Thursday, October 27, 2005

Some like it lukewarm

Women aren't into sex. Men, however, want nothing more than to screw everything that moves. This is nature, who are we to judge? Oh, and why buy the cow when you can get the milk for free?

Or so argue Ross Douthat, Leon Kass, Harvey Mansfield, and, unfortunately, others.

Responding to a Slate piece in which Meghan O'Rourke asserts that Kass and Mansfield are out-of-touch old fogeys, young fogey Douthat concludes that "when it comes to sex and its consequences, women are more vulnerable then men - and that it might not be the end of the world for men, even conservative men, to occasionally recognize this elementary fact."

Women used to be a gazillion trillion zillion times more vulnerable than men when it came to sex. Biologically more vulnerable, and consequently socially and emotionally more vulnerable as well. Not just unwanted children one might have to schlep to soccer practice, not an i-banking career postponed, but death in childbirth was often the result. And women in many places are still subject to this risk. Only in recent years--and in privileged parts of the world--has it become possible for men and women to experience more or less the same biological consequences from sex. But, because the condom-pill (or what have you) combo is so new, and is still hardly universally used among those not wishing to have children, much of the cultural residue of sex being more dangerous for a woman remains. Also, some inequalities--such as in transmission of HIV; the fact that children, in even the most enlightened families, must still be given birth to by women; not to mention in the fact that if birth control--including condoms to prevent HIV transmission--is not used, things revert to "nature," do persist, serving as reminders of how things may be. But the fact of the matter is, humans have found ways for women not to be "punished" by "nature" for acts some deem immoral. Some conservatives are not content with condemning acts as immoral, but wish for women--women who grew up with the pill and condoms--to return to a state of affairs in which they will be physically punished for acts these particular conservatives aren't fond of.

We are now at a point when the biological consequences of sex can be, and often are, close to equal for men and women. While societal ideas of women being more "punished" for sex "naturally" than men are remain, the fact is, nature no longer inflicts this punishment the way it used to. Only a religious or otherwise irrational (and I say "irrational" with no value judgment intended) conviction could suggest that women would benefit from a return to "nature" and a removal of various technological advances. Once men and women are equally punished, or, rather, not punished, biologically for non-procreative sex, it all of a sudden becomes clear that (gasp) women enjoy it as much as men, that women used to enjoy it less than men--and still do in some situations--because intercourse had such well-known, dire consequences. But if nature can be controlled, and yet we choose as a society to cease to control it, we ought to have a reason, since it is, after all, a step backwards rather than a maintenance of the status quo. Why do we want things otherwise? Nature offers all sorts of inequalities--in "nature" diabetics wouldn't last too long--as well as other delights, such as 13-year-olds with raging hormones, people of both sexes with inclinations towards homosexuality, and other "facts of nature" which I would assume Douthat would not want to be used in determining which policies are based in nature and thus acceptable. Why is the admittedly natural inequality between men and women in terms of sex a part of nature we should see as worthy of conservation?

Which brings me to the second problem: I do not see how women would gain from this return to nature. Would there be no sex until marriage, so as to make sure the inevitable children are born into wedlock? At what age would this marriage occur? Waiting until one's mid-20s to first have sex might, ahem, bother some people. Which leads to this, related problem: sure, women could just refuse men sex in order to not give away the milk for free and so forth, but this suggests, again, that women do not themselves enjoy sex. This is why the milk-for-free argument is such nonsense--the "milk" goes, if you will, both ways, so witholding sex punishes both partners, assuming they like each other "in that way" and are reasonably coordinated....

In 1997, University of Chicago professor and bioethicist Leon Kass decided to expound upon what women want, or, rather, don't want. Women, it seems, don't want lots of sex with lots of men. Not because they have heard stories and read books about the terrible consequences for women who put out, consequences which have been rendered near-irrelevant by modern medicine, but because women just aren't like that:

"To make naturally polygamous men accept the conventional institution of monogamous marriage has been the work of centuries of Western civilization, with social sanctions, backed by religious teachings and authority, as major instruments of the transformation, and with female modesty as the crucial civilizing device."

Ugh! Once provided with birth control options not available during past "centuries of Western civilization," women are as "naturally" polygamous as men. Women are stopped from jumping on every person they find attractive for the same reasons as men are--so as not to cheat on a partner, so as not to get an STD--and whatever inequality remains is likely a mix between the remaining biological inequality (women are still the only ones who might get pregnant; HIV transmission is more likely for straight women than straight men) and the lingering idea that women will be punished for sex, an idea that developed when this was, in a more literal sense, true. Kass just makes no sense--the Bible was written/given/whatever at a time when these natural inequalities were not chosen by social conservatives but were unavoidable. Would most single, heterosexual women, with the promise of no unwanted pregnancy, no STDs, and no taunting from the Douthats of the world, have and enjoy having sex with multiple partners. Sorry to break it to you, men who would have it otherwise, but yes, this is exactly what would happen.

