Monday, 6 April 2009

Putting out

When I first saw the headline 'Just do it' sex call sparks women's fury', I braced myself for the big feminist tantrum I was sure I was about to throw. This article describes controversy over the book The Sex Diaries: Why Women Go Off Sex and Other Bedroom Battles, by sex researcher Bettina Arndt. In one chapter, apparently, the author argues that women should have sex with their husbands even when they don't feel like it. Needless to say, this proposal has irked feminists, who rightly point out that "After an evening of organising kids, dinner, the shopping, the washing, the homework, etc, maybe [women] are too tired to want sex."

I felt ambivalent about this, and it took me a while to work out why. When couples have kids, it's pretty common for their sex lives to dissolve pitifully into fond memories. That's because kids are friggin exhausting. And the exhaustion doesn't stop when little ones start sleeping through the night or stop wearing nappies. In the midst of family life, grown up time (sexual or otherwise) often just doesn't happen - it's possible for men and women alike to feel quite lonely.

This was my experience with our second child. The little blighter simply didn't sleep. He woke six times on a good night, and I'm not even going to tell you what the bad nights were like. The sleep deprivation eventually felt like torture, and for several months, my partner and I focused simply on surviving. Our first, desperate wish was for sleep. Second would have been some time for ourselves - a few moments in which we didn't feel utterly consumed by the cranky little cherub we'd brought into the world.

Kids are, for me at least, a tremendous joy - but the stress that family life poses, particularly for women, is very real. The thing that irks me about this book is that it just phrases people's (or men's) need for intimacy in terms of a crass battle of the sexes. Men want sex, women should give in: problem solved. I agree that couples with kids have to work to maintain intimacy of every sort, and that this can be hard, involving compromises. Underlying this problem is a much bigger one: the difficulty of raising kids in a society that doesn't always make family life easily, time-wise, financially or socially. Women putting out when we're tired isn't exactly going to cure this.

A grudging weekly shag falls well short of my ideal relationship, and I'd hope most men would have more nous than to mistake reluctant putting out for intimacy. Intimacy means a lot of things, including recognising and empathising when your partner is exhausted. I'd guess that most parents don't have as much grown up time as we'd like - that, sadly, is the way the world is. But, in my opinion, more intimacy can be achieved by talking about this stuff than by having half-arsed reluctant sex, or taking advice from a self-help book.


Moz said...

You can (and have, by the look of it) distil the overall message and ignore the headline generator. The books that say "parenting takes a lot of time and parents should take a little time out to be together" don't get a lot of media attention. Add in a bit of sex and it's front page news. "PAGE 3: PARENTS HAVE SEX". OMG, think of the children :0

Of course, adding in a dose of "a lot of men mistake sex for intimacy" would confuse the message and make it too realistic. But it's worth discussing.

Anonymous said...

I haven't read the book but I am very uncomfortable by the assumption it seems to be making that there is something wrong with womens' sex drives - while mens' sex drives are normal.

I don't hear anyone complaining that men's sex drives are excessively large & coming up with solutions to reduce them. But I have frequently heard of women's sex drives being too weak (or "frail" according to the online news article I have just read that discussed this controversial new book).

Sex therapists seem to assume that the problem is always that 'her' sex drive is not normal/strong enough. One problem with this approach is that it frames the woman as the one with the problem when it comes to differing desires for sex in a relationship. This can make her feel guilty (and him feeling unreasonably deprived). Feeling guilty or pressured will probably reduce her desire for sex even more.

What I would like to hear more of is,'her sex drive is normal' (as his sex drive is presumed to be) - before addressing issues of incompatible desires for sex & how to compromise so that both partners are happy & are only having sex when they want to, are not feeling pressured into it, and in ways that they both enjoy.

stargazer said...

another thing i wonder is whether or not men really do have a stronger sex drive, or whether this is just social conditioning. ie if males are constantly given the message that they have a higher sex drives and women are constantly given the message that they have lower sex drives, then does that become a self-fulfilling thing? especially when those messages are reinforced through advertising, social discourse, pornography, film & tv programmes, magazines, books etc etc. and when there is a history of women being shamed for wanting sex, of men "sowing their wild oats" but of women being sluts, which works to suppress female sexuality.

it would be interesting to find a society when the opposite message had been given in the same way to see if men still had stronger sex-drives than women.

Anna said...

That's an excellent point, Anon - I think there's an assumption that women/wives have a duty to meet the sexual needs of husbands, but not so much vice versa, so the woman who doesn't keep up with her husband's libido is the one 'at fault'. And I agree with stargazer that our ideas of what is sexually 'normal' is heavily influenced by a bunch of social ideas, many of which are not women-friendly.

The idea that we should read self-help books to tell us whether we're sexually normal or not is irritating in itself - surely, how often a couple does it is way less important than whether they're happy with their sex lives.

I really dislike the idea that men are just emotionally obtuse horny lumps of gormless. As well as being unflattering for men, it casts women in the role of having to sexually service men who don't have much control over their emotional/sexual selves.

A Nonny Moose said...

Mebbe us wimmens need that "nasal delivery technology". If they're so concerned with our "fragile libidos", where's our Viagra?

Anonymous said...

I am on a discussion list for a different group of married women and the issue of mismatched libidos with the women wanting more sex than their husbands is one that comes up regularly. I have also had a number of friends who have been unhappy with the amount of sex that they have with their male partner and based on discussions over the years I don't think that this is uncommon at all. I remember conversations with friends where they have been weeping because they couldn't understand why their boyfriend won't have them sex more, even though they (the female partner) are making their desire overt. Clearly not all men are gagging for sex all of the time and we shouldn't ignore the fact that libido is an individual thing for men and women which is also affected by a range of environmental factors.

Obviously work pressure has an impact on how much energy you have for sex. I remember seeing a Jewish saying years ago about how if a man loses his job he should make love with his wife daily as he would be sure to have the energy for this.


Brenda said...

"After an evening of organising kids, dinner, the shopping, the washing, the homework, etc, maybe [women] are too tired to want sex"....

this struck me as yet more enforcing the idea that women do the child raising, men to other thinks. sure, women currently do more of this, but not always. It's a stereo type for sure.

do self-described feminists need to keep repeating this sterotype over and over?

ms poinsettia said...

"yet more enforcing the idea that women do the child raising, men to other thinks. sure, women currently do more of this, but not always."

So how would feminist analysis be relevant if it didn't take into account the experience of most women? It's not enforcing a stereotype to note the reality and its consequences. Reinforcement would be saying 'women shouldn't have to put out because they have more house important housework to do and need to save their energy for that' whereas this analysis is saying, as one possible critique of this author's ideas, 'no wonder women don't feel like having sex when they're worn out from and pissed off about their disproportionate share of the household workload"