Sexual Desire & Sexism

Karen Zack, Man As Object

Women typically have lower sexual desire and drive than men in our society, according to both sex surveys and statistics on sexual dysfunction. Our culture may be partly to blame. Consider this:

We are bombarded with “sexy women” but not “sexy men”

Whether on billboards, TV ads, Dancing With The Stars, Olympic ice skating, or professional football, women are half-dressed and men are fully-clothed. The camera hones in on women’s breasts and butts and ignores men. Sure, we are seeing more hot men these days thanks to Matthew McConaughey and Ryan Gosling. But the last time I checked out People’s sexiest men I saw lots of faces and loose T-shirts and few bods. Even the clothing that women and men walk around in show off women’s bodies and, more often, hide men’s.

As Amanda Marcotte at RH Reality Check points out,

Straight women don’t get nearly the provocation on a daily basis — is it any wonder that 60% of the men who answered the Consumer Reports survey (on sex) thought about sex once a day, but only 19% of women?

No part of the male is fetished

No part of the male body is fetishized, either. Men stare at breasts and butts, but what are we supposed to look at? These fetishes may seem natural for men but they are actually a cultural construction. How are they created? In part, see the section above. Or see my piece called, “Men Aren’t Hard Wired To Find Breasts Attractive.” Ever wonder why tribal men don’t get all excited about tribal women’s breasts and butts?

Porn may lead men to think we get aroused by penises, but when Anthony Weiner sexted a photo of his package, Tracy Clark-Flory over at Salon asked women if being sexed a man’s penis would “do it” for them. Most expressed repulsion. Or as one put it, “If by ‘do it (for me)’ you mean ‘send me to the toilet retching,’ then yes, it does.”

Sexy men can seem “gay”

Women are not taught to consume the male body with their eyes, as men consume theirs. To make matters worse, pics of sexy men can seem “gay.” Since sexiness is almost always meant for the male gaze, on an unconscious level women can come to see “sexy” men – perhaps posed in Speedos — through male eyes, too. Bummer!

Women don’t feel sexy

Meanwhile, we might not feel too sexy, ourselves. Surrounded by the “perfect” images our partners consume, we might not feel too hot by comparison to ladies who live on lettuce, surgery and photoshop. Do we really want to reveal our bodies and be negatively judged? The opposite of an aphrodisiac.

Good girls shouldn’t

The double standard is loosening up but sexual women may still be called: slut, whore, ho’, tramp, skank, nympho, hussy, tart, loose, trollop… the list goes on. Men possess cocky cocks while women’s privates are just “down there.” College men returning home Sunday morning may take the Walk of Fame while the women they’ve just had sex with take the Walk of Shame. And so women’s sexuality becomes more repressed.

The problem of housework

Sometimes the problem is more mundane. Women do about twice as much housework as men. After a full day at work women are more likely than men to cook dinner, clean up, and get kids ready for bed. Then they’re too tired for sex and resent their husbands. Not a way to get in the mood.

Or, maybe mom works in the home where her “invisible” work gets noticed only when it’s undone. A lack of appreciation won’t get anyone in the mood for love making.

Sexual violence

Sexual violence also takes a toll. Rape is most prevalent when women are devalued. And women who are raped often lose interest in sex. One woman I know of went numb and emotionally left her body when she had sex because a past rape had made sex seem terrifying and repugnant to her. “Desperate Housewife,” Teri Hatcher, was molested by an uncle who told her that one day she would like sex. That only made her close up more because she didn’t want to prove her disgusting uncle right.

But all women also face the prospect of getting screwed, rammed, nailed, cut, boned, banged, smacked, beaten, and f’d — in common street parlance — when they get intimate. Who wants that?

How to raise a woman’s desire

If you want women to desire sex then: help with housework, show appreciation, stop shaming women for being sexual, or for not fitting ridiculous “ideals,” desire her and let your lady know she’s beautiful.

