Not Tonight, Honey, And Who Knows Why?

Amanda Marcotte

Journalists are happy to report on the sexual desire gap between women and men. But they refuse to ask why the gap persists.

Another Valentine’s Day,
another round of features on sex and love, and another bout of studiously
ignoring the role sexism might play in diminishing women’s sexual
desire. Consumer
Reports published a sex poll,

and once again women’s on-average lower sexual desire is treated
as an unfortunate but largely inexplicable phenomenon.  In this,
they stuck to the mainstream media trend of talking about women’s
desire–the lack of it, really–without addressing any social causes for why that might occur. 
Most media outlets treat women’s desire as a free-standing, unchangeable
misfortune brought on by fate or biology, but certainly not worth exploring
in depth.   

Journalists refuse to explore
polling data demonstrating a reported gap in men and women’s sexual
desires for the same reason people refuse to really tackle the issue
in their own relationships. Even in the polling data citing the top six reasons
people don’t feel desire, two
of the reasons given, constituting 59% of respondents, were just a restatement
of the problem, and not really a reason.
  (Forty percent of respondents said they just weren’t in the mood, and 19% were
too busy watching TV, which is a polite way of saying they aren’t
in the mood, since people in the mood use Tivo.)  But really addressing
the reason men and women feel this gap in desire means asking hard questions
about how our society treats men and women differently, and doing that
means signing up for defensive responses.  No wonder journalists writing
pieces on the issue avoid the question strenuously. 

The New York Times Magazine recently devoted
a lengthy feature story

to the "mystery" of what women want, a feature that at least took
the step forward of involving women in the answer to the question, when
tradition dictates that men ask each other this question and continue
to be baffled that they can’t come up with the answer.  ("Mad
Men" took
on the issue humorously,

portraying a roomful of bright men who can’t figure out how to find
out what women want, with not a single one coming up with, "Let’s
ask them," as a solution.)  But despite going on for several
pages on the issue, Daniel Bergner managed to avoid even entertaining
the notion the our sexist society turns women off, preferring instead
to dwell on portraying women as inherently perverse, narcissistic, and
even masochistic.  After all, the weirder women seem, the easier
it is to shrug off the responsibility of really understanding women,
since it seems like an impossible task. 

Ignoring the differences in
how men and women’s sexualities are regarded in our society is an
interesting omission, considering how obvious and pervasive these differences
are.  And by "interesting," I mean, "somewhere between annoying
and offensive."  The double standard between straight men and
women hasn’t gone anywhere, but in fact has barely been eroded by
an intensive, multi-decade onslaught from feminists.  It’s still
women who are instructed to worry about their "number" being too
high.  It’s still women who have to hear that having prior sexual
experience makes us legitimate targets to rape.
The words "whore" and "slut" describe women, not men. 
Sexual mores have loosened somewhat, but we still live in a world where
Good Girls Don’t.   

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To add to it, sexual desire
in our culture is almost solely contextualized as something straight
males have and not anyone else.  Images of nubile (presumably straight)
women with no clothes on still signify "sex" in our culture. 
Half-dressed women greet straight men everywhere they turn with beckoning
smiles and lidded eyes, titillating men and inspiring men to think about
sex constantly.  Straight women don’t get near the provocation
on a daily basis–is it any wonder that 60% of the men who answered
the Consumer Reports survey thought about sex once a day, but only 19%
of women? 

Add to that the well-known
housework and child care gap.  A recent Parenting Magazine survey
found a
lot of women suffer a great deal of resentment towards their male partners
, who they view as refusing to take
on their fair share of child care and housework responsibilities. 
Add it all together–the stigma against desire, the overwork, the feeling
of being underappreciated, and the lack of provocation–and the mystery
is not that women watch their libidos sink under the waters, but why
anyone wants to chalk this up to inherent biological sex differences

Not that having a low libido
necessarily means trouble for the woman supposedly suffering from it. Only 12% of the
women diagnosed with sexual dysfunction like low libido were bothered
by it,
which makes
you wonder how they were defined as having a problem in the first place. 
(Short answer: because men decide what’s a problem in our culture.) 
This study surprised a lot of people, but it shouldn’t have. 
When you live in a culture where Good Girls Don’t, sexual desire is
rarely experienced as an unalloyed good, but often brings fears of moral
turpitude for women, and they may feel relieved to have desire abate. 
That, and less sex, means more time for housework and paid employment,
not insignificant issues in our economic times.  Considering how
many women suffer body image issues, too, it’s probably a relief not
to feel like you have to get naked and expose yourself to judgment for
many women.   

It’s an indicator of how
male-dominated our society is that the fact that women have diminishing
libidos and don’t seem to care that much about it is treated as the
problem, when in fact it’s merely the symptom of a larger problem–that
women feel overworked, underpaid, underappreciated, understimulated,
and shamed about their bodies.  If we treated the actual problems
that women face, higher libidos would be the happy result, I’m sure. 
But in order to do that, we’d have to treat male domination like a
problem to be solved, and since few people really want to do that, instead
we’re left with articles that note women’s lack of libido, but carefully
resist asking why.

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