Monthly Archives: September 2010
When I ask students what they call a penis and a vagina in everyday words, two responses stand out: “cock” and “down there.”
The difference is telling. Cock: Cocky, proud, boastful, swaggering, self-satisfied. Image of a strutting cock, er, rooster.
But “down there”? Unspeakable. Embarrassing. Shameful.
Male sexuality is something to brag about, while female sexuality is something to hide.
The difference is reflected in Zestra’s difficulty getting ads on TV for a product that arouses women’s sexuality – while songs of “Viva Viagra” fill the airwaves.
The New York Times reports that TV networks, national cable stations, radio stations, and Web sites like Facebook and WebMD have all resisted airing ads for Zestra. Some agreed to broadcast ads in the early morning when most people are asleep. Others wanted disclaimers: “Not for people under 18.” Most felt that no amount of tweaking could make the ad suitable.
Many stations want to remove the words sex and arousal. Yet “An erection lasting more than four hours” is O.K.?
The manufacturer believes the resistance comes from our culture’s discomfort with women’s sexuality.
Meanwhile, normal processes of the vagina are shrouded in secrecy. Ads for one brand of sanitary napkins simply said, “Modess … Because.” Ok, that was the 70s. But even today women are embarrassed when tampons fall from their purses. Ever hear anyone say they had a “visit from Aunt Flow” when their period started?
Because female sexuality is deemed dirtier, more evil and more unspeakable, insulting slang for the vagina packs a bigger punch than slang for a penis.
Call a man a dick, and you’ve called him an idiot. Dictionary definition of dork: a whale’s penis. So a dork is a giant penis – an even bigger idiot.
But a cunt cuts deeper, moving into deeper disgrace.
Whether “down there” or “cunt,” it’s just degrees of shame.
We think that women will enjoy sex as much as men? In this atmosphere? It’s just the tip of the iceberg.
Every quarter I ask my women students if any of them had been tomboys when they were little. Many hands enthusiastically shoot into the air. The women often have fond memories of their time climbing trees and digging in the dirt.
Then I ask men students if any of them had been sissies. The class bursts out laughing. One hand might sheepishly creep up.
One man claimed the question was unfair since the word “sissy” is stigmatized but “tomboy” is not.
Actually, there isn’t a non-stigmatizing word for a boy who acts like a girl. And there’s a reason for that. Any boy who acts like a girl takes himself down to a lower status. He becomes demeaned.
A girl who acts like a boy, on the other hand, doesn’t harm her social standing. At least not until she gets older and the behavior takes on lesbian overtones.
Another student thought I was exaggerating the problem. For his term paper he asked men and women on campus whether they had been tomboys or sissies, and whether they had ever thought about being the opposite sex.
When he asked women if they had ever wanted to be a man, or wondered what it would be like, many said they had. When he asked about being tomboys when they were little, they often reminisced on that happy time.
But when he asked men whether they had ever wanted to be a woman, or been curious about what it might be like, stunned reactions were the rule: “What!? Are you serious?” When he asked if they had been sissies when they were young, men turned an angry eye and asked, “Are you looking for trouble?”
He’s lucky to have finished his research and still be alive and in one piece.
This is just one of many examples of how we “gender rank” men above women in our society.
What difference does it make?
Ranking men above women affects many areas of life. It affects what men and women think they deserve – with men thinking they deserve more, and women feeling they deserve less. This isn’t necessarily conscious, but we can see the results: Women tend to give men more power in relationships and men tend to expect greater power; women are less likely to ask for a raise; men take up more space; the list goes on. It’s all about empowerment and disempowerment.
As we shall see, gender ranking also affects sexuality in various problematic ways, ranging from slut-shaming to sexual abuse.
Responses to my post asking why women like sex less than men included:
- Says who?
- I think it’s the opposite – I think women like it more
- I don’t think anyone can know who likes sex better
Or as one man put it, “The overwhelming majority of men and women get their attitudes and desires for sex primarily through the natural, healthy desire to have sex… Women are equal to men and thus capable of every form of behavior that men engage in.”
To which I respond: no and yes.
Women are certainly capable of enjoying sex immensely. As much as men. Given their ability for multiple orgasm, possibly more. In some societies women are highly orgasmic and inclined to engage in sex with great frequency, as with Tahitians and American Indians before contact with Europeans.
But highly orgasmic women in America? Not so much – at least not by comparison. 30-40% suffer sexual dysfunction. That is very different from sex-positive cultures.
Of course women are capable of having great sex. But the extent to which they actually do depends on factors other than just what nature brings them. Repression plays a role, and so do sexual objectification and male dominance (all will be explored later).
Do women like sex less? Consider this research on sexuality in America:
On the orgasm front three-quarters of men say they “always” have an orgasm, but just 30% of women do. One quarter of women don’t usually have orgasms. In the casual sex of hook-ups the rate is lower, especially for women. Sociologist Michael Kimmel (Guyland) surveyed college students on their most recent hookup. Only 44% of the men reported having an orgasm, and only 19% of the women did.
The more orgasmic a person is, the more they report enjoying sex. Not surprisingly, women report liking sex less than men do. A Chicago University study found that men have more interest in sex at all ages. And an ABC News Primetime Live survey found that 83% of men “enjoy sex a great deal,” while only 59% of women do. That same study found that while 70% of men think about sex every day, only 34% of women do (and they do so less often during the day).
Women also experience weaker sexual drive, compared with men, with more than one quarter of young women feeling weak desire according to the Archives of Internal Medicine. Research at the University of Chicago found that 32% of women (but only 15 -17% of men) have low libidos. Added to difficulties with orgasm, women experience more sexual dysfunction than men.
Not surprisingly, 40% of men say they would like to have more sex than they do now, but only 28% of women feel the same way.
For more evidence of gender difference in sexual interest that arises in broad patterns of social behavior, see my post: Sex Research: It Doesn’t Fit Me, It Must Be Wrong
I wonder if men ever sit around confiding to friends that sex ain’t all it’s cracked up to be. I’ve listened to these kinds of conversations with many groups of women, yet it’s hard to imagine men doing the same thing.
The difference in the male and female experience is due mostly to cultural forces. The difference in the female experience between modern Americans and ancient Tahitians is entirely due to culture.
Yet many people think our society has no negative effects on women’s sexuality.
Maybe that’s why we don’t do anything to create change.
Over the years I’ve dated men who’ve ogled other women. Actually, only four men behaved that way, most weren’t so rude. When I told them their behavior bothered me, it had no effect. One responded, “Someday you’ll have a breakthrough and get over it.”
Instead of breakthroughs, I broke up with each of them. They all were shocked.
Sometimes the surprise happens differently, as when men “hear” me say that I like what I don’t.
When I was in college at BYU some of the students believed that although Mormons no longer practice polygamy (only “Mormon Fundamentalists” do) polygamy was the way of Heaven. (A religious instructor told me this was folklore and not theology. I haven’t been to church in years and don’t know what the common view is now.)
Still, I heard men say they couldn’t wait to have many wives up in Heaven. Put off, I asked men how they felt about polygamy. I told one man that it pissed me off. But projecting his own interest onto me, he was certain that I was as intrigued by the idea of heavenly threesomes as he was. Perhaps he got his sex ed from porn? I was mystified. He was surprised when I broke off our relationship.
Breakups can be harder on men than on women. Partly because men are more likely to be surprised.
Why are they so often surprised?
The male role seems to be in play. Men are less relationship-oriented, so they are less likely to monitor their relationships. Men learn that they’re not supposed to listen to women. Not helpful! Taught to constrain their emotions, men are less able to read the emotions of others.
Women are commonly objectified, too. When men see women as objects, sex toys that exist for their pleasure, men don’t experience women as having feelings. They lack empathy and can’t feel women’s pain.
Additionally, men often have more power in society and in relationships. How could this hurt them?
The Wall Street Journal recently reported studies showing that power decreases empathy.
People moving up the ladder of success are typically considerate, outgoing, agreeable and extroverted. Nice “guys” do finish first.
But once in power, things change.
One researcher compared the effect to brain damage, saying that people who hold a lot of authority can behave like neurological patients with damaged orbitofrontal lobes, an area of the brain that’s crucial for empathy.
I’m not saying all men behave this way, but it’s an interesting observation.
Still, the scales of power are tipped in men’s favor, often because it feels natural and normal to many men and women. So it’s interesting that even limited experiments, like asking people to describe a time when they felt powerful, could make them more egocentric.