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About BroadBlogs

I have a Ph.D. from UCLA in sociology (emphasis: gender, social psych). I currently teach sociology and women's studies at Foothill College in Los Altos Hills, CA. I have also lectured at San Jose State. And I have blogged for Feminispire, Ms. Magazine, The Good Men Project and Daily Kos. Also been picked up by The Alternet.

Posted on May 7, 2012, in body image, feminism, gender, objectification, psychology, sex, sexism, violence against women, women and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 23 Comments.

  1. Great post, Georgia. I’ve been wanting to explore this idea some, particularly in the area of hormonal fluctuations—I believe it was Amanda Marcotte who wrote in a recent reply to a Cracked.com article that men who assume women don’t understand their level of desire can be condescending when trying to explain male desire to women (as if we have no idea what desire is like), which is very true. And yet, in addition to all the reasons you list above, female desire is also cyclical, with, for some, PMS, sore breasts, cramps, and nausea as part of the physical experience. Add that to housework and culture, and yeah, the lights are not always going to go on. I wish there were more cultural opportunity for men to understand the female experience of desire.

  2. Jaen Wirefly

    Fantastic article!

  3. thebitchybride

    You touch on the main problem in my eyes: sexuality is so constructed by the society we live in and the media we’re exposed to that it’s incredibly hard to have a meaningful conversation about sexual desire. You raise important and totally valid points, but there’s also the argument that statistics show that the majority of straight women find the female form attractive. So the prevalence of scantily clad and sexualised women in advertising, etc, can’t be written off as simply an indicator of a patriarchal society. Why, for instance, are women’s magazines full of unclothed women? Because advertisers have found that women are more likely to buy a product if they identify with the attractive/sexy/desirable woman using that product. Similarly, straight women can often be more turned on watching lesbian porn than straight men are when watching male-on-male porn. Now, all of that might be a product of the way advertising works in our society and how the female body is fetishised even for women, but it may also be the reason it all works that way. It seems somewhat impossible to unpack.

    • Thanks for your thoughtful comment.

      I’m aware of this and have written about it before. Both male and female bodies are attractive, and if people aren’t homophobic they can admit to finding their same sex attractive. (At the very least people can tell how attractive they are in comparison to others of their same sex, in terms of cultural preferences.)

      Yet “women as attractive” has been put on steroids so that women become much more sexualized than men. And this has been accomplished through cultural means. See the posts below.

      And consider that if this were biologically based then Western women would not find breasts more attractive than tribal men do. But they do. That’s cultural, not biological.

      People tend to think that however their society is is the natural order of things. Why are all the images of women that are out there of one body type? Because it’s a universal and transcendent ideal? No. Prior to 1890 the beauty ideal was plump http://broadblogs.com/2012/04/25/the-plump-beauty-ideal-exotic-dancers-in-1890/. In the 1920s Flappers bound their breasts to achieve a modern, sexy flat-chested look. In W. Africa today the ideal is obesity. And in 1950s America it seemed only natural and normal that women work inside the home and men work outside of it (to move beyond beauty ideals). Yet in each place and time the people likely believe(d) that that ideal was universal and transcendent, instead of taught to us by culture.

      Men Aren’t Hard Wired To Find Breasts Attractive

      http://broadblogs.com/2010/11/04/men-aren%e2%80%99t-hard-wired-to-find-breasts-attractive/

      Women Learn the Breast Fetish, Too

      http://broadblogs.com/2010/11/29/women-learn-the-breast-fetish-too/

      Women Seeing Women as Sexier than Men

      http://broadblogs.com/2011/01/10/women-seeing-women-as-sexier-than-men/

      Men: Erotic Objects of Women’s Gaze

      http://broadblogs.com/2011/04/14/men-erotic-objects-of-women%e2%80%99s-gaze/

      Man as Object: Reversing the Gaze

      http://broadblogs.com/2011/10/24/man-as-object-reversing-the-gaze/

      Men, Women React to Male/Female Nudity

      http://broadblogs.com/2011/10/12/gendered-reactions-to-male-and-female-nudity/

      • thebitchybride

        Oh yeah, I totally agree. I’m really just playing devil’s advocate because I think it’s impossible to tell what the “natural” state would be. You use the example of tribal men who don’t find bare breasts overly sexualised, but surely that’s as much about their cultural conditioning as men here ogling page 3 girls is ours. It’s a really interesting and rich topic.