And Kass also makes this charming suggestion, one later to be expressed by David Brooks:

"Training for careers by women could be postponed until after the early motherhood years—perhaps even supported publicly by something like a GI Bill of Rights for mothers who had stayed home until their children reached school age. "

Ugh! I, for one, will have less energy at 40 or 45 than I have now, at 22. That science has not yet conquered. Whatever brain power I have had better be channeled into something now, while I still remember what my BA paper was about, while I still remember the languages and math I took in college. Imagine taking a standardized test after not seeing anything but your elementary school children's homework for 10 years. Sounds like fun, doesn't it? But of course it's not as if women have much to offer in the way of ideas, anyway.

And finally, a call-to-arms (or, rather, to crossed legs) if there ever was one:

"Is there perhaps some nascent young feminist out there who would like to make her name great and who will seize the golden opportunity for advancing the truest interest of women (and men and children) by raising (again) the radical banner, 'Not until you marry me'? And, while I'm dreaming, why not also, 'Not without my parents' blessings'?"

Ugh! once more. Women. Like. Sex. I could see withholding trips to Blimpie's or Arby's or sporting events, but sex? What of the woman who, in any given instance, wants sex and not marriage? And what's all this about parents' blessings? Good grief. The demographic Kass is so worried about--University of Chicago students and similar--is being told by its collective parents not to get married before getting a graduate degree of some kind. No "blessings" till that MBA is finished, dear. And you know what? Call me a conservative, but I like that status quo.


Anonymous said...

Isn't there an argument that many men (and women) enjoyed it more when there were possibly dire consequences. You think Juliet didn't find sex with Romeo more exciting because of the element of danger involved?

Anonymous said...

Douthat concludes that "when it comes to sex and its consequences, women are more vulnerable then men - and that it might not be the end of the world for men, even conservative men, to occasionally recognize this elementary fact."

Umm, wouldn't the most reasonable thing for men to do in "recognition" of this fact be to try to act less like assholes when it comes to sex? (I actually think a lot of women DO enjoy sex less than men because the men whith whom they've had most of their sexual experiences are asshole s about it, both in terms of consideration for partners in bed and general mistreatment of them afterwards or elsewhere.)

But I guess what the conservatives are really arguing here is that men are programmed to be assholes the same way women are programmed to "not like sex," and it's obviously women's responsibility to protect themselves against men's assholeness and also make men be "better" by witholding sex, since men are incapable of learning on their own to be remotely considerate or think of women as people rather than sex objects or abstract concepts in arguments for conservative social values.

Anonymous said...

Men have significantly stronger sex-drives as a group, and to deny that is to ignore the world around you. Women enjoy sex, but the sexual natures of men and women are different, and not as a result of rational considerations, but of millions of years of evolution.

Anonymous said...

If the problem is that people can't afford to marry and raise families until later in life, but want to enjoy sex earlier....

Wouldn't it be enough for them to limit themselves to sex that can't result in procreation? These guys ought to be encouraging all forms of relatively-safe homosexuality etc.

Women who don't want sex as much could simply not have as much sex. No problem for anybody. Women who didn't want to be promiscuous could each find another woman who didn't want to be promiscuous, or a man who didn't mind her refusing to do three-somes etc for their oral sex or whatever they were doing.

Having special punishments for women gives men a nice Catch-22. Like, once a woman has done things to get punished for they can threaten to turn her in unless she does more extreme things she'd rather not do -- which would open her up for more blackmail. This might be very nice for women who are masochists. But what can we do for the male masochists?

Anonymous said...

If there's actually an issue about who has the stronger sex drive, shouldn't we make the laws to deal with people's sex drives and not with gender which might happen to orrelate with the real issue?

Anonymous said...

By and large, I completely agree with you. However, I do want to offer a comment as a woman approaching 40 who just this year went back to school for the first time since college.

Yes, you don't have quite as much energy at 40 as you do at 22. But I'm finding the workload for my Master's program quite manageable. My years of real world experience have helped me sort out what's useful from what's trivial. I study much more efficiently now than I did in college. So what if I don't have the energy to stay up all night writing a paper anymore? I don't need to, because I got the paper done faster.

In short, don't fall prey to the ageist assumption that by the time you're 40, you're all worn out and unable to learn. That is simply not true.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...

NJG-I didn't say "all worn out," just more worn out, which you call ageist, yet admit to be true. And there's nothing ageist or debatable about the fact that a woman who's trained for a career at 25 will have more time to go further than will a woman who's starting her career at 45. If you assume women have anything of value to contribute to their careers, why assume 20 years could be lost and nothing missed?

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