Is male desire a woman's responsibility?


Last year, I went to the Wheeler Centre in Melbourne to hear the sex therapist Bettina Arndt speak. What followed was 45 minutes of mindboggling retrosexism in which much mention was made of terrifying creeping hands, impenetrable jungles and men paddling canoes through sinister canals.

With the weekend publication of this piece, it's interesting to see that nothing has changed for our pre-eminent sex therapist. And when I say "interesting", I of course mean in the sense that Arndt-Women-Awful has managed to crack the time-space continuum to not only broadcast to us direct from the 1950s, but to do it Groundhog Day style. If I hadn't been too busy banging my head against the wall, I might have been able to learn how to play jazz piano.

This latest outing sees Arndt advising her readers of new advances in what's been called "pink Viagra", a pill to increase sexual desire in women. The idea is that women experiencing fading desire well into their relationships might be able to kickstart things to get back on the horse – so to speak.


It's not that I entirely disagree with Arndt's premise, which is underpinned by the idea that partnered women's libidos and sex drives decrease as they grow older. According to Arndt, the fate of long-term couples is to potter towards a future as sexually exciting as an overcooked bowl of diet porridge and twice as dry. This may be true in and of itself – I can't claim to have canvassed the same number of people as Arndt, nor counselled them in their sexual dissatisfaction. It would be foolish to think there wasn't some truth in the basics – that as the average couple heads towards and beyond 50, the shades of their sexcapades start to inversely decline. I'm 31 and have started making an inadvertent "oof" noise whenever I get up from the couch. Add 20 years and I'm not surprised some people weigh up the odds of hip dislocation occurring from a gently encouraging nudge and think, "Nah."

I jest. Withering libidos aside, of course older people are capable of inventive and satisfying sex lives. But that some of them aren't having them seems, according to Arndt, to be entirely the fault of women happy to shut up shop, simply refusing to have sex - and expecting their husbands to just suck it up. Pity the poor blokes lumbered with such a Betty Draper. The truly lucky man is blessed with a sexually generous woman, one who believes in taking one for the team!

"You're misinterpreting Arndt!" I can hear some of you furiously screaming. "You're putting words in her mouth! Where's your proof that this is what she thinks?"

Well might you ask my friend! And it's a good question, because if there's one thing that exists in abundance where Arndt is concerned, it's generalisations and stereotypes. To put your mind at ease, my suspicions were first aroused when Arndt wrote, "There are plenty of women happy to shut up shop, simply refusing to have sex - and expecting their husbands to just suck it up.” They were later confirmed when Arndt penned the words, "The truly lucky man is blessed with a sexually generous woman, one who believes in taking one for the team."

When you put it like that, it's not hard to understand why so many women in long-term partnerships are withholding. Nothing slays a lady boner quicker than the idea that their involvement extends to "taking one for the team". Arndt advises men to seek out the kind of woman who "sees it as part of her responsibility to keep sex on the agenda" – who needs pink Viagra when you have thoughts of duty to get your juices flowing? Ladies, prepare to expel a torrential flood of liquid AND I THINK YOU KNOW FROM WHERE I'M TALKING ABOUT.

The truth is that Arndt is like a Level 82 wizard-troll. Under the guise of fostering healthy relationships between men and women, she reinforces the kind of dynamic that can only result in women's sweet spots sealing like stone caves protected by an ancient magic. How else can you explain her casual inclusion of lines like, "[Women] spend hours searching shopping centres for his favourite Y-fronts when a 10-minute bonk every so often would make their man a lot happier." To be frank, if women ARE doing this, I'm not surprised they'd rather spend hours trawling shopping malls searching for underpants rather than sexing up their lover-sons. Does Arndt expect her to cut his steak up as well?

Almost everyone I know – women and men – has engaged in the kind of maintenance sex that Arndt advises. It's not that big a deal. What they don't want is to be told it's their responsibility, and for that conversation to be so heavily directed towards the penis-freezing Medusas making life difficult for sensitive men everywhere. Arndt covers her tracks when she says she tells men with low libidos the same thing. Unfortunately, she consistently addresses them as an afterthought – a way to justify the fact that almost all of her argument discusses the myriad of ways in which women are letting their partners down. (In fact, other research suggests that women's sexual desire fades in long-term relationships because they're ultimately less interested in monogamy.

The thing is, I've never seen Arndt ask these deprived men what they might be doing to inspire lust in their partners. Her vision of domesticity positions women as unpaid servants, mopping floors, cleaning ovens, buying clothes, slaving over three course dinners – all things that she also declares are done in order to please their male partners. How much easier would it be to create harmony, she asks, if women understood that a quick 10-minute wristy would do the job just as well?

Ignore for a moment the deep and abiding romance in that image. Women on the whole don't engage in unpaid domestic labour in order to please their husbands. Just because Arndt is living in a wormhole of time doesn't mean the rest of us are. If women are doing these things, it's because it's largely expected of them to shoulder the domestic burden, (they're still doing more than men). We don't need to bring in Columbo to figure out why a woman wouldn't be inclined to attend to her partner's sexual needs when she's spent all day looking after his domestic ones. Maybe, just maybe, if home labour was distributed equally these woeful men wouldn't have to subject their disinterested, annoyed partners to that "creeping hand across the bed". If more of Arndt's bewildered clients viewed their participation in chores as vital to their own domestic harmony and not the infuriatingly viewed act of "helping out", they might find their partners began to view sex as a mutually pleasurable activity and not just another responsibility they were expected to fulfil.