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Gender stereotyping, sex guilting, and the problem with sweeping sexual conclusions
An article in The Wall Street Journal essentially argued that women should give it up more. The backlash was swift and forceful.
 
Without sex, men may see the depletion of certain brain chemicals that provide a sense of well being.
Without sex, men may see the depletion of certain brain chemicals that provide a sense of well being. Thinkstock

First comes love, then comes marriage, then comes a lot of arguments about how frequently a couple should have sex.

Last week — much to the delight of "sex-deprived" husbands and horny high school boys everywhere — Elizabeth Bernstein at the Wall Street Journal told the world how damaging it is for women to not have sex with the men in their lives. Focusing on the testimony of Chris Mower, a man who determined early on in his marriage that he and his wife were not having enough sex, Bernstein argued that "sex is a more emotional experience for men than for women."

Of course, Bernstein didn't just rely on one dissastisfied husband's testimony. She cited Harvard University social psychologist Justin Lehmiller, who said that "for some men, sex may be their primary way of expressing intimacy," so, therefore, denying sex is "taking away their primary emotional outlet." Marriage and family therapist Esther Perel added that "when a man gets depressed because he's not being touched, it's just like the little boy who cries to be picked up." Moreover, Bernstein explained that partners who are "willing to engage in sexual activity even when it does not necessarily turn them on" are said to have high "sexual communal strength," which correlates to overall stronger sexual desire.

There's a chemical argument to be made, as well. The release of oxytocin and vasopressin during orgasm and the boost of testosterone  raise men's morale and level of attachment. Thus, when women "take sex away," says Rutgers University researcher Helen Fisher, men "don't have the chemical stimulants that give them a sense of well-being."

But isn't this approach to sex kind of one-sided? Indeed, Bernstein wholly fails to address women's sexual needs and desires, says Lindy West at Jezebel. While West believes "men's emotional needs are cruelly underserved in our culture," it doesn't help to argue that "denying them sex is tantamount to murdering their ability to love." Instead, if we're going to claim that men have so much trouble expressing intimacy that sex is their only viable outlet, "wouldn't it make more sense to address those problems specifically rather than just guilting their wives into 'giving' more sex?"

Moreover, West faults Bernstein for burying some key facts about the Mowers' marriage more than halfway into the article. Mower's wife, Afton, miscarried early on in their marriage, which fueled her lack of sexual desire. The fact that this truth is given a "scant six words" in a 1,200-word article about men's sexual needs "is horrifying," says West. Pressuring women to prioritize men's sexual needs over their own emotions, and specifically emotional trauma, "is not a revolutionary, maverick stance," says West. "It is the status quo dressed up as progressive pablum."

Another essential fact hidden at the end of the article: Chris and Afton come from socially conservative Mormon homes and were virgins when they married. It's irresponsible to overlook that "the couple married before they even figured out whether they were sexually compatible," writes Amanda Hess at Slate. The lessons of this story shouldn't be that sexual frustration and incompatibility can be "explained away by gender stereotypes like masculine sexual needs and feminine frigidity."

Instead, we should realize how important it is to communicate about and explore our sexual desires. "Better to talk about (and test-run) each partner's respective sexual and emotional needs before getting hitched," suggests Hess, "or publishing a trend piece purporting to apply to all people." 

 
Emily Shire is chief researcher for The Week magazine. She has written about pop culture, religion, and women and gender issues at publications including Slate, The Forward, and Jewcy.

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