Feature

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.

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." 

Recommended

6 charming homes in Queens, New York
House
Feature

6 charming homes in Queens, New York

The Check-In: Yosemite drops reservations, and more
Christmas travel.
Feature

The Check-In: Yosemite drops reservations, and more

The Week contest: Lustful ghost
Shadow of a man with his hand pressed against glass.
Feature

The Week contest: Lustful ghost

The best new Christmas-themed books for your holiday reading
A book.
Briefing

The best new Christmas-themed books for your holiday reading

Most Popular

World's 1st hydrogen-powered jet engine could mark turning point for aviation industry
A Rolls-Royce engine seen during an airshow.
Flying High

World's 1st hydrogen-powered jet engine could mark turning point for aviation industry

Everything to know about the storm poised to pummel the South
Tornado
Storm Watch

Everything to know about the storm poised to pummel the South

GOP leader Kevin McCarthy's bid for House speaker may really be in peril
Kevin McCarthy
You don't have the votes

GOP leader Kevin McCarthy's bid for House speaker may really be in peril