Updated: May 13, 2020
Years ago I was, like many of us now during CoronaVirus isolation, getting to know a man I’d met online through text and phone conversations. Our schedules took weeks to mesh, so in the interim we shared our dating histories. Always honest to a fault, I told him how much I’d been enjoying sex at fifty more than any other decade. He got quiet. “Do you think you have a sex addiction?” He then suggested I read a book called Women, Sex, and Addiction: A Search for Love and Power.
Rather than piss me off, his question triggered an ice cold wave of shame. I hadn’t, until that moment, considered my midlife enthusiasm for shagging to be anything but a normal reaction, and well-deserved reward, for years of un-excavated erotic curiosity. I couldn’t see pathology in what I was doing. But because I was rather enamoured with this relative stranger, I allowed his judgement to color the way I felt about myself rather than recognize his question as a reflection of our cultural upbringing and his own fears. What I wish I’d had the guts to say in the moment was, “Maybe you need to read a book called Male Insecurity Over Female Sexual Exuberance.” Needless to say, we did not go on to have a relationship.
I recalled this brief liaison as I was reading Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari. As Harari attempts to condense the 500,000 year history of Homo sapiens into 500 pages, he highlights the largely fictional beliefs we grow up with, the myths that bind us into cohesive tribes. Cultures form around collective myths; the son of God was born on earth and walked on water. Or the aryan race is superior both physically and mentally than any other. Myth creation is unique to Homo sapiens, who evolved to “speak about things that don’t really exist and believe six impossible things before breakfast. You could never convince a monkey to give you a banana by promising him limitless bananas after death in monkey heaven.” (For an eye watering 15 minute analysis of The Bible, watch Ricky Gervais take the piss out of God and the Devil).
Long before primitive hunter-gatherer societies understood embryology, it was believed “a child is not born from the sperm of a single man, but from the accumulation of sperm in a woman’s womb. A good mother will make a point of having sex with several different men, especially when she is pregnant, so that her child will enjoy the qualities not merely of the best hunter, but also of the best storyteller, the strongest warrior and the most considerate lover.” (Sapiens) Polyandry was considered a good and normal thing in most early clans. And, because there was no known singular father, child rearing was a collective act.
The myths we believe, when traced to their origins, have little to do with biology and everything to do with the narrow opinions of a few influencers. Of course, religion was by far the biggest influence over our moral values. Now we have the Kardashians to contend with. Norman Rockwell portrayed the putative myth of American freedom through his paintings; heteronormative, happy family scenes of the “good life” worth fighting for in World War II. This was despite the fact that Rockwell’s first marriage ended in divorce and both he and his second wife wound up in psychiatric institutions. The myth that you can make a stronger baby through sex with multiple men is every bit as legitimate as the notion that monogamy is “natural” in the 21st Century. Let’s face it, only 3-5% of mammals are monogamous. I’m not arguing against monogamy. I’m only pointing out that it’s a cultural myth, not a biological imperative.
When my sexual curiosity was deemed an addiction, that was simply a prevailing cultural myth: women do not let their sexual appetites become a focus of their lives and men are, by nature, the more sexualized. Harari puts it most elegantly when he writes, “Biology allows. Culture forbids.” That’s just about the truest, most devastating statement I’ve ever read.
Indeed, our bodies are wonderous playgrounds. We can stimulate and penetrate any number of zones and orifices alone or with partners. When culture passes judgement over what we do with our biology, that becomes the myth around which we attempt to legislate behavior, both other people’s and our own. When we acknowledge our judgemental attitudes around sex should be just as suspicious as racist stereotypes, women, especially, might allow their bodily desires a voice rather than a muzzle.
In the book Untrue: Why Nearly Everything We Believe About Women, Lust, and Infidelity Is Wrong and How the New Science Can Set Us Free Wednesday Martin, like Harari, argues that sexuality is defined by culture, not biology. But Martin wades deeper into the muck of cultural evolution. She takes a terrifically feminist look at how our departure from nomadic life to agrarian civilizations was a bum deal, especially for women. In primitive cultures, society revolved around matrilineal bonds and men and women toiled for sustenance equally. Low body mass naturally prevented pregnancies from piling up one after the other. But once agriculture became dominated by tools and machines that required brawn to operate, women were relegated to the home, bore more children as food storage became abundant, and saw themselves transformed into objects of men’s wealth. Through the rise of myth, