Girls written, directed by, and starring 26-year-old Lena Dunham because it seems like everything you could want to say about it has already been said, but I can’t. Because it’s Girls that first got me thinking about it.

Dunham’s character Hannah’s best friend Marnie (Allison William) starts the series in a long-term relationship with someone she no longer desires. So the sex – when it happens – is terrible.  Marnie’s just not interested. But that doesn’t mean she’s not interested in sex. A point Dunham rams home early on with a very clever scene between Marnie and a man she finds attractive.

I won’t spoil it for you, but the scene says a lot about women and sex, without anyone having sex. Which is part of what’s so fascinating about Girls.

The relationship between sex and desire is obvious. The power structures that enabled men to claim desire as their own playground have largely broken down for western women. But the way we are taught about sex hasn’t changed, which is creating a disconnect between what women feel, and what they think they are supposed to feel.

By the end of Bring up the Bodies Henry is readying for his next queen. And the block at the Tower of London is awash with traitor’s blood.  The true story of Anne Boleyn is no more or less compelling than Mantel’s fiction. A world of men; where women are currency.

Someone needs to tell Bettina Arndt what century we live in.

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