Of course, I think about it every day. I am human. I wrote about it, once.
Because I’m a feminist, it would be reasonable to conclude that I am on board with ideas about female sexuality as complex and hard to know. I do believe that about sexuality, although I am not sure if I would say that females–whether gay, straight, or fluid–have the lock on that.
Diane Rehm’s show on the risks and benefits of a libido-enhancing drug (“Viagra for women”) is very good on untangling and showing the complications in the female experience of sex, women’s worries about low or non-existent desire, and scientific and therapeutic responses to this phenomenon that has been called a problem. Dr. Emily Nagoski, a personal hero and one of the guests on the show, reflects on why lack of desire is so distressing to women:
I think the reason it’s distressing is that all of us have grown up being told that the normal way to experience sexual desire is spontaneous, out of the blue anticipation of pleasure. And so when that goes away, we feel like we’re broken, like we must be doing something wrong. It must be something wrong with our bodies. We start to criticize ourselves. It disrupts our relationships and it can be really disabling. And it turns out, over the last 20 years of research, what we’ve found is that there’s another normal, healthy way to experience desire, called responsive desire, that emerges in response to pleasure, rather than in anticipation of pleasure.
On the show, although there are four guests and one moderator, there seem to be only two schools of thought
- the Simon school, which I’ve named for the doctor who is in favor of flibanserin, the female Viagra, and seems to be involved with developing and promoting it; and
- the Female school, which I’ve categorized to encompass the three docs, all female, who convey more critical and nuanced thinking about the idea of female sexuality.
What troubled me about the show, even though I found it very interesting on the topic of desire in general and women in particular, is the unspoken assumption that male sexuality is simple and even monolithic and female sexuality is complex and individualized. Men only need one treatment (a pill) to fix a mechanical problem, and women need a multi-dimensional approach, which may involve therapy, mindfulness, tolerance and acceptance, and perhaps a pill.
Sure, I know the show is about women and a pill designed for them, and men’s sexuality gets its turn on other shows and in other magazines, but do we really believe that everything about men and sex is cool until it gets broken? Do men, on their own, believe that?
I talk more to my close female friends about sex than I do any man I know. We speak frankly to each other, and we are old enough to avoid boasting (although if there were some special achievement, no doubt there would be congratulations). Our conversations are exploratory, wondering, question asking, worrying. They’re funny too, and these chats — which often emerge after about three hours sitting around a table and ranging over other, safer topics — are marked by self deprecation. We are middle aged, still yearning, though humble. Some are gay and some straight, if you are wondering.
Anything I know about men and sex I (a) read, (b) see in movies or on television, or (c) deduce from little clues I pick up in the conversation and behaviors of the men I know or work with. Note: I’m not opposed to (d) porn; I just don’t have time in my life at this point to get involved.
From my own research, I do not perceive the men around me — whether gay, straight, fluid, or unidentified — as being single minded, full of brute confidence, always ready, or even well rested and well partnered. Their lives and therefore sexuality are complex and possibly also context specific.
- I know more than one man who is straight and shying away from sex (and there’s this in Harper’s, by a gay man on solitude and celibacy);
- I see a progressive male friend, a model of gender fairness, steal a delicious yet frustrated glance at a young woman we both know;
- More than one older-than-me male friend admits a feeling that his own attractiveness has waned; and
- A skating acquaintance, whom I hardly know, recently claimed he had hooked up with 50 men in the year since his partner abandoned him.
Together, these observations/data are not evidence of a monolithic, confident, coherent, male sexuality. To me, they offer clues that male sexuality may be as mysterious and worth investigating as female sexuality, not to fix it, but to expand our understanding of it.
This whole “girls against the boys” game — it gets us nowhere. Research on women’s sexuality may lag behind research on men’s, and we should aim for equity, but it hurts us all to believe that the problem of men and sex, or even men and desire, is solved.