Power keeps people from hearing points of view that differ from their own. So when a woman says she’s unhappy, and her partner feels she shouldn’t be, he may not sense her suffering even as she tells him about it.
Power diminishes empathy. Lacking empathy, some misread their partner’s feelings.
Then its surprise! Bye, bye baby.
Women, if you’re having issues, perhaps this will help you to understand what’s going on. Maybe you can have a conversation (if he’ll make an effort to talk to you.)
Men, if you want to keep your relationships strong, recognize women as full partners. Be attuned and listen to them. And be empathetic and alert to your partner’s emotions.
Elizabeth Rider. Our Voices. Wadsworth. 2000
Jonah Lehrer. The Power Trip.” Wall Street Journal. August 14-15, 2010
There are many sources of power in relationships, but a few stand out:
1. Higher education, income, and occupational status, especially in marriage relationships when men make more money. Both partners tend to feel that a man should have more say since he contributes greater resources to the family.
When wives are economically dependent and fear they can’t support themselves, husbands can become especially powerful. Some abusive men purposely get their wives pregnant (by destroying their birth control) to increase their wives’ dependency – and their control over their partners.
Women are less likely to become more powerful when they make more money because they generally don’t want to diminish their partners.
2. Relationship options. Perhaps a woman is economically dependent, but she is beautiful and she knows it. She also knows that if she leaves the relationship, she can quickly find someone else. This gives her a lot of clout.
3. Traditional gender roles. People who hold traditional notions about gender are more likely to accept male authority. While our society has achieved greater equality, men still typically have a bit more power in relationships.
Interestingly, young men today more often say they prefer equal partnerships.
4. Strong personalities. Even among the traditional-minded, some women just have stronger personalities. The couple will often deem the man, “head of home” when really, the woman is in charge.
5. Whoever cares least about the relationship has more power because the partner who cares more is more likely to cave in.
There are two ways of looking at this. On the one hand it may simply be a sad, but true, fact of life.
Yet there may be some poetic justice. If one person is poorly treated, he or she will be more likely to leave. And this can create an incentive to change. If the relationship moves back into a better balance of happiness, equality can be regained.
“A bitch has sex with everyone but me.”
So how do men view women’s sexuality? And what is the reality?
Sociologist, Michael Kimmel says that many men get their sex education from two primary sources: friends and porn. And their friends learn a lot from porn, too.
So how are women portrayed on the pornography front?
Women meet strangers and become immediately aroused, sexual activity quickly ensues, and they come swiftly to orgasm. And by the way, women love threesomes and orgies. Really, the more the merrier!
In porn women’s sexuality looks more like men’s than women’s.
Pornography leads single men to believe that other men are getting an awful lot of sex. And they wonder why they aren’t. “Why do babes (aka sluts) have sex with everyone but me? Those bitches!”
In the U.S. women’s sexuality is far different from how it is portrayed in porn. Typically, women are much more interested in romance and relationship than in casual intercourse. And while some women love sex (sometimes more than their partners) surveys show that they typically enjoy sex less than men do, and want far fewer partners.
Biology does not seem to be the main reason for the difference. While twice as much space is devoted to sexuality in the male brain, women and men have matched up far more evenly in other times and places in terms of sexual pleasure and interest.
I will be posting an ongoing series (interspersed with other topics) to discuss these questions, among others:
- How do men and women experience sex differently?
- What affects sexual experience and why do American women typically enjoy sex less than men?
- How do differences and misunderstandings affect relationships between women and men?
- What are the benefits and costs of the so-called male and female ways of sexuality?
- What can women learn from men and what can men learn from women?
To understand all this, we will need to explore sources of repression. Women get far more messages than men that sex is bad, which can repress their sexuality. Too often women are still punished for not controlling men’s sexuality. Calling women sluts rarely heightens their sexual interest. Quite the opposite. Yet men seem to be unaware of this — given how often they call women sluts and whores. Or they don’t care. Odd, since they say they want sex so much! But there is more on the repression front.
We will also discuss things you might not expect, like how objectification can dampen a woman’s sexual experience, even as it heightens a man’s. So focused on how she looks (whether pleased with her look or worried about it), she can’t get into sex. Meanwhile, men aren’t sexualized, so she has less to get so excited about.