      • Well tribal men aren’t “conditioned” to NOT find breasts sexually attractive. Breasts, like most of reality, don’t have inherent meaning. Our culture has given them sexual meaning by selectively hiding/revealing and intently focusing on them both visually (the camera, e.g.) or through talk (men talking to each other about them, etc.).

        The only way you can tell what’s a cultural construction and what’s natural is to check cross culturally. If you find something in every culture it’s likely natural (though Western culture has spread its influence so widely that finding something in many cultures isn’t necessarily indicative, so it’s tricky). Where things vary, culture is involved. Above I cited numerous examples of cultural variation, indicating the cultural construct.

  4. interesting article. I agree that women are extremely sexualized. Just yesterday, I watched the new action movie, The Avengers. One of the main characters, a female superhero, was played by Scarlett Johansen. From the beginning she was extremely sexualized. The angles they filmed her in, the tight and skimpy superhero outfits, not to mention that they kept zooming in on her butt! The other superheroes(played by men) were not sexualized in this way.
    It’s not strange that women’s sex drives are lower than mens because the media isn’t aimed to please the woman, but rather please men’s needs. I think that’s why when we see men that ”are too sexy” we shy away from these images ; because they look ”gay”. I think that the way we define male sexuality is sort of obscure. Male sexuality doesn’t solely depend on them revealing more skin and showing of their butt and abs. Female sexuality depicted in the media depends heavily on our appearance, for men it is more obscure.

  5. Your post (as always) was right on the mark. Some of the sexiest parts of a mans “anatomy” are his heart and brain which don’t photograph well.
    An erotic scene for me? My fiance cooks me dinner and cleans the house. He isn’t doing this to “get some” but because he is a considerate person. It’s easy to get turned on when your loved one is good to you. It starts with a hug and kiss and leads from there.

  6. This is a really fantastic article, and i think all men should read this. Many man think that cooking dinner, taking care of kids, and having sex are just women’s homework. Even women are more active than men nowadays, going out to work more than eight hours a day, sometimes making more money than their husbands, and taking on the responsibility of taking care of the kids and housework, etc all of that are “not named” but it makes women “overloaded”. But men don’t even appreciate all of that.

  7. I don’t want to seem gay, but I want to look sexy. I looked at the pictures of the men posing and I think there is some gender inequality here because women pose the exact same position and they do not seem gay at all.
    THe advice towards the end of the article was good advice. In order to reduce gender inequality, I could just do things that culture expects women to do, like cook for her, or do a little more housework, and tell your girl how pretty she is. I currently only do the third one because I suck at cleaning and cooking. People who think I leave messes don’t understand that I’m not a slob but I am not particularly good at cleaning. I always just thought it was because I am a guy but who really knows ? Do I naturally suck at cleaning or did gender inequality raise me to not practice it enough ?
    Another thing I liked about the advice towards the edn was that it didn’t seem prone to making men uncomfortable as masculine men. It’s not asking alot nor is it trying to damage men’s self-esteem by asking men to appreciate women more and do a little more housework.

  8. Adorina Betgorgiz

    Our bodies constantly get judged by men. We even judge ourselves and compare ourselves to unreal women of media, photoshopped or women on lettuce diet. We look at their naked flat belly and compare ourselves to them and judge ourselves and as a result our self esteem decreases. But men, in media, as mentioned in the blog, don’t show much skin and in women’s eyes can still look sexy and hot even with a loose t-shirt. Maybe this is one reason men always tend to have higher confidence to compare to women. Men with a big belly barely doesn’t lose his confidence!!!!But women would.
    Men can proudly talk about their recent sex but women will be judged as sluts and put down to wall of shame. If women wasn’t blamed for having sex, maybe her brain was more after-sex-shame-free and she could have had more fun while having sex just like men.
    Housework and its relation to sex results was interesting. It is interesting how a little appreciation of housework done by women correlates with the pre-sex emotions that can slowly turn her on toward having a more pleasant sex.

