Is gender equality ruining your sex life?

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COMMENT

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.

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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.

 

84 comments

  • "Boring is not bad" but boring is boring. Now there's something for our kids to aspire to......

    Commenter
    InnerNorthbourne
    Location
    Canberra
    Date and time
    February 11, 2014, 7:36AM
    • You don't think it is a bit rich to have a go at Gottlieb for only relying on anecdotal evidence and then seek to refute her position (which I understand things is to merely ask the question whether egalitarianism within a relationship can have detrimental effects to the sexual dynamic of such relationships, rather than stating it for a fact) by using only anecdotal evidence and suppositions like "I suspect the same is true for many others"?

      Commenter
      Justaguy
      Date and time
      February 11, 2014, 8:41AM
      • Well of course it impacts on sex lives. The reason "Women have wrestled with gendered domestic expectations for so long.." is because men don't want to do it. They don't see it as their role in other words.

        Survey after survey shows that male partners have not shifted since the 1950's i.e women still do the vast majority of housework. So do you really believe after all this time that at some magical sweet point in the future, things will change? Of course not.

        A small amount of gender equality is good concerning the big issues but when it comes to roles that's a whole different story. The corollary is also true. Whilst men see things like domestic work as roles for women, they are also protective and resentful at female intrusions on theirs. There are some very apparent demarcation lines.

        If you want to understand this, take the most obvious of these demarcations - the endless sexual assaults we see in the military, as prime evidence of this. Men do not believe women should be in these roles. The truth is that women are not not wanted in this environment, and they are not welcome. The only reason they are there is due to a policy change in the 1980's. It has been an unmitigated disaster.

        The fact that top brass won't admit this is the elephant in the kitchen.

        Commenter
        Elephants in Kitchens
        Location
        Brisbane
        Date and time
        February 11, 2014, 8:57AM
        • "Men do not believe women should be in these roles. The truth is that women are not not wanted in this environment, and they are not welcome."

          Sorry, but this is patently not true in a global context, and in fact serves as an excellent counterargument to your other points.

          There are many military organisations around the world where men and women serve on an equal footing, both in combat and non-combat roles. The fact that Australian military culture has so many issues of this nature is a problem with the culture itself - there is nothing sacred, immutable or unchangeable about such roles.

          Commenter
          DM
          Date and time
          February 11, 2014, 11:17AM
        • +1

          This all reminds me a lot of the classic essay, "The Politics of Housework"

          http://www.uic.edu/orgs/cwluherstory/CWLUArchive/polhousework.html

          Remember, this isn't an *important* issue because you're just meant to shut up and do it ;)

          Commenter
          Red Pony
          Date and time
          February 11, 2014, 11:28AM
        • Attitudes towards women in the military are changing. The people coming in now have never known the military without women, so they don't come in with the entrenched ideas. It will take time for women to be fully accepted but it is slowly happening.

          Commenter
          Nathan
          Date and time
          February 11, 2014, 11:36AM
        • The corollary of your comment is that men are still expected to do the majority of paid work (bringing home the bacon) and do the vast majority of domestic work outside of the house (yardwork, gardening etc.).

          Funny that those surveys you mention never seem to acknowledge this fact.

          Commenter
          Freddie Frog
          Date and time
          February 11, 2014, 11:53AM
        • @DM
          Actually that's quite incorrect. I think you should actually talk to people from these other military organisations. I know for a fact that the Brits and Americans at both officer and NCO levels feel this way in the main. There are some exceptions but they are not the majority.

          The Israelis experimented with females in combat in the '90's and withdrew them from such roles after they and their male comrades began taking unacceptable casualties. Females do not have the psychological, emotional and physical makeup essential for these positions. They know it and so do the the males. It's dangerous and quite flawed.

          It is only by sheer contrivance in the dying years of the 20th century that this role reversal was even possible and I remember the votes being taken in the mid-80's around this issue. A close-run thing.

          Ultimately, such role reversal or sharing could never have happened without trendy manufactured government affirmative action and EEO principles - such as under natural law conditions which, hitherto, at varying levels, determined how institutions were organised and governed.

          Commenter
          PJ
          Location
          Brisbane
          Date and time
          February 11, 2014, 12:47PM
        • "Females do not have the psychological, emotional and physical makeup essential for these positions. They know it and so do the the males. It's dangerous and quite flawed."

          That's an....interesting conclusion. On what was it based, exactly? Why were the casualty rates higher? What was the cause of the increase - the actual conclusions, not the ones you've claimed, unless they were the official reasons? Were the women under-performing in combat roles? Or was the men's performance and unit cohesion inhibited by the women in some way? How?

          Without some context and explanation, I find it somewhat questionable that you've retroactively extrapolated a universal statement that blames the women for the failure to integrate, not the existing military culture they were attempting to participate in.

          A lot of the same arguments you've made were (and are) used as reasons gay men shouldn't serve in the army. And, not too long ago, they were used as the reasons black men shouldn't serve in the United States armed forces.

          Commenter
          DM
          Date and time
          February 11, 2014, 1:37PM
        • "and do the vast majority of domestic work outside of the house (yardwork, gardening etc.)."

          Yardwork, as you call it, and gardening are jobs that are done when people have time and inclination. Indoor domestic work, washing, cooking, cleaning, happens to a timetable that refuses to give way if you have the flu, broken your leg, or the tennis final is on.

          Commenter
          cuts both ways
          Location
          Melbourne
          Date and time
          February 11, 2014, 2:07PM

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