Or, we still rank men above women in our society, and this ends up diminishing women’s sexual interest in ways that are not immediately obvious – though they should be. For example, when men see women as objects and not human beings, they may force sex. A past history of sexual violence often diminishes a woman’s interest.
Meanwhile, men, if you’re not getting a lot of sex, don’t take it personally. And don’t take it out on women. Calling them sluts and bitches will probably backfire!
“Burqa bans” are arising throughout Europe, with France voting their approval this past Tuesday. But many are concerned that the prohibitions limit the individual rights of Muslims.
First, the garment itself limits individual rights – women’s. Second, to what extent is the burqa wearer exercising actual choice? Finally, is a ban the best way to go?
Let’s start with the question of women’s choice.
When a society’s way of seeing becomes our own – even when it harms us – the belief is “internalized.” My interest in this phenomenon was sparked by my upbringing. In the early years of the feminist movement women from my church were bused to various conventions to vote down things like equal pay for equal work. I spent afternoons listening to women in my church talk about keeping battered women’s shelters from opening. They were against women receiving priesthood authority, and they were for male leadership in the home.
I didn’t understand why they worked so hard to disempower themselves, their daughters, and other women. But people don’t tend to question the taken-for-granted notions of their culture. It’s simply what you do. So choice disappears.
The same phenomenon arises in other settings. Saudi women say they don’t want to vote or drive. Many 19th Century American women didn’t want the vote, either. In North Africa women defend the genital mutilations that kill and cripple them.
Burqas limit women’s autonomy and power. Yet some women voluntarily don them, keeping with their culture.
Burqas – or niqabs (face coverings) – prevent wearers from gaining driver’s licenses when they are strictly worn, since identity can’t be confirmed via picture ID. When a city or village lacks public transportation it is hard to get around without a car. That makes it tough to get a job.
Even with transportation it’s not easy finding work in a facemask. The mask seems dehumanizing and eerie, as does the subjugation it represents.
But ethnocentrism is thought weightier than sexism. “Isms” that affect men seem more important than those that affect women – even when women are harmed, as when a female German judge denied a Muslim woman’s appeal for divorce, claiming that being beaten was part of her culture.
Did women have equal power to create the cultures that harm them?
Some women do resist, but feel pressured, as one of my Muslim students told me when we discussed the matter of covering.
But bans may not be the best way to deal with burqas or niqabs. Bans can backfire since people cling more tightly to their groups when they feel persecuted. As restrictions go into effect more women might actually embrace the burqas that limit them.
A better way may lie in creating conversation so that different cultures can consider a variety of perspectives. I am sure that Westerners and Muslims can learn from each other and our different ways of seeing.
In 1970 Jerry Plotkin and three others gang raped an acquaintance. Plotkin pleaded not guilty: He was a sexual libertine; he did what he wanted without limits. Through innuendo he implied that his victim was a libertine, too. Proof: she’d had sex without marriage.
The jury acquitted: A woman who’d had sex outside of wedlock could not be raped.
A rape victim condemned, her suffering dismissed.
Turning back 20 years earlier, an article from the 1952-53 Yale Law Journal explained why rape was illegal: “Women’s power to withhold or grant sexual access is an important bargaining weapon… it fosters, and is in turn bolstered by, a masculine pride in the exclusive possession of the sexual object… whose value is enhanced by sole ownership.”
The victim’s pain dismissed.
Discounting rape reaches far into history – at least when women are prey. In the Old Testament (Judges 19:22-29) we find depraved men pounding at the door of a Levite’s home, demanding a male guest be turned out to be raped. The Levite refuses, sending out his virgin daughter and his guest’s concubine, instead:
23 No, my friends, don’t be so vile. Since this man is my guest, don’t do this disgraceful thing. 24 Look, here is my virgin daughter, and his concubine. I will bring them out to you now, and you can use them and do to them whatever you wish. But to this man, don’t do such a disgraceful thing.
25: So the man took his concubine and sent her outside to them, and they raped her and abused her throughout the night, and at dawn they let her go. 26 At daybreak the woman went back to the house where her master was staying, fell down at the door and lay there until daylight. 27 When her master got up in the morning … 28 He said to her, “Get up; let’s go.” But there was no answer.
No distress arises as the concubine’s “husband” turns her out to be raped or finds her dead. If anyone has been harmed it is him, his property defiled.