  9. I’m a bit confused by this…according to your link most women DON’T find a penis exciting? This is news to me! I don’t have any same sex friends to discuss these topics with, but I had assumed that other women were also highly aroused by the sight of a man’s ass or penis. Why on earth isn’t it?

  10. I think the big difference is how women’s bodies are sexualized. What I mean, I don’t know if it’s simply the taboo or not supposed to be shown, but women’s clothing reveals, but in a teasing manner, cleavage, lingerie, bikinis, etc.What I mean, not trying to sound bad, but I’ve seen what a bunch of breasts in person and porn and I think that even if I saw, topless women about everywhere, yeah I’d probably be desenstized, but the first pretty woman that had a top on, but not just a top, but cleavage or showing off her “asset,” my interest would be to her. Women’s bodies through clothing in the variety and reveal are accesorized much more than men’s so it only adds that much allow. When it comes to watching sex, guys like to see a naked woman, but I think you’ll be surpised how guys get really stirred sometimes more so by a revealing outfit thats shows her body, but still a mystery. Men’s clothes arent styled that way, and one’s that are, are “gay”. and women see it that way too, but maybe because they are conditioned to see it that way. You know what’s interesting and maybe its conditioning, but its interesting how female vanity is seen as normal, even though I don’t think too much vanity is good. But male vanity is seen as worse especiallly among women. A woman being vain with her appearance or showing off? thats normal. A good looking guy being vain is a…”tool”, conceited and a man showing off his body or being shirtless comes across as full of himself or more likely seen that way by women. A man speding time on his hair a long time and preening, is seen as full of himself and many women don’t like that, and say they like a man to be a man. A man flexing or showing off his muscles, is seen as being full or himself by women even if they like what they see as far as his body, that vanity turns women off, not something for guys to do, ya know. Women showing off their body, even if in a vain way, she’s not seen as full of herself or not nearly like how the man is perceived, especially by other women.

    • Makes a lot of sense.

      I also think that when men portray themselves as sexy, they come across as gay, because we’re so used to seeing sex objects as being for men’s consumption. Women end up seeing these sexy men through men’s eyes.

  11. Can you explain to me why, women are then drawn to men if in fact from bodily desire we are repulsive; and if women find women the sexier sex and can orgasm from lesbian porn, then why don’t they get into a relationship with what they lust for?

    As a man i find extremely anorexic women and really obese women unattractive body wise, should i then be with a woman like that so we can be equally in no sexual lust?

    I like many men don’t and haven’t thought about women being this unattracted to our bodies desire wise. It’s really confusing i think i am probably 10% of the American population thinking about this because men don’t usually look at women blogs or ask these sort of questions.

    If this became a known fact where 100% of the population knew about it, i believe men would become just like women by over thinking that their not beautiful or attractive enough or at all. Heterosexual relationships would be in turmoil.

    As a man it would be nice to just walk out side and have a girl talk to me and be interested in me without me trying, but that rarely happens to any man.

    End Question:
    Why are women not in lesbian relationships with what they desire and can masturbate to? And do they want men that don’t cause them to desire from sight, when sight is a major thing in our beings?

    I’ve seen girls that said they only want men, but then tried out sex with a woman and enjoyed it and persuade the relationship. I think this would be the norm if women were to try it out more.

    I think in these times and days its better for heterosexual men to disconnect from sex and become Asexual until women figure it out, but to much of a draw to the woman it probably won’t happen.

    • First, I’m wondering if you would mind if I edited and posted your last question (the one before this one) as a blog post? With “Eric U” as author? I’m thinking of writing a series answering these sorts of questions, and that question would be a good jumping off point. It was pretty well-written and covered a lot of points.

