Women and Sex

Image courtesy of http://www.thedirtynormal.com/about/about-emily/

Emily Nagoski blows up the myth of the male sex “drive” in her book ‘Come As You Are, The Surprising New Science That Will Transform Your Sex Life’. As Nagoski explains:

“I think the cultural dominance of spontaneous desire is actually grounded in the myth of sex as a drive.

A drive is a biological mechanism whose job is to keep the organism as a healthy baseline — not too warm, not too cold, not too hungry, not too full.


Appetite is a classic example of a drive. Hunger for food drives foraging and eating, and then when you are full, you stop eating. There are lots of other drives. Thirst drives fluid consumption, fatigue drives sleep, thermoregulation drives shivering, sweating, taking off a sweater or turning up the thermostat.


When you hear “drive”, think “survive”.

“Drive” is how scientists thought about sex for a very long time. […] For centuries, scientists thought sex was a “hunger”. […]

Turns out no.

It’s easy to prove that sex is not a drive: As animal behavourist Frank Beach put it in 1956, “No one has ever suffered tissue damage for lack of sex.” We can starve to death, die of dehydration, even die of sleep deprivation. But nobody ever died because of not being able to get laid. Maybe they wanted to, but that’s different. There is no baseline to return to and no physical damage that results from not “feeding” your sexual desire.

Instead, sex is an “incentive motivation system”. 


Instead of feeling pushed by an uncomfortable internal experience, like hunger, incentive motivation systems are all about being pulled by an attractive external stimulus.

When you hear “incentive motivation” think “thrive”.”


[why it matters that sex is not a drive]

“If sex were a drive, like food appetite, then the 30 percent of women who rarely or never experience spontaneous desire for sex are [sick …]. And when you believe there’s something wrong with you, your stress response kicks in. And when your stress response kicks in, your interest in sex evaporates (for most people). Insisting that sex is a drive is like telling a healthy person with responsive desire that she’s sick — say it often enough and eventually she’ll believe you. And when she believes you, suddenly it’s true. The worry makes people sick.

So understanding that sex is an incentive motivation system — that responsive desire is normal and healthy — will give everyone a better sex life. If you have responsive desire and you want to experience more active desire, you don’t need to change you, you can just change your context.

But pathologizing responsive desire as low desire isn’t the worst consequence of the sex-drive myth. […] A far worse consequence is that when sex is conceptualized as a need, it creates an environment that fosters men’s sense of entitlement. […] you can invent justifications for any strategy a man might use to relieve himself. Because if sex is a drive, like hunger, then potential partners are like food. Or like animals to be hunted for food.

And that’s factually incorrect and just wrong.

As Van Badham explains in a review of the book in The Guardian,

“…if there’s one great revelation in Nagoski’s book, it’s that when it comes to sex, the cultural beliefs we’ve inherited from ancient misogynies still override the materially bloody obvious.

Women grappling to understand how the feminists who fought the sexual revolution weren’t able to bring home complete victory perhaps underestimated the willingness of the other side to war-profiteer.

In many ways, it often feels as if women have been hacked with the sexism virus themselves; that we also demonstrate behaviour detrimental to the promotion of women, albeit more subtly. We shout about inequality on Facebook and yet we bitch about confident women in the office or those that gamble vulnerability for humiliation. As Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie writes, “Misogyny is not the sole preserve of men.”

In the presence of a more attractive or assertive woman, we often see a threat, rather than an opportunity to interact with an intelligent human. With reports of men discriminating against less attractive women (or indeed women who don’t make enough effort) envy and jealousy are understandable, yet toxic. These attitudes are prevalent in the hiring process, visible when we’re in the job and ambient in the world around us. The more we are groomed to focus on appearance, the more distracted we become from fighting for our cause: ourselves.

In 2009, the National Bureau of Economic Research published a working paper titled “The Paradox of Declining Female Happiness”, summarised in the following statement:

“By many objective measures the lives of women in the United States have improved over the past 35 years, yet we show that measures of subjective well-being indicate that women’s happiness has declined both absolutely and relative to men. The paradox of women’s declining relative well-being is found across various datasets, measures of subjective well-being, and is pervasive across demographic groups and industrialized countries. Relative declines in female happiness have eroded a gender gap in happiness in which women in the 1970s typically reported higher subjective well-being than did men. These declines have continued and a new gender gap is emerging — one with higher subjective well-being for men.

That was seven years ago, but The Guardian ran an article in May earlier this year, titled “Gains in women’s rights haven’t made women happier. Why is that? writes:

“Evidence supports the idea that women’s rights and roles in the home in the US and Europe have not moved in step with changes in the workplace. Therefore, because women with jobs often do most of the chores and childcare, they shoulder a dual burden that cuts into their sleep and fun. Long commutes are thought to make British women more miserable than British men because of the greater pressure on women to meet responsibilities at home as well as work.

When the dual burden is carefully measured — as it has been across European countries — the results illustrate the influence that expectations have on how happy we feel. Experiencing the dual burden leads working women in Sweden, for example, to feel more miserable than their counterparts in Greece, probably because Swedes’ expectations around gender equality are more ambitious. (Fewer than 35% of Swedish women do three-quarters of the housework, compared to 81% of Greek women.)”

Domestic delegation aside, Paula Davis-Laak in the Huffington Post asked if the blame should be on Society, which “spins a very seductive story for women, making it seem as though they’re not worthy unless they’ve achieved” the “myths of happiness”:

I’ll be happy when I get married or find that perfect relationship.

I’ll be happy when I make more money.

I’ll be happy when I have kids.

I’ll be happy when I lose weight.

I’ll be happy when I change jobs/get a new job/get promoted.

We remain under as much pressure now, as we did decades ago, to look good. We are bombarded with messages about what we should wear, how we should feel, how we should challenge, how we should fuck and yet none of this direction translates into practical support when our expectations finally fall apart. Several female friends rhapsodize about the life coach-y tools and tips from Danielle Laporte, but I find it a bit cultish. You only need to glance at the homepage to know that at some point someone will try and flog you some Lululemon yoga pants and aromatherapy oils.

I can’t help but wonder if we were all having more sex (and orgasms for both partners), women would feel more confident, fewer men would be looking at porn and our brains would be flooded with post-coital happy hormones. If men did more housework (which apparently increases their self-esteem), women could get more sleep and have more energy for sex. If our employers could see past the need for heels and mascara , we could relax, be ourselves at work and free up headspace for fantasizing about kinky stuff at home.

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