Last week the New York Times Magazine treated us to Lori Gottlieb’s reflections on the state of sexual desire in marriage. (My viewhere.) One was surprised to see it in the Times, because Gottlieb argued that a marriage of equals, the kind to which most young people aspire, is ill-equipped to sustain conjugal lust.
Yesterday, Elizabeth Bernstein told us in her Wall Street Journal column that the question her readers ask her most often is: how can they sustain sexual desire in marriage?
It’s an important question and it’s not going away.
In fact, it’s a relatively new and culture specific-problem. Throughout human history and even today the vast majority of human marriages have been arrangements. Few human cultures have been willing to leave the future of their families and communities in the hands of a couple of immature and inexperienced adolescents.
Cultures that broke with tradition did so on the grounds that if both spouses chose each other freely they would be more responsible for their choices. In the popular mind that meant that two young people were going to marry for love.
Of course, responsible young people do not fall in love with just anyone. They restrict their selection to people who would be suitable spouses.
The new institution presumably brought more stability to the marital estate. It was intended also to reduce the number of bastards who were floating around society. You cannot sustain social order when large numbers of its members do not know who they are, who their relations are or where they belong.
Obviously, in the era of arranged marriage, the solution to waning sexual desire was adultery. Since neither spouse was expected to be lusting after the other, it felt normal and even natural for them to practice romantic love outside of the conjugal estate.
When people began to marry for love, or when people starting taking their vows and the Seventh Commandment seriously, they were faced with a new problem: how to sustain sexual desire in marriage?. If the recent spate of articles tells us anything, the problem has not yet been solved.
In response to Gottlieb’s piece, Jezebelle Tracy Moore highlights an important unasked question:
If equality makes sex bad, wouldn't it follow that sex was better when things were less equal? Or has married sex always been bad, but we hoped equality would fix it, only to find out it didn't?
Frankly, I find that a fair assessment. It explains why so many women have found the siren song of feminism appealing. It also explains who so many women today are turning away from it.
Moore would have done better to point out that when feminism was injected into the American marriage, sometime around the early 1970s, it produced a massive wave of divorces.
This affirms that even if many women took up with feminism to solve a problem, the ideology aggravated the problem.
Some of Moore’s other points are worth considering.
If people are dissatisfied with their sex lives, she explains, one reason might be that they have excessively high expectations of what a marital sex should be.
Finally, she [Gottlieb] quotes a father who says he's perfectly happy with his boring sex life, even as he knows that "a lot of people think it's supposed to be more exciting than this." Again, isn't this the real issue? Not equality, but expectations? That a lot of people think sex should be more exciting than it is? Isn't this more about our expectation that marriage should fire on all cylinders at all times, which has always been acknowledged as a rare thing? Again, if we are applying this to sex, it's not because of equality, but more likely because of porn, which is as ubiquitous as air and (sometimes) creates unrealistic expectations.
I suspect that Moore is too young to remember, but second wave feminism promised women more, better orgasms. It did not need to wait for internet porn.
Books like Fear of Flying and The Women’s Room showed their heroines leaving sexually unsatisfying marriages (and even their children) to find ecstasy. Books about female anatomy and women’s sexual fantasies were ubiquitous. Feminists offered women lessons in how to masturbate. On today’s college campuses more than a few women’s studies departments devote themselves to providing information about how women can achieve mind-blowing orgasms, with or without a man.
One hates to say it, but Moore is wrong to blame it all on internet porn. It may be that some men, and even couples use internet porn to solve the problems that feminism has produced, but it arrived on the scene after most of the damage was done.
On another point Moore joins Bernstein in saying that the cure for the absence of desire in marriage is, more talk. Both women recommend an open and honest conversation about one’s inadequate sex life. This used to be called raising awareness or raising consciousness. It sounds too good to be true and, in fact it is.
How many people will find that a discussion of their implied sexual inadequacies is arousing?
Here is Moore’s version:
It's not news at all that keeping the sex alive and passionate in a marriage is hard, but perhaps what is new is that men and women can talk about the dissatisfaction and difficulty of that struggle more openly than ever before. That's a good thing! Because now, instead of having to suffer silently through bad sex, both men and women are talking about the realities of their sex life and asking for what they want. It's ok if this is an awkward adolescence in the total history of sex — it's ok if there are a few kinks to work out in the kinks department.
Being open and explicit about what pleases you and what you might or might not want to do to each other feels like a step in the right direction, but as no less than Augustine of Hippo famously pointed out, sex works best in the dark. Unlike many saints, Augustine knew whereof he spoke.
Besides, graphic descriptions of sex acts tend to turn off women. Feminism notwithstanding, women do not see sex in those terms. Or at least they did not before feminism taught them the virtues of gross anatomy.
What can women do? One place to start would be by recovering their modesty? One understands that the use of vulgar language makes Jezebel a more engaging site, but seriously, using words like “bonerkiller” does not enhance a woman’s femininity.
You know about femininity: Betty Friedan attacked it as a mystique. Feminism has wanted women to overcome their femininity. Many women have succeeded. Unfortunately, this has not enhanced their desire and has not made them more attractive to men.
Then again, feminism (through Naomi Wolf, for example) told women to avoid the trappings of femininity. It told them to realize their full potential through their careers. And it told them that once that had become fully actualized persons men would find them irrestible.
It turned out not to be the case.
Having lost touch with their femininity, many women are now insecure about their ability to attract men. Witness the interest in Fifty Shades of Gray. Witness the amount of money women spend on beauty treatments, plastic surgery and frilly underthings.
A woman who lacks confidence-- like a man who lacks confidence-- is not very attractive… no matter what she is wearing.
Given the current state of things, women choose to look at magazines and movies to seek out images of women who are feminine.
Now, however, they have to deal with Sheryl Sandberg, who has teamed up with Getty Images to control their minds. In their new project the Lean In crowd wants to dictate the kinds of images that women will be allowed to see.
Nothing like a little mind control to solve all your problems!
Say you’re an advertiser on a stock-photography site, looking for a shot of a woman to put in your new campaign. “If you search for something like ‘female workplace leader,’ you come up with bunch of images of women in short skirts and high heels, holding wrenches,” complains Jessica Bennett, a journalist who’s working with Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In movement to fix this.
This week, that organization announced a partnership with Getty Images, the largest provider of these photos, to create a line of stock photos that depict mature, professional businesswomen, rather than ones who appear dumb, subservient, sexualized, or sometimes all three at once.
As the old saying goes, beware of billionaires who want to dictate how you should live your life.
Sandberg has mistaken the problem for the solution. She should be asking why women look at these images, not why she should have the power to prevent them from looking at them.
Shouldn’t women have the freedom to look at images that Sandberg disapproves of?
If women are insecure about their femininity, banning images that denote femininity is not going to solve the problem.
And when men see images of independent, autonomous self-involved women, of women who can do it all by themselves, who need a man like a fish needs a bicycle, they are going to ask themselves whether they are anything more than glorified sperm donors.
Deprived of their purpose, disrespected in front of family and friends, they will shut down or start looking somewhere else.