      Women don’t find men’s bodies repulsive. A lot of women don’t find a penis all that attractive, but I doubt that a lot of men find a woman’s vagina all that attractive either. That doesn’t mean that she doesn’t find the rest of him attractive. In fact, women are most drawn by looks more than anything else.

      I don’t know why women often find female bodies more attractive than men, yet would rather be in a relationship with men. My guess is that men actually are still attractive, and women have a biological desire to be with men, and almost all of our socialization is heterosexual, besides. Most girls don’t grow up watching porn and the threesomes in it. Almost all of the movies, television shows, billboards, magazine advertisements, literature, romance novels, etc. are about male/female relationships. So in addition to biology, most of our socialization is also hetero.

      Women aren’t likely to hit on men anytime soon. Mostly because of socialization. Women, even if they did lust after you, would probably do something to attract you to them, instead of take the initiative themselves. Because they have been strongly socialized to think that way. They are taught to be attractive. And they are generally taught that approaching a man would be a turnoff to the guy – that men like the chase. It also makes women the aggressor, and they have been taught that men are supposed to be the aggressor and the leader. Women are taught to be more passive. Women might even think of themselves as unattractive if they feel like they have to be the ones to make the first move.

  12. :) No i wouldn’t mind you posting my words as a blog, and it would be a big honor if you did so. In the last post I was just writing fast and didn’t really proofread; i meant to say that women are unaffected by the male bodies, meaning that it doesn’t cause sexual thoughts to ignite into desire like a woman does a man; i didn’t mean to say repulsed.

    I was also thinking the same thing, about society teaching women to want men and men to want women. One thing i would like to know is why is it that gay males are unaffected by sexual desire from the sight of males, when while they were growing up it was taboo or forbidden to lust after the male body, almost the same as women.

    I asked a question on Yahoo answers asking gay men about what they found sexually attractive about the male body, but this is someone else’s question lol so i chose to showcase this one.

    What gay men find another gay men “Parts of the body” attractive?

    http://answers.yahoo.com/question/index?qid=20080425013127AAVosRI

    This is also a answer from my question

    “The perfect body for me is one not too buff or too skinny. Like a swimmers body. A big plus if they have a swimmers body with a nice butt. So, butt, chest, confidence (but not arrogance) as well a humor, kindness, and very important is hygiene and clothing style. Combination of all those things make a guy sexy, you don’t have to have all of those traits, but some of them go a long way”

    It turns out some of the gay men i asked said i was barking up the wrong tree, and that women are nothing like gay men.

    • Thank you.

      I believe there’s a biological basis to our sexuality that rides on continuum. Gay men who are strongly gay won’t be too affected by the culture. It may be that women have more biological flexibility, but they can find women sexy, yet still not want to have sex with them, perhaps for biological reasons.

      Why don’t you ask gay men how they experience seeing women’s bodies: since women can come to see women’s bodies as sexy, do they (gay men) at all? Like can they see women as sexy yet not want to have sex with them (similar to many women — the ones who don’t want sex with women, but see them as sexy)?

      Interestingly, that quote is very similar to what women like, too (whether the gay man knows it or not).

  13. I don’t know. I have six sisters and three daughters. Few men were predators. My sisters would give the Devil a run for his money. I believe it is where you are standing. If I was a lone good looking stripper in between 40 middle age drunk woman. I would be scare. I had a woman track me down by my last four of my social numbers on my boxers to a Army post with 40,000 soldiers in 1992. Best way to be is careful. You never know who you are talking to. A interesting blog. Could lead to a long conversation.

    • This comment looks like it was meant for “women as prey” and I wish you had responded there.

      It’s not to say all or most men are predictors, and I tried to make that clear. Perhaps not clear enough, eh? It’s more the situation of “women meant to attract, men meant to be attracted” that creates a dynamic that can easily lead to this. Maybe I’ll add this point to the post.

      — Ok, I just changed it. Thanks for your input. Let me know if you still think it’s off.

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