My latest article for The Drum (2/9/2011), ‘The Arndt of sex’ made a few middle-aged indignant men unhappy when I questioned Bettina Arndt’s logic behind her validation and heroising of men’s supposed monogamous sex-starved experiences. Needless to say, they weren’t going to be the types won over by calls for a mature and non-polarising discussion about heterosexual male and female sexuality.
Thankfully, I hope and I think, many already recognise that Arndt’s views do not represent the values of most Australians in 2011. This was voiced to me by men and women directly via Twitter and in person. It would appear that the majority of comments on The Drum post were made by those whose life foundations were called into question by my arguments and understandably so.
The inherent difficulty with the subject of sexuality, monogamy, heterosexuality, differing sex drives, gender and masculinity/femininity inevitably leads to some emotional, ill-considered and irrational responses. And then there are superficial “puff” responses that reinforce the outdated, circulating social memes we still have to fight against. In an op-ed for Fairfax, one person decided to bypass the content of the carefully constructed argument I made and instead lambasted me for ranting a little. Here is the article, make of it what you will.
I am proud to have written ‘The Arndt of sex’ as it was one of the most daunting and rewarding intellectual challenges I have had to tackle to date. Writing about gender is hard enough, but writing about sex and sexuality is in a league of its own. It’s a personal topic for everyone and hence, it needs to be approached carefully and with respect. Happy reading.
The Arndt of Sex
It is safe to say Bettina Arndt successfully insults both men and women in her latest tirade against society’s maltreatment of the rampant and practically sacred male sex drive.
That’s if they managed to finish reading the article without tearing up the newspaper and throwing it to the floor in disgust. I can only hope no-one read it on an iPad.
Personally, I stomped my feet intermittently, growled a little, turned away in frustration, came back to it a few times and finally, after the fifth attempt, I managed to read it all in one go. Why did it get to me so much?
The first and most immediate reason is the disturbing and unreal images Arndt paints of the typical Australian heterosexual relationship.
Arndt’s picture of Australia is one where men in heterosexual relationships live in a monogamous “sex-starved” hell, honourably struggling to keep their philandering to a minimum and fighting back their uncontrollable natural urges. Meanwhile, women, who barely feature directly, are caricatured in opposition to men as sexual unequals with a low libido, who are naturally disinterested in sex, who selfishly withhold sex from their partners and are dismissive of man’s admirably (because it is caused by glorious testosterone) sustained interest in sex and deviant sexual fantasies.
Here are a few classic lines to get started. Keep in mind that every time Arndt refers to “married” people she draws these opinions together as being universal for all heterosexual men and women in relationships:
“From the outside, life as a hot-blooded married heterosexual man doesn’t look much fun.”
“Faced with the misery of a lifetime spent dealing with the frustrations of monogamous sex-starved marriage, most men don’t leave.”
“The strong male libido remains, even if the inner goat now must remain firmly tethered. Men live with up to 20 times the testosterone of women and that makes it very tough to cope with decades of monogamous marriage, particularly when sex is offered very reluctantly – ‘like meaty bites to a dog,’ as one man put it.”
Who wants a Schmacko? Here boy, here boy! In all seriousness, no, hang on, how can anyone be serious about such an extreme generalisation which claims that married women offer sex “very reluctantly” and must surely view it as a conjugal duty to perform for their adorably earnest dog-like husbands who just want their wife to throw them a bone[r] once in a while? Yes, that’s what I thought.
“Yet most men are doing a remarkable job remaining true to their women. For all the talk about unfaithful men, most married men succeed at monogamy most of the time.”
Well that’s a relief, but men, how do you do it? I mean this is dire. From the way Arndt describes your constant and tumultuous ‘male inner conflict’, that makes you just one hot female work colleague away from losing your sanity. I honestly started becoming concerned for the mental health of all men when I read of their plight, that is, until I snapped out of the hyperbole-induced coma I was falsely lulled into.
Of the men Arndt interviewed who did bolt from the pen and release their “inner goat” she says that, “The overwhelming majority… wanted to be faithful and were succeeding, even though there may have been a lapse along the way – a one-night stand at a conference, a few weeks of illicit pleasure, or even an affair lasting months or perhaps a year or two. But nothing compared with the many years of restraint.”
This is what Arndt considers male success at monogamy to be? A one-night stand and a yearlong affair can be counted equally as mere blips on a man’s otherwise gleaming record? I’m sure we all agree it is OK for people to make mistakes and that both men and women can be unfaithful, but on Arndt’s flaccid account of monogamy the term becomes impotent.
The other disturbing dichotomy that gains traction in Arndt’s article is the idea that most women, in contrast to men, not only spoil the fun but moralise, criticise and shame men about their authentic sexual urges, high sex drives and sexual experiences.
Arndt recounts one anecdote featured in an anonymously-written opinion article, where the now famous “inner goat” man “ruefully acknowledges” that his goat “sometimes… manages to escape and he finds himself mentally undressing a woman as she walks past.” Now I’ve got nothing against men doing this and I haven’t met any women who do but Arndt manages to select the one and only unreasonable and rude comment, written by a “smug woman”, to be the sole representative of the female response to this situation; ”Men, you could put your minds to much better use than fantasising about women you are never going to get … There’s something you can do: you can respect women and learn to control your pathetic, primitive minds. Meditation helps.”
Here’s a novel idea, the loudest voice, especially one in the comments section of an online opinion article, doesn’t often represent the majority view. Most women understand and accept that it’s just what men do, that it doesn’t affect us, men are autonomous individuals and as it’s not doing any harm then frankly, let them be! In fact, I know a few women who would do the same thing when they see a particularly attractive man; it’s just that most women are particularly good at hiding it.
But according to Arndt, these killjoy women don’t stop at thought policing. Supposedly men can’t even legitimately watch porn, one “good” reason being “as relief from the tensions of trying to please women in real-life sex”, without us judging them and moralising at the lectern. Arndt writes, “Harmless pursuits? That’s not, of course, how porn is presented. We are subject to an endless stream of people, mainly women, warning of the dangers of porn.” She then cites Gail Dines as the credible and representative voice of the porn-aggrieved women, who are once again, of course, in the majority. This selective, unbalanced and evidence-light portrayal truly lays bare just how much of a serious conversation Arndt wants to have about Australian women and their attitudes to pornography.
When Dines visited Australia in May this year for the Sydney Writers’ Festival and appeared on radio and television programs including ABC’s Q&A, the collective groans voiced every time she spoke gave me a strong impression that there were more women disagreeing with Dines’s hardline stance on the negative effects of porn.
Putting Dines aside, the women I know who are under-enthused about, but not openly against, their partners watching porn respond that way because deep down it makes them feel inadequate or somehow as being “not enough” for their partners. This may not be true from the male perspective, but the female response to porn in many circumstances comes from a place of sexual vulnerability and is expressed as such, not from a place of ignorance expressed as blunt condescension.
Despite the fact that Arndt’s arguments and anecdotal evidence comes across as exaggerated, absolutist, offensive to men and women who value mutual respect and for the most part appears detached from reality, that is not where the essential problem with the article lies.
It is this:
Bettina Arndt vigorously compares and contrasts two sexes that are completely different. Would you try to compare a banana with a watermelon or the concepts of hot and cold? By placing men and women at opposite ends of the same scale for comparison, a divisive and totally unnecessary conflict arises. It is a cheap and easy tactic for discussing a serious, sensitive and complex topic. Arndt re-embeds conflict back into society by forcing the reader to take sides over what she suggests to be the heterosexual naturally-determined norm; that of the misunderstood and frustrated male perennially stuck in a committed relationship, sexually unmatched by their female partner.
We have been publicly arguing over male and female sexuality in this polarising way for decades; who is more sexual, who has the bigger sex drive and which sexual qualities are better. Yet, it is only once we have thrashed it out and had the fight that some of us are collectively realising we can’t reach a valid conclusion from impossible comparisons. It is time to support the realisation that male and female sexualities are not the same, that they currently have far more differences than similarities and hence, cannot be compared. As a side note, it is important to recognise the many differences within each sex that are comparable and that both men and women have been known to exhibit behaviour not usually associated with their own sex, like having sex purely for reasons of physical pleasure or for emotional intimacy.
It makes no difference to this discussion whether the cause of differences in male and female sexual behaviour are neurological, hormonal, biological, socially constructed and/or evolutionary. Perhaps in the future there will be more of an overlap and fluidity, as seen in current malleable expressions of gender, but for now it is pragmatic, mature and extremely useful to learn how men and women see themselves and each other sexually by way of open communication. In understanding, we can accept and even appreciate and revel in our differences and in my experience, many men and women already do.
However, please don’t get the idea that acceptance in a relationship means giving into each other’s demands and unbridled urges or a signing up for a loosening of the rules of monogamy, which Arndt argues for. What acceptance does mean is engaging in the creation of an open and honest agreement where compromises are made and a commitment is reached. If that agreement is marriage and entails monogamy then, yes, both men and women will make sexual compromises and recognise there are consequences for breaking it.
Monogamy, when entered into openly and maturely, is not the sexually repressive and anti-male regime Arndt makes it out to be. It is a choice made by two people. If a man or a woman doesn’t want be faithful to the agreement or if they have already broken it then it is just basic courtesy to speak to the other partner and tell them. You might then redraw the boundaries, change the agreement or the compromises you are both willing to make or you just might decide it isn’t going to work and leave it there.
There is a new way to publicly and privately discuss the sexes, the differences in male and female sexuality and how they can and do play out in a heterosexual relationship. This healthier way does not seek to polarise society or generate unnecessary conflict, it does not seek to measure the immeasurable or compare the incomparable, rather, it accepts individual men and women for who they are. Whilst the echoes of the old discourse still remain in public discussion today, it is important that we don’t become complicit in its survival. As much as sexual stereotypes and generalisations can be fun and entertaining fodder, when utilised seriously in public debates, the results are socially regressive and the conduct, plainly embarrassing.
Let’s take the heat out of the debate and begin again from a place of shared understanding. A clear and positive starting point already exists, as speaking openly and more often about an important activity that almost all of adult society engages in is one thing Bettina Arndt and I both wholeheartedly believe in.