Of course we have a headache

Why discussions of female desire -- or lack thereof -- miss the big picture

By Lynn Harris

Published February 18, 2009 4:18PM (EST)

Now that woman can drink ventis with impunity, maybe we'll no longer be "too tired" for sex. But otherwise, most discussions of much-studied low female sex drive -- and prescriptions for revving it up -- lack a look at the big picture, argues Amanda Marcotte in today's AlterNet (via RHRealityCheck). Hormones, toddlers, fatigue, fate: not that they don't play a role. But we do not live in a vacuum. (Or to vacuum; we'll get to that.) What's missing from these conversations, according to Marcotte? The role sexism plays in turning us off. In other words: It's not you, it's the patriarchy. 

Most low-lady-sex-drive features that popped up, romantically enough, around Valentine's Day (such as this Consumer Reports poll) reflect "the mainstream media trend of talking about women's desire -- the lack of it, really -- without addressing any social causes for why that might occur," writes Marcotte. Getting to the bottom of the "desire gap" requires "asking hard questions about how our society treats men and women differently." (Which, she notes, is about as appealing as asking hard questions about our own relationships. So.)

What differences is she talking about? "It's still women who are instructed to worry about their 'number' being too high. It's still women who have to hear that having prior sexual experience makes us legitimate targets to rape. The words 'whore' and 'slut' describe women, not men. Sexual mores have loosened somewhat, but we still live in a world where Good Girls Don't," writes Marcotte. And where "images of nubile (presumably straight) women with no clothes on still signify 'sex' in our culture. Half-dressed women greet straight men everywhere they turn with beckoning smiles and lidded eyes, titillating men and inspiring men to think about sex constantly. Straight women don't get near the provocation on a daily basis." (Instead we get the message that in order to be hot, we have to look like that.)

There's also the well-documented Swiffer gap, which leads to resentment, which leads to lying in bed with one person asleep and the other scowling at an iBook. 

Of course, some women (including, it should be noted, women who identify as asexual in the first place) don't see low desire as a problem -- and that's also considered a problem, Marcotte adds. Because, "short answer: men decide what's a problem in our culture.”

Bottom line: "When you live in a culture where ... sexual desire is rarely experienced as an unalloyed good, but often brings fears of moral turpitude for women, they may feel relieved to have desire abate. That, and less sex, means more time for housework and paid employment, not insignificant issues in our economic times," she writes. "Add it all together -- the stigma against desire, the overwork ... the lack of provocation -- and the mystery is not that women watch their libidos sink under the waters, but why anyone wants to chalk this up to inherent biological sex differences first."

I don't know how many women-with-"headaches" are explicitly saying to themselves, "I fear moral turpitude, so I am relieved to have desire abate." But in a society that does not nurture female desire, how, indeed, can we chalk low libido up to nature above all?

Your thoughts?

Lynn Harris

Award-winning journalist Lynn Harris is author of the comic novel "Death by Chick Lit" and co-creator of BreakupGirl.net. She also writes for the New York Times, Glamour, and many others.

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