If you think we’re past these attitudes, think again.
A lack of compassion continues in the Middle East. Instead of nurturing a victim through her trauma, she faces an honor killing as punishment for the sin of being attacked.
In today’s India, female rape victims can be subjected to a “finger exam” to see if her hymen is intact, or whether her vagina is “narrow” or “roomy.” A focus on virginity leaves her suffering of no import.
In the U.S., things are better. But problems remain. Helena Lazaro was raped at knifepoint at a car wash. She has spent 13 years trying to get her case properly investigated. But her attacker remains loose while authorities fail to test her rape kit. Currently, 180,000 rape kits are left untested nationwide, creating more rape victims.
Meanwhile, too many women are blamed for a crime that is committed against them.
Rape victims undergo depression, anxiety, and even post-traumatic stress disorder. Many become sexually dysfunctional.
Rape is the crime women most fear outside of murder. But you wouldn’t know it by the way victims are ignored and condemned.
Susan Griffin. “Politics: 1971.” The Power of Consciousness. HarperCollins. 1979
The upcoming French vote on the burqa ban has got me thinking. We hear talk of how women should keep their culture. But did women have equal power to create the burqa? And who benefits from this garment?
Meanwhile, some charge that rejecting the burqa comes from fear of the other, or ethnocentrism. I’m in sync with cultural relativism, so long as no one is being hurt. But buqas and “burqa cultures” don’t give women equal power. And women certainly did not have equal sway in creating the customs of these societies.
Think about the laws that exist in places where women are required to cover up in garments like burqas or niqabs (facemasks).
Is it likely that women decided that men could easily demand a divorce, but women could get one only with difficulty?
Is it likely that women created the notion that sharing a husband with other women might be nice?
Did women create the idea that an adulterous man be punished by burial up to his waist before being stoned, while a woman must be buried to her breasts – and the one who escapes, escapes the stoning?
In these cultures, when a woman is raped it is her fault. She obviously let some hair fall from her covering, or she allowed an ankle to show. Everyone knows that no man could resist such things. Did women decide that women, and not men, are responsible for men’s sexuality?
Did women originate the notion that after rape, the victim must be killed to restore the family honor?
Did women clamor for a burqa that limits their power and autonomy – keeping them from driving and getting jobs that are far from home? Did women design this garment that prevents small pleasures like seeing clearly or feeling the sun and the wind?
And who benefits?
Men benefit from easily obtaining a divorce, but not allowing their wives the same privilege. Men benefit from the sexual variety of having many wives, while women are left to share one man. Men benefit by more easily escaping a stoning. And men can rape with impunity since women fear reporting sexual assault, lest their families kill them. Men gain power when women are incapable of getting jobs and income. How much easier is it to beat women for the infraction of straying outside the home, or letting a wrist show, when they are black and blue blobs, and not human beings?
It is common to make accusations of ethnocentrism when one culture rejects the practices of another. Often the fears are valid.
But if a powerful group creates a culture that benefits themselves to the detriment of others, the critique is not about ethnocentrism. It is about human rights.
Also see: Early Islam’s Feminist Air
Don’t Reject Your Culture, Even When It Mutilates You
The Burqa and Individual Rights: It’s Complicated
Cultural Relativism: Must We Be Nazis to Criticize Them?
Why Are We More Offended By Racism Than Sexism?
In The Republic, Socrates asked whether we should be good and just, and why.
A listener suggested that if we are trusted we’ll do better in our business and personal relationships.
But what if no one knows you are a good person?
“The gods will know, and reward us,” observed another.
But what if the gods don’t know that we’re good? Socrates pressed.
Later, I read Emerson on the same topic. His Minister had lectured that while the wicked are often successful, and while the righteous can be miserable, at least compensation would be made in the next life.
Emerson felt that the fallacy lay in conceding that the base estimate of the market constitutes success, and assuming that justice is not done now.
What REALLY makes us happy? Doing ill to others? Stepping on others so we can get ahead?
What Emerson and Socrates were getting at was made more real to me when I heard a man talk about why he had left the KKK.
He and his wife had become so filled with hatred in that organization that misery had overtaken their lives. They left because acting hatefully, hurting others, had ended up mostly hurting themselves.
As it turns out, when we work to harm others we harm ourselves.