Commentary Family

Do Women Need to Manipulate Men Sexually to Get Them to Behave? No

Amanda Marcotte

Anti-choice activists and other social conservatives routinely argue that men are dogs whom women need to bring under control, usually by withholding sex in hopes of extracting a wedding ring. But this strategy is completely unnecessary, and there's no evidence it works.

Anti-choice activists are well aware that their position would be seriously undermined if the public understood the misogyny that actually drives their movement, so they try to argue that they aren’t out to attack women’s rights, but rather to help us. You see, we’re poor dears who are too dumb to know what’s good for us, so our rights have to be stripped since we can’t be trusted to use them responsibly.

This philosophy comes out in many forms, but a favorite is to argue that abortion rights—and contraception access—allow men to “use” women for sex. Only by taking away women’s reproductive rights, the thinking goes, can women do what we supposedly all want: tie a man down into a guilt-based marriage and start having babies.

Mike Schouten of Life News coughed up a fairly pristine version of this stereotype in an article purporting to explain why men show more support for abortion rights than women. (Which, by the way, isn’t true. Slightly more men than women take a moderate view of abortion rather than a hardline anti-choice stance, but men and women are roughly equal in their support for abortion rights.) His theory is that men love abortion because it means they get to have sex without having to take responsibility.

Philippa Taylor is the Head of Public Policy at the Christian Medical Fellowship in the UK. She says, “We have to consider the possibility that perhaps women are not always making choices that they really want to make, as men absolve themselves of their responsibility in decision- making. A choice is no choice if there are not equal (supported) alternatives.”

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Canada’s unfettered access to abortion allows men to live with this attitude; an attitude that shows complete lack of regard for the woman they have impregnated and a callousness that is quite frankly, repulsive.

This is hardly a fringe theory on the right. On the contrary, it’s a widespread conservative belief that men cannot really love women and that women find sex degrading and repulsive (but desperately want men to marry us). The idea is that men will try to get away with having as much sex as they can without committing to a woman, and women have to try to game the system by withholding sex to extract a promise of a loveless but legal marriage. Romantic, no?

Reproductive rights screw the whole system up, according to this theory, because men know a woman doesn’t have to be pregnant and therefore cannot be guilt-tripped into a shotgun marriage. Women, always assumed to be too stupid to act in their own interest, are therefore assumed to be having all this sex they don’t like, foolishly thinking it will get them married. But, as the conservative theory goes, men don’t marry unless they have to, so women are left bereft, with no leverage to extract wedding rings from the unwilling.

It’s hard sometimes to say who social conservatives loathe more: men or women.

Women withholding sex to force men into marriage explains for conservatives more than just their views on reproductive rights, it turns out. W. Bradford Wilcox and Robin Fretwell Wilson, writing for the Washington Post, tried to argue that women have the power to end not just domestic violence but all sorts of violence by shutting their legs until they successfully get a guy to marry them. The piece came decked out with an offensive headline, which was quickly changed.

But the basic premise of the article remained the same: Men are dogs who will do whatever they want—in this case, by beating women and children—unless women bring them in line with the magic power of marriage. Unwanted pregnancy, domestic violence—is there anything that manipulating people into loveless marriages won’t fix?

Of course, as many writers swiftly pointed out, there’s zero evidence that getting married turns bad guys, especially abusers, into loving husbands. FiveThirtyEight reached out to Shannon Catalano, the employee of the Bureau of Justice Statistics whose chart regarding marriage and domestic violence rates was used by Wilcox and Wilson in the Post, and she denounced them heartily for misinterpreting her data. “The graph which they used from my report does show clear differences between intimate violence rates — but that is because it is only showing one variable; household composition,” she wrote. “The story could change if we started to control for other factors.”

Mona Chalabi at FiveThirtyEight added, “To put the point more plainly: ‘the marrying kind tend to be more educated, wealthier and whiter,’ so the focus on marriage should come with some exploration of the fact that education, income and race could also partly explain trends in intimate violence.”

In other words, the same factors that lower your rates of violence raise your chances of marrying. It’s not that marriage intrinsically has the power to “man-tame.”

What this shows is that, with social conservatives, we’re dealing with a view of heterosexual romance that assumes men and women are fundamentally at odds, imagining men as selfish and even violent hedonists and women as priggish police officers who bring unruly men into line by manipulating them sexually.

But a national survey of over 5,000 men and women on their views of marriage and dating shows that the belief that men and women are opposites, and that women have to force men to pretend to love and to commit to marriage and children, isn’t true at all. Men and women are both interested in getting married and having children, and both are interested in sex for its own sake. It turns out that men and women are complex people who want a variety of experiences over a lifetime, but they basically want the same thing. There’s no need to trick men into marriage and kids. In fact, the survey found that among childless singles men wanted children more than women.

Another finding: Across all age groups, women wanted more personal space and time apart from a partner than men. In other words, the stereotype of “clingy” women and “reluctant” men may be backwards.

It’s clear that, despite conservative protestations to the contrary, these theories that men and women are at odds are not about getting men under control, but getting women under control. If women feel OK about premarital sex and not particularly worried about getting a husband, they will have more energy in their youth to spend on developing their careers and finding independence, which is clearly threatening to conservatives.

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