'Why sex matters so much to men'

Elizabeth Mead | Posted on May 15, 2012

The word ‘rape’ is pretty potent. It can shut down discussion just like ‘racist’ can. I am guilty of using the r word (both of them in fact) to bully my conversation opponent into submission. I didn’t realise how much it hurt actually, until it happened to me the other day. I was accused, indirectly, of advocating rape.

This woman, Bettina Arndt, gave a talk at the Wheeler Centre in Melbourne last week. I didn’t know until later that she was famous or notorious in the arena of sexual sociology; I just heard the title of the talk and thought it sounded interesting: ‘Why sex matters so much to men’. Male/female sexuality, in short, other people’s sex lives, is a topic of endless fascination to me. I can’t get enough.

As it turns out I missed the talk because I was watching my colleague Jane Clark address the NGV Women’s Association on the topic of ‘The Modern Medicis’. Is David Walsh a modern day Medici? No, said Jane. But they’ve both got balls.

I looked up Arndt’s talk on the Wheeler Centre Facebook page later that day, where I was provided with a video recording and told that Arndt had ‘stirred the ire’ of many.

Bettina Arndt, 'Why sex matters so much to men', video.

She’s basically giving voice to – authorising, through the discourse of sociology – the commonly accepted truth that lots of men have a higher sex drive than the women they are committed to, have children with, and love. There are plenty of exceptions, of course there are, just like you could say that generally men are taller than women, but I can think of a fair few men who are shorter than me. I think this is a brave and important thing to do, this ‘giving voice’. I also think it needs to be a woman’s voice for now, because it’s less threatening: it seems that if you acknowledge that sometimes things are hard for men, you are taking something away from women, robbing from their pile of woe. Dan Savage, America’s leading sex columnist, has been discussing this and related matters for years. He talks about the GGG principle: the need for all lovers to be ‘good, giving and game’ in order to hold out hope for happy monogamy. I can’t see why women would be magically exempt from this. We’re past special treatment I think. I don’t need it, thank you.

The depth of feeling on this matter was brought home to me when I tried to express my interest in the topic on the Wheeler Centre site, which was soliciting opinion. I found bitterness there, directed at Arndt, who was described as ‘loathsome’ and ‘revolting’. I lodged a comment asking what they meant, and asking why it was so abhorrent to express sympathy for men in sexless relationships, or men who live their lives trying and failing to get enough sex to make them happy. (Just think for a second: this would be so horrid! Imagine being constantly sexually frustrated and rejected. There’s no way I could be happy like that. The history of feminism tells me I don’t have to put up with anything that makes me unhappy).

Sure, it may be that angrier people are more likely to comment on these online forums, but no one ‘Liked’ my comment. No one liked it at all. Instead:

Oh I’m sorry I was unaware that white middle class heterosexual men were so marginalized. Poor things struggling with their overwhelming unfulfilled desires. […]

Poor men in sexless relationships! Oh no! [...]

What's that word for when you coerce someone into having sex with you when they don't want it… Hmm… Oh yeah, rape.

As if things were not hard enough.

I hope such sentiment is not as widely held as it is deeply felt. If so, feminism must be in a rather sorry state (and I struggle to believe it is!) This much anger and defensiveness can only come from a position of weakness. I don’t accept that most women today – the relatively privileged ones for whom this research was conducted, and to whom the subsequent discussion is directed – are as weak and vulnerable as these comments suggest. Perhaps it’s a generation thing; perhaps these women, and especially the last one, are significantly older than me. The women I know wouldn’t infer ‘rape’ from this discussion, I’m sure, because they have so thoroughly internalised the knowledge that violence and exploitation are never acceptable, and haven’t been for a long time.

That goes to the heart of what I really want to say. To be truly liberated is to know that you, too, wield power. The things women want – career, love, children, travel, sex, in any order or combination – shape our sexual and social realities just as much as the things men want (career, love, children, travel, sex, in any order or combination). If you just take love, for a start: women make up half of it (in heterosexual terms). We’re needed. We’re also needed for sex, and for most men, sex is essential for happiness. We know, or should know, a lot about women’s needs, because of the first and second waves of feminism. We are strong enough now to think of our others’ needs as well. (Again, I’m talking about those who enjoy a certain social privilege. Poverty, lack of education and wide-spread violence, as seen in society’s most underprivileged groups, are issues of human rights and human suffering, and don’t have a place in this discussion).

Finally, I must confess my own indiscretion in bandying about the ‘r’ word, and in doing so, apologise to my ‘victim’: we were talking in a restaurant about women who want children when their male partners don’t. This man said that in a such a case the woman should ‘just do it’ anyway and once it was done it was too late, and he’d be ok with it, because it’s a new life after all. I compared this to rape: the taking of something essential from someone, with potentially catastrophic consequences, without their consent. The men I know would feel this violation very deeply indeed. As I said before, it was an extreme comparison and one that overlooks the physical pain and violence attendant to the standard definition of the word. But my point, then as now, is that every woman has the power to grant and withhold the ingredients of others’ happiness and well-being, as well of course, her own. Only a liberated woman can know that.


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ladysko | May 15, 2012 at 04:41 pm

I would dare say talking about my single friends (that includes me) that it is not only men that are frustrated from a lack of sex - i agree that it is an essential ingredient in the happiness mixture and can leave the batter somewhat bitter when absent and perhaps leads to agro comments - for which i do concur might very well come from a place of weakness and not strength regarding our understanding love and compassion for the other sex or plain old other people (homo and hetro sexual version).

You column made me recall a male friend saying - 10 years from now you will pay for a good shag. A male whore who will satisfy you and depart leaving no condom wrappings behind thanks. 10 years on I can't quite get over the catholic guilt but it does make me think - we are not better than them because we don't quench our need for sex - we are just better at oppressing the need as deep down we are constantly reinforced with promiscuous women are sluts and men are well .... men.

Makes me laugh to consider the vicious circle - men want sex, men use sex to sell and then women end up thinking that holding back sex equals power .... so no sex for all ... classic loose loose ....

ok will stop blahing on with your blog - great blog thanks for the thoughts.

Lorraine | July 8, 2012 at 01:26 pm

I do not know if my comment will put a cat amongst the pigeons, but I believe men may sometimes need affection and mistakenly think they can get it by sex! Sex is not only lust it is also a comfort ie affection. But men may, and i stress may, feel not manly to want affection. So maybe Arndt may actually need to discuss this with the men she may have spoken with and really dig down into their answers regarding how often they want sex may come down to sometimes it is appreciation or affection they need as do us women ned from men.

counseldew | July 15, 2012 at 02:30 am

I have stated for years that treating/marginalizing others just because you have been so treated/marginalized only makes you as bad as "them."

We have to realize equal treatment is the only solution that eliminates the willingness to focus only on your issues...

Good job. We should all be so willing to question our beliefs and learn...

jessie | May 15, 2012 at 05:36 pm

I think the reason why people get angry at Arndt is because her position that women have a lower sex drive than men, and her regular assertion that women are implicated in men's unfaithfulness and sexual indiscretion because of this, and thus should be willing to submit to unwanted sex to prevent it. This is totally different to Dan Savage's message, part of which asserts you should be "good giving and game", but also that if you can't be, and no longer want sex with your partner, you shouldn't be with them at all (not, importantly, that you should suffer through boring or unpleasant sex to please them). Arndt's message is simplistic and wrong-headed, and feels just plain counterintuitive to the many women who have a perfectly healthy sex drive and do not relate to this supposedly "commonly accepted truth". It ignores the fundamental problems that brought about the break down of the sexual relationship and tried to supply a bandaid solution - just pretend! Is being merely tolerated any more upsetting for a man than being rejected? The idea that relationships can be reduced to this transactional level is gross. And worse, Arndt represents a classic pathologising of women's bodies and sexuality that feels positively Victorian, backward and misogynistic. That's why people rage on the internet at her. Yes, it gets expressed in an equally simplistic and wrong-headed way, but I think there is valid grounds for rejecting her assertions.

