Monday, November 30, 2009

When Women Lose Their Sexual Desire

This morning everybody is whispering about Daniel Bergner's Sunday Times Magazine article: "Women Who Want to Want." Link here.

According to Bergner: "Studies suggest that around 30% of young and middle-aged women go through extended periods of feeling dim desire-- or feeling no wish for sex whatsoever."

He continues: "More than any other sexual problem-- the elusiveness of orgasm, say, or pain during sex-- women feel plagued by low desire."

This is not a new phenomenon. I recall the Times writing about this years ago. While I am far from confident that we should just accept the number 30% uncritically, clearly something is going on.

Bregner approaches the problem as a clinical phenomenon. Appropriately so. For my part I want to place the problem within a cultural context. For several decades now female sexuality has been a major front in the culture wars.

Beginning in the late 60s counterculture thinkers decided that the capitalist patriarchy had been built at the expense of female sexual desire and its satisfaction.

Where Freud had opined that civilization had advanced at the expense of human sexual desire, countercultural thinkers, especially feminists, narrowed the scope the declared that women's sexual freedom had been stifled by the male will-to-power.

Some thinkers even declared that the greatest threat to the patriarchy was the female orgasm and that women could lead a revolution to overthrow the capitalist order by having more and better orgasms.

It sounds quaint; it might even sound exaggerated; but in the nether regions of advanced theoretical thinking these were commonly accepted precepts.

While women's liberation had everything to do with job opportunities and careers, it also promised to free female sexuality from the shackles of male-dominant cultural mores.

How would this be done? Primarily by eliminating the risk of conception from the female sexual calculus. The birth control pill, a product of the early 60s, contributed to the cause, as did Roe v. Wade in the early 70s.

And, feminists worked overtime to remove the association of feminine sexuality with modesty and mystery. Open and honest were their bywords. A woman who hid her sexuality behind a veil or who did not allow it its fullest expression was denounced for being ashamed of her body.

In an important cultural transformation, virginity and prudery became stigmatized while sexual freedom became a sign of mental and emotional health.

Surely, this had an impact. Women learned how to enjoy their sexuality more freely. They started having sex more often, when and where they wished, with whom they wished, by and large suffering no greater consequences than men suffered when they abandoned themselves to sexual wantonness.

Eventually, a culture of hook-ups, booty calls, girls gone wild, and the New York Magazine "Sex Diaries" was born. For some of my recent thoughts, see this post.

Women became sexually liberated in ways their mothers would never have imagined. Truth be told, their liberation seemed more often to horrify their mothers than the patriarchs.

We should, of course, question the value of making male sexual behavior the gold standard for human sexual freedom. And we should ask whether this caricature of male sexual behavior is more fiction than truth. And we should also ask whether it makes any sense to say that male and female sexuality should ever be the same, or even roughly equivalent.

Finally, we should question the early feminist notion that human sexual experience was about exploitation and repression. Given the radical leftist provenance of advanced feminist theory it is not surprising that exploitation and repression should have been the predicates of choice.

Unfortunately, when you cloak human sexuality in notions about exploitation and oppression you make men and women into enemies, not partners. For men this might be arousing; for women it often kills desire.

But why are we surprised that so many women feel so little sexual desire? Didn't the cultural revolution, mixed with the feminist revolution, wring the femaleness out of female sexual experience.

If you remove fertility from the equation, you also remove notions of emotional connection and attachment. And you remove the extremely important role of relationships in female sexual desire.

Could it be that these cultural transformations ultimately only served to unsex women, to repress female sexual desire?

After all, human sexuality does not exist in a vacuum; it is not a self-contained entity. Sometimes male sexuality seems to function in total disregard of relationships, but female sexuality almost never does. Or, it almost never should.

Most of Bregner's article addresses the efforts of clinicians like Lori Brotto to treat women who have lost their sexual desire. There is good and bad in her technique.

By combining cognitive therapy with Buddhist-inspired mindfulness she has trained women to become sensitized to their sexual arousal. At the least, this seems to be promising.

And yet, when you treat the woman in isolation, and when your technique involves her mind in isolation from her relationships, you also become part of the problem.

We have to await the end of Bergner's article to escape the hyperclinical approach that takes a woman's problem with sexual desire to be hers and hers alone. Bregner says: "What if the lack of excitement is due to a partner's ineptitude? What if it is caused by a lover's emotional disconnection? ... Is it the patient who has the condition, or the partner, or the couple?"

To that I would add: What if the lack if excitement is due to past sexual traumas, whether sexual abuse or unwise hook-ups?

In all of the hullabaloo over orgasms we lost sight of the simple fact that for a woman to trust a partner sufficiently to desire him she needs to be able to respect herself. If that self-respect is eroded through a pattern of poor choices, she will have far more difficulty experiencing sexual desire. If she has given away her intimacy indiscriminately she might find it difficult to trust any man.

In other terms, if you do not respect your sexuality it is not going to respect you. And if does not respect you it is not going to stay around for very long.

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