Let’s be blunt: men like sex. But, you knew that already didn’t you? It’s not exactly a secret. Women? Well, that’s different. “Easy”, “desperate” and let’s be crass, “slutty” are the words most likely to be levelled at a sexually voracious woman. Especially one that – shock horror – has sex without emotion. It seems bizarre that, despite not even having equal pay, we have more equality in the boardroom than the bedroom.
Which is why we’ve borrowed Stonewall’s brilliant slogan. Since 2007 they have been using it to passionately and rightly fight against homophobic bullying. Now we want to fight for women’s sexual rights, too. Women like sex. And that’s OK. But then you already knew that too… Controversial new author, Alissa Nutting argues why it’s important to spread the word.
The lie that female sexuality is passive and male sexuality is active is a message our patriarchal society loves to protect. It gives power to men and takes it from women. It says that female sexuality depends upon men for activation, that women need men to show them how to express their sexuality, and that the best way for women to gain sexual satisfaction is by doing what men want them to do.
Social male privilege thrives on the reinforcement of a binary gender system. If women were to get mad, say, that they’re still far less likely to be elected to political office, to be CEO, to make as much money as men; if it’s assumed that women will be the ones to give up their career and stay at home with the children; if they found it odd that male infidelity is viewed as commonplace but female infidelity is seen as putting libido before the family unit, then gender binaries are there to remind women their place in society is very different from men’s – to say that men and women are too fundamentally opposite to ever be equals.
We’re told that men are logical, women are emotional. Men crave variety, women want monogamy. Men are dominant, women are submissive Men are violent, women are peaceful. Men are strong, women are weak. That when it comes to the main areas of power – money, physical strength, and sex – men are meant to be providers and women receivers.
Well, these gendered rumours certainly benefit men. They also keep women from having financial, social, political and sexual power. Author and journalist Daniel Bergner’s new book What Do Women Want? explores recent studies about female sexual desire and debunks many of the patriarchal myths that insist upon female passivity and male activity. What conclusions did his research draw? That women may be much more predisposed to find monogamy boring, to be sexually voracious and sexually predatory, than men.
So why isn’t this reflected in our society? Because it means that men get to sexually express themselves while women have to sexually repress themselves. Because it means that men get sexual power and women don’t. Because we live in a society that has successfully institutionalised misogyny. As little girls, females are initiated to the princess story, we see that it’s her job to sit and twiddle her thumbs until Prince Charming comes along. We’re assaulted with wedding propaganda and told that the zenith of our lives comes when we walk down the aisle. We’re told that motherhood is our highest calling.
Robin Thicke’s hit single Blurred Lines tells this popular myth very well. The most frequently repeated line in the song, sung a total of 18 times, is “I know you want it”. Just in case you missed the first 17 iterations of Thicke claiming that men have telepathic powers when it comes to female desire, fear not. He will remind you once more before the song is over.
On a level of pure musicality, I love this song. If I didn’t speak English, it would likely be my top jam. Unfortunately, 18 times over, the words are impossible to miss. The central focus of the song is that women aren’t able to voice their sexual desires, so men “understand” what women want, then give it to them. And of course, men are really good at doing this. They can surely separate what they want from what women want. This doesn’t go both ways – there’s no scene in the video where the topless models get to interpret what Thicke wants. Instead it’s the man’s job to take whatever he decides a woman wants to give, so any act of female sexual resistance is simply a way for men to prove how skilled and powerful they are.
Following this logic, some women are so resistant to admitting what they want sexually that they continue to protest even during the act. They use phony words like “no,” “don’t,” “stop.” They try to argue against their secret wishes with phrases like, “Quit it; I’m serious.” Luckily, men know that women could never actually mean that – like the song says, men are here to sexually “liberate” us. True, some ungrateful females fail to thank their emancipators with the proper level of praise. They’re so used to faking the role of unwilling participant that they use words like “force” and “rape.”
Make no mistake: the myth of female sexual passivity has dangerous and violent consequences for women. It always has, and continues to do so. How could it not when there’s always another song, commercial, movie or television show, another law to make sure that society never forgets that women have no voice or agency when it comes to their sexual organs.
Yet, the victims of this setup aren’t exclusively female. A system that insists female sexuality simply exists for men to enjoy negates the possibility that men can be victims of sexual violence at the hands of women. After all, we’re told women can only allow themselves to engage in sexual behaviour when men convince them to do it. What happens when a male utters the words, “A woman raped me”? He’s laughed at, teased, not taken seriously. Likewise, when a female teacher commits an act of statutory rape with a male student, society has a hard time accepting this as a crime. We’re told that men are always the ones in control of sexual encounters with women, and find this difficult to challenge – even when she has committed an illegal act with a minor. Because of this, I decided to write the novel Tampa, whose protagonist is a female teacher and sexual predator. I’d never read a book narrated by a woman who does sexually violent, reprehensible things to males, let alone to underage ones.
Tampa’s main character Celeste is rampantly sexual to the extreme; she is also a completely terrible and unredeemable person, because we don’t often see this in female protagonists – when women are vile or dangerous, they’re usually villains set up for a benevolent protagonist to defeat, such as Annie Wilkes in Stephen King’s novel Misery, or Glenn Close’s character Alex Forrest in the movie Fatal Attraction. They don’t get the power of telling the story. I felt that as a female author, Tampa was very important for me to write. Had a man written the book, I don’t think there would be any disbelief at the possibility that the male brain could “go there” and be furiously sexual in deviant ways. But many people I meet cannot help but convey their shock that this book came from a woman’s head. Tampa goes against what we’re told about female sexuality: it’s silent, compliant with male desire, and dependent on male desire for expression.
Good girl myth
For many reasons, the push for women to gain equality of sexual expression with men is an uphill battle. Women are given enormous social rewards of attention, approval, and money when we sexually objectify ourselves, rewards that can be far too tempting or necessary for us to turn down. We’re told to say no so that we stay the type of girl that men will marry; we’re told we will have failed at life and womanhood if a man doesn’t marry us. We’re also told we need the approval of men to know that we’re valuable and beautiful, and we’re told letting men do what they want to our bodies is a way to feel that approval. We’re told women who have sex outside of a monogamous relationship are sluts – that’s a freedom that solely belongs to men. But we’re also told that our desire is a waiting genie in a bottle that can only come out when a man summons it.
Society and popular culture say lots of conflicting things about female sexuality, but all of them prioritise male power. The message is this: if you say no you won’t be believed; if you say yes you won’t be respected. It’s an offensive myth that women need their sexuality to be unleashed by men. But it’s a myth that continues to be repeated constantly and pervasively. It’s a myth that most of the nation sings along to when it’s set to music and reiterated 18 times. It’s a myth that will continue to be perpetuated, and often believed; as Lenin once said, “A lie told often enough becomes the truth.”