In 1991, Susan Faludi wrote a seminal text on the tactics employed by anti-feminists to try and undermine the battle for liberation. Faludi showed how every wave of feminism has resulted in the same kind of arguments, the most common of which is that equality harms rather than helps women.
Equality (which we are also told has been achieved tenfold) apparently makes women unhappy; it places a bigger burden on our time, our energy and our mental well-being. Wouldn’t it be great if we could just call time on the failed feminism experiment and revert back to the traditional gender roles that gave us such wonderful things as financial disempowerment, legalised marital rape and Valium addictions?
The book was appropriately titled ‘Backlash’, and it’s as true today as it was twenty years ago. The latest argument to arise is one so ludicrous in its premise that it even has me perplexed. In an article in the New York Times, author and psychotherapist Lori Gottlieb asks whether couples in more egalitarian partnerships (or ‘peer marriages’) have less satisfying sex lives.
Despite there being no real evidence to support this assertion (aside from a 20 year old study which, as Gottlieb herself admits, is not fully reliable as a data source), a good 1000+ words are spent exploring whether or not gender equality slays the sexual beast. And here’s the twist - it’s women not men whose boners are suffering as a result of chores traditionally coded as female being taken up by men.
Clever, Gottlieb, clever.
Whenever the winds of feminism begin to gather strength, there is protracted handwringing about how gender equality leads to a less harmonious society. The funny thing is, I don’t doubt that Gottlieb is invested in gender equality. She admits herself that she admires peer marriages, and spends a good deal of time extolling the virtues of a partnership in which both (or all, in the case of poly people) contribute equally. But she believes there is merit in exploring whether or not such equality results in disappointing sexual experiences, especially given the mixed messages the filter through culture regarding sexual desire. She writes:
“When I was speaking about relationships at a conference and mentioned that I was writing about this topic, a large group of women who had just waxed poetic about “Fifty Shades of Grey” suddenly seemed outraged. Was I saying people can’t have good sex in egalitarian marriages? (No, I wasn’t.) Isn’t marriage better over all when partners have equal power? (In my opinion, yes.) Then why write about this kind of thing? (Because when a roomful of women who just raved about “Fifty Shades of Grey” don’t want me to write about “this kind of thing,” that tells me it should be talked about.)”
The problem is that Gottlieb, like most people who explore the possible negative effects equality can have on social harmony (ha!), seems to ignore key issues. One of her most relied upon examples of this sexual disconnect involves two of her therapy clients arguing over the distribution of chores. After ironing out some of the uneven ‘kinks’ in the couple’s marriage - the dealing with which resulted in a generally happier marriage overall - Gottlieb was surprised to discover their sex life had taken a dive.
In therapy, the wife assured her husband that she remained very much attracted to him, particularly when ‘you’re just back from the gym and you’re all sweaty and you take off your clothes to get in the shower and I see your muscles.’
So far, so sexy.
But when it transpired that such a situation had occurred that morning only to dissipate into frustration and an argument over vacuuming after the husband tossed his dirty clothes onto the floor, he expressed confusion. Would his wife have been more attracted to him had he done the vacuuming (as it was his turn)? Probably not, she admits. The vacuuming would have killed the weightlifting vibe.
This story is used as anecdotal evidence for Gottlieb’s suggestion that too much gender neutral equality in the home removes sexual frisson. Now, I’m no sex therapist but I do live in a romantic domestic arrangement that I would argue is egalitarian. And it seems to me this little problem of the slayed lady drive is less to do with watching a man vacuum and more to do with once again being forced to nag him to do it.
I can’t speak for all women, but nagging is not an activity I enjoy doing. I suspect the same is true for many others. And I don’t enjoy it because, apart from being deeply frustrating, it makes me feel like I’m not a lover but a mother. Could there be anything less conducive to sexual congress then suddenly viewing your partner as a naughty child who needs to be coerced into putting their toys away?
Women have wrestled with gendered domestic expectations for so long that it’s no wonder that wound remains sore and easily disturbed. To be more specific, even egalitarian relationships are not immune from the subtle undercurrents of traditional gender roles, and their impact on romantic happiness.
I’ve no doubt that emphasis on gender equality has had an impact on sexual relationships, most notably through heterosexual partnerships, almost undoubtedly for the better. Because while it’s possible that this same equality hasn’t always resulted in exceptional sexual experiences (for surely it is foolhardy to treat sex as a magical salve that must always be transformative in order to qualify as ‘good’) it cannot be argued that the establishment of a culture which priorities respect and mutual engagement has negatively impacted heterosexual relationships. Boring is not the same as bad.
Because what sort of mental gymnastics must we perform in order to accept that as the case? The kind which neatly delivers us into the sort of mindset which prioritises sexual harmony over emotional harmony and which subtly reasserts the idea that sex is a one sided pleasure exchange guided by absurd notions of biological determinism and need. And frankly, we’re trying to liberate ourselves from silly and damaging ideas like this. That’s the point.