It’s the Patriarchy Stupid!
(I should mention before I start that there are lots of same sex couples with children in the UK and beyond but the research is sparse at best unfortunately, so for now this post is all about heterosexual relationships.)
In my last post I described how the Aka and the Ngandu have a lot more sex than we do in the West. In part this can be explained by the fact that they see sex as important work in a society in which having children and children themselves are greatly valued. One Aka woman summarised this outlook by describing sex as ‘night work’. However, something I didn’t mention is that the Aka are one of the most gender equal societies on earth. They’re also often cited as an example of a society that has exceptionally active and committed fathers. Could it be that we’re not having as much sex as we’d like because our relationships aren’t equal?
In Wednesday Martin’s book Untrue, she asserts that it is untrue that women have a lower libido than men and that they seek monogamy more than men. She wants women’s sexuality to be seen as equal to men’s in terms of the desire for sex with multiple others and wants to shift away from the idea that men always want sex and that women don’t. Trained as an anthropologist she’s a fun and provocative writer and I really enjoyed her best seller Primates of Park Avenue but in this book I think she’s missed some really crucial points. Wednesday states that women have ‘a hard time with monogamy; because women get bored with one partner more quickly than men do.”Similar research in the UK that showed that women’s sex drive drops off in long term relationships, whereas for men it doesn’t implying that perhaps women aren’t as into monogamy as we thought. However, this is all wrong; it’s not that women seek variety and find monogamy boring. It’s that being in a long-term relationship is a lot less fun for women than it is for men (sorry guys, I love you but it’s true). Once you add kids in too then it’s no surprise women are less desirous of sex.
Charlotte Faircloth (total legend) has written several papers related to the domestic burden that women carry in long term relationships which I’ll talk about in future posts as they’re worth considering on their own. But for this post I just want to focus on one sociology study done in the US with long term married couples. What the researchers discovered is that almost all the couples they studied reported conflict around sex. The conflict was mostly about husbands wanting more sex than their wives. But as one of their participants, Chantalle says, it’s “what goes on outside of the bedroom” that’s important, it’s about how fairly the household labour has been shared that impacts the quality and quantity of sex. As she put it, “[I tell him] If I have had a really good day, and you have been helpful, I would say you took out the trash and you brought the trashcans in and you mowed the lawn and everything. Those are the things that work for me to kind of get me going.” Housework is a turn on. In other words, if your partner is pulling his weight outside of the bedroom you’re more likely to want more sex. You feel appreciated, you’re less tired and you have more mental head space.
It’s well known that the majority of domestic labour in families is still carried out by women and that this isn’t just about cooking and cleaning but planning kids parties, buying presents for Christmas, planning social engagements, play dates, holidays and so on and so forth; what’s been described as carrying the ‘mental load’. The US research also rather depressingly points out, that not only are women carrying the greater burden of domestic labour but they also then carry out the ‘emotional work’ of making their partners feel desired; or ‘performing desire’ as they put it. As one husband put it, “You can’t engineer [sex]. You know, you can’t say, ‘Okay here is what we are going to do. We’re going to do this. I mean you can’t. Sex is more a—is totally this animal, chemical whatever it is.” So the couples in the study where the husbands were happier about their sex lives reported that the wives were making more effort to express their desire in the spur of the moment.
This relates to the whole idea of ‘night work’ again. Because in the west we see sex as a spontaneous act that reflects our inner selves and desires, rather than socially mediated like everything else, we don’t like to think of it as something that is affected by outside factors like how long we work and how many responsibilities we have. The husbands complained that the women weren’t showing enough spontaneous desire. But perhaps if we see sex as like all the other elements of a happy (ish) family, then it’s going to take effort and sharing domestic work is a good start, with maybe smashing capitalism as the ultimate goal! In summary, equality is sexy.
Here are some great references and a list of my favourite findings from the ‘British national survey of sexual attitudes and lifestyles’
- You’ve probably seen this French cartoon by Emma about the ‘mental load’ but it’s always worth another look, especially if you’re a guy – please read this!
- The Performance of Desire: Gender and Sexual Negotiation in Long-Term Marriages Sinikka Elliott and Debra Umberson The University of Texas, Austin (2006)
- Patriarchy for Profit: Reflections on Some Social Facts Sherry B. Ortner (2019)
- Capitalism, Patriarchy, and Job Segregation by Sex Heidi Hartmann (Univeristy of Chicago Press, 1976)
- What factors are associated with reporting lacking interest in sex and how do these vary by gender? Findings from the third British national survey of sexual attitudes and lifestyles https://bmjopen.bmj.com/content/7/9/e016942
These are some of the findings I found interesting but couldn’t include in the post.
- Less educated and unemployed men have less desire for sex
- Only women in longer relationships report less interest in sex, doesn’t make any difference in desire for men
- “women living with a partner were more likely to lack interest in sex than those in other relationship categories (see table 1). For women, all relationship categories had lower AORs than living with partner. Duration of most recent sexual relationship was significantly associated with lacking interest in sex only among women, being more common among those in longer relationships.”
- “Among women but not men, not sharing the same level of sexual interest with a partner, and not sharing the same sexual likes and dislikes, was also associated.”
- Those who found it ‘always easy to talk about sex’ with their partner were less likely to report low interest.
- Having been pregnant in the last year was associated with lacking sexual interest as was having one or more young child(ren) (women only).
- In contrast, for men frequency of masturbation reflects reduced frequency of partnered sex. (not the case in the US though)
- Women who’s first sexual experience was not positive carry that through to the rest of their lives. The regret lasts forever it seems. These findings suggest that for women early sexual experiences may shape future sexual encounters/relationships to a greater extent than for men.
- Supporting the idea that men like sex more than women makes women less likely to want to sex The results suggest that endorsing stereotypical gender norms related to sex may adversely affect women more than men.
- For women in particular, the experience of sexual interest appears strongly linked with their perceptions of the quality of their relationships, their communication with partners and their expectations/attitudes about sex.
- Depression affects men’s sexual desire more than women
- Disability or physical limitations affect’s women’s sexual desire more than men