"[Relationships] are terrifying because when we are in them, we are completely exposed as our true self to another human being." Photo: Getty Images
Okay, everyone. If you read this website I presume you have heard of a woman, Bettina Arndt? Yes? If not please Google "Bettina Arndt + sex + men", and lots of stuff will come up and you can make up your own mind regarding her opinions on men and women and sex. Just kidding! I'm here to put my own spin on it and so will help make up your mind for you! Please do not think that you could be so stupid as to do your own reading and draw your own conclusions. You are a girl (probably!), don't forget.
So here is my opinion on sex as a young woman in a committed relationship: Bettina Arndt is TOTALLY RIGHT in some regards. I hope your head wasn't damaged too badly just then as the sky fell. Yes, I think she is right on certain issues. She is right to say that in long term relationships partners should consent to sex when they don't really feel like it. Please, form an orderly queue from which to wrench my feminist card from my hands and then burn it on a sad fire rising from the smouldering ashes of copies of the Second Sex.
Here is a scenario: in a long term relationship one of the partners is tired. Their days are long at work in a job that is often stressful and then they come home to cook a meal for their partner, who is lying on the couch playing Xbox and drinking a beer. Later that night the same layabout on the couch greatly desires to get their jollies on despite the fact their exhausted partner is not really "in the mood", and also has a sore back. Still, the tired and sore and now a little grumpy party submits to the other having their way with them, a scene which turns out to be rich with comedy and actually quite enjoyable for the two of them, because after all they are having sex and not suffering aneurisms from trying to assemble an IKEA wardrobe together.
What's happened here?
I know this story and know that it is true because it happened to me (anecdotal evidence always suffices in these discussions). I was the one hogging the Xbox controller. My boyfriend (who if reading this now is maybe feeling the urge to murder me in my sleep tonight for violating his/our privacy in this way, but you know honey, personal stories are the lifeblood of the opinion writer! Sorry) is the one who cooks most of the meals in our house after working a long day. He is the one who, despite not feeling super-awesome, will still roll out the sexy times. In this regard he is far more generous than I. This is not because he is a man with some unending raging sex drive that he cannot control; it is because he loves me. And loving someone means doing things for them that they want or need fulfilled, but that you might not want to do.
The bedroom is not compromise's sole domain (but it does come with a nice duvet). Sometimes it means compromise is something as simple as watching Love Actually, again (boyfriend's favourite Christmas movie), or listening to some horrible record they just brought home. Or putting out the recycling when it is freezing cold at night and you forgot to do it earlier. Again. Or patiently suffering through extremely detailed Law & Order plot summaries. Other times it is things that are far more complicated than that (and sometimes it's just watching It's Complicated, again. My choice.)
Were you thinking earlier that my boyfriend sounds like the greatest dude ever? That's because he is! Just look at what he does for me. (Smug-points here to me! Please feel immediately terrible about yourself if this does not reflect your personal experience! Life is a contest, never forget.) He is also just a plain rational, adult human being. However, if the gender roles in this story were reversed, I don't think anyone would be singing the praises of the poor, deluded woman who would be cast as an agency-lacking cipher/doormat. Now you can plainly see how offensive, simplistic, unhelpful, reductive and relentlessly binary the arguments are that continue to rage around these issues on pages like this one. When it comes to how and why women's sexual desires can decrease over time, it is an increasingly well-documented though not yet as well understood phenomenon with complex roots in human evolution.
Why I think there is a grain of truth to what Bettina Arndt says is because relationships are pretty much totally made out of compromise and negotiation. They breakdown roughly as: compromise/negotiation/cuddles = 40/40/18%. So my feelings about people who have knee-jerk reactions to her suggestion of sexual compromise in aide of maintaining healthy intimacy, effectively amount to: grow up. Not always getting your way is the hallmark of no longer being a child, and it’s a two-way street.
What else intimate relationships are partly comprised of is absolute terror (2%). They are terrifying because when we are in them, we are completely exposed as our true self to another human being. Our true, fault-ridden, sometimes horrible selves and all our desires, no matter how base, are there to be seen in the clear-eyed glare of someone else who has chosen to not look away, not matter what they see there (and because they like the look of the awesome stuff they also see.) They too want to be able to be seen in this way, to not be judged for it either. But this is the fear that being with someone else invites; that one day they might see you and decide to look away. That notion is extraordinarily frightening. Conquering the fear is the work of maintaining the relationship.
That's why talking -- really talking, not aiming pot shots, ad hominem attacks or speaking on behalf of entire genders in broad, strictly heterosexual strokes -- about sex within our relationships is sometimes really difficult, why articulating our wants and needs is an art we have to learn to perfect; and why hysterical arguments on either side of a divide are doing nothing but pitting (presumably well-meaning) people against each other.
It would be ideal if everyone could remember the immortal words of those great sex educators of people of a certain age, Salt'n'Pepa. Their eminently catchy tune that admittedly the err, deeper thrust of was slightly lost on ten- year-old me, was called Let's Talk About Sex. Not Let's Dogmatically Pull Each Other's Hair In A Prescriptive Fashion And Maybe Talk About Sex If There Is Time Afterwards. Their title is much punchier and it gets right to the point; even a child could grasp it, just about.
"Let's talk about all the good things and the bad things that may be/let's talk about sex."
Elmo Keep writes for the Hairpin, the Green Guide and elsewhere and is actually not as bad a girlfriend as this story makes out, hopefully.