That women can live without sex better than men can, is different from them having a low sex drive. The studies Arndt references (at least in her representation of them) are not privy to women's fantasy lives - and don't seem even interested in them. They don't seem to take into account other things we know, such as the fact that women are generally not as aggressive as men, generally have lower testosterone levels, and are generally socialised to be less sexually assertive. The shame and embarrassment at being thought of as either a slut or being sexually rejected is a social disincentive for women that is not so present for men. None of these things absolutely equate to lower sex drive, although it may be expressed as such in the context of a long-term relationship. On a really prosaic level, it is conceivable that said women are just bored by or unattracted to their long term partners, or don't enjoy sex with them specifically, and are better at sublimating or satisfying their sexual desire through one or a combination of other means (romance novels, movies, fantasising, eating, other friendships, dare I say it, wanking) than men are (and would rather avoid the issue than leave and otherwise mutually beneficial relationship).

This is the open, unashamed conversation that should be had - not a perpetuation of a simplistic blame game which fundamentally misrepresents both women and men- casting women as sexless, withholding eunuchs and men as bruised, but savage beasts. That's offensive to everyone, and untrue. The reasons why men go to prostitutes or cheat or rape are so much more complicated and socially, economically, historically and culturally determined than that "their wives have a low sex drive" or that "sex is important to their happiness". The reasons why women don't want to have sex with their husbands/partners are equally complex. To give credence to these fatuous cliches is not just offensive, it's irresponsible.

manishalee | May 15, 2012 at 04:11 pm

(Just think for a second: this would be so horrid! Imagine being constantly sexually frustrated and rejected. There’s no way I could be happy like that. The history of feminism tells me I don’t have to put up with anything that makes me unhappy).
Great post, Elizabeth and good points raised. "

Manisha Lee

another outspoken female | May 24, 2012 at 09:33 am

I have so many responses both to Arndt's Soapbox talk and this post.

The withholding of sex in a relationship is a potent and emotive issue. I know as many women as men who've been the ones denied sex. I think Arndt's demographics are generationally skewed and don't reflect that. As much as men are portrayed as always being up for sex, the reality is quite different. And if their heart, or in this case cock or tongue, is not in it then it's just not going to happen. However when it's a case of women not wanting sex, they're expected to just submit -for what was it Bettina, 10 minutes?

Too often in a long term relationship intimacy is where the battles are fought. How often, when and how sex is had (or not), like rape, can also be about power. I'm sure if we were all emotionally evolved beings, sexual desire wouldn't come down to who has cleaned the toilet, paid the bills and cooked dinner. But sadly this can play a role in the complexity of libido. Yes it's wrong. But when you talk to women about what puts them off having sex with a long term partner these issues along with general tiredness, seem to be a recurrent theme. And the men who withhold, if drunk enough to answer honestly on the matter, have uttered things like "wanting to be the pursuer" or feeling emasculated by the partner.

A parody of Arndt's talk could be to look at the ABS stats on division of domestic labour by gender. Substitute the topic of sex for housework and childcare, and discuss in terms of who is/isn't putting out. Just 10 minutes remember, grin and bear it!

In partnerships where sex is withheld, or doled out sparingly I'd bet that sex really isn't the only thorny issue in the relationship. Just how much communication and emotional honesty is happening all round? Sex is a symptom, not always the cause.

When it comes down to it, I don't think our model of monogamy really works. If we went into relationships with the belief that our partner is not responsible for our sexual needs, things would be a lot easier. Monogamous or not "The Ethical Slut" is a great primer on communication for all kinds of relationships.

australianphotographcollector | May 15, 2012 at 06:36 pm

Ive used the argument that 'men need to empty their balls' but it doesnt go down so well. 'Women like romance' is a response but that almost has a price on it, 'I pay you play', like prostitution, so wheres the happy medium for guys and gals? If there is passion there is play without it the relationship fizzles. Both sexes are sensitive to comments which can be passion killers. The ability to be able to forgive and forget transgressions goes a long way to keeping the passion alive.

R Barry | May 15, 2012 at 07:15 pm

You were not accused directly or indirectly of advocating rape within marriage you silly girl. Arndt was.

R Barry | May 15, 2012 at 09:32 pm

By advocating women engage in sex despite not feeling like it to somehow assuage the desires of their partner sounds all very progressive in theory. Arndt basically says 'why not you might enjoy it' and I found this simplistic and unpalatable. Ms Mead you are entitled to your view and perhaps as you are only going on the talk and not the book which I read and was deeply troubled by, I can understand your position. That being said perhaps if you don't want to be tut tutted be more well informed, do not draw attention to other peoples age (the height of rudeness), do not use any position you may have in a different context to attack someone you don't know, do not quote people out of context, and do not think for a minute anyone was offended by your position (mind you I am getting more offended as time goes on) . My criticisms were of Arndt, and will continue to be.

A Dulton | May 15, 2012 at 10:10 pm

Apparently you've stumbled into the controversy about Arndt late and rather witless. I'm not surprised to hear of the number nor the vitriol in response to her talk and/ or your supporting remarks. It is naive to expect people will respond to this one talk and not her 'work' in its entirety.

Anyway, even taking this one event, I am sad to read (I'm sure) an otherwise smart and self-aware woman so comfortably enter into a discourse on the basis of such a classically manipulative and false premise; that most men have a higher sex drive than most women! Pardon?

Right, so feminism 101: The entire paradigm of western culture is built around white, wealthy, straight men's sexuality blah blah blah. But wait. No. Here are intelligent young women buying into Arndt's irresponsible and sneaky assertions which represent no one but deride women and women's sexuality.
Oh for all money she makes it sound as if middle class straight men need a voice. Who needs enemies?

Kathy | May 16, 2012 at 12:05 am

Using the word or concept of rape is sticks and stones. Rape is about violence and power not sex. Sex, passion, love in a long standing relationship is complicated. Anyone who has been there knows this. I haven't read any good solutions here, because maybe there aren't any. I have read words of understanding, support and love and maybe those are the best tools we have.

Jason James | May 16, 2012 at 01:38 am

I only listened to the talk, and read this thread. I thought a man contributing to the debate might be useful. I thought the dialogue about sex drive was not the important issue. I think it varies between people for various reasons, regardless of their gender or sexuality. Arndt may be provoking and trying to sell books, but I think that is a good thing if it does provoke conversation in this area. I agree that the 'why not you might enjoy it' is simplistic, and I have always found it unpalatable since hearing it many years ago. The message I took from Arndt is simpler still; be considerate of your partner's needs. I think the important part of the message is that sex may be more important to your partner than what you think it is. Reading all this has made me think about it. Now need to work out what the right starting question, of my partner, is to start talking about this. Hopefully other people think about how to start that conversation too.

Rosella A. Alm | May 16, 2012 at 08:23 am

Much like many people my early life was subject to raging sexual needs, but at age 70, I can do without it if necessary. Unfortunately it is necessary these days, except for the universal panacea, masturbation. Since I began my interactive sex life at age 15, I only made the requisite cover-ups that society demanded, and as Shaw said, "rubbed blue mud in my belly button as the natives did." There was never any guilt associated with sex in my mind, however there was often in my partner's minds, and unfortunately in my first and second husband's mind. (I have guilt issues about other things, but not sex) I was raped as a young woman, and know the difference between what Ms. Arndt is talking about and the reality of RAPE!

Rosella A. Alm | July 10, 2012 at 03:38 pm

A lot depends on who in your childhood was the one who was the ONE who did everything at home. Who was the breadwinner, who poured out love and affection, who fixed the plumbing and wiring, who sewed, cooked dinner and baked apfulkuchen? Was it mama or dad? In my childhood it was my mother who did all of that. My father was a World War II absent father, (in other words he met another woman).

Therefore when i grew up, I never felt that there was some work that was inherently 'mens' work and some work that was inherently 'womens' work. I poured out love and affection on the men that I loved as well as desiring them frequently with overwhelming lust (sometimes too overwhelming). I worked alongside them too, building, painting, upholstery (when younger) advocacy for people with disabilities (the last 24 years).

I can't recall ever saying no to sex, as it is absolutely the best part of life. Other issues can always be discussed afterwards.

tera rudell | February 16, 2014 at 03:55 am

I had a much bigger drive when I was young. I am 63 and not as interested in sex . I have had actual good sex with 2 or 3 men in my life and now wonder why I wasted so much on loosers. I say that in more than one area. I have found it disgusting that men are so sex driven and even more at the fact that they have to make VIAGRA just so they can get more. I remember my mom telling me that they have 2 brains and the small one runs the show. It is soooo true. Oh and where in the article did it answer my question of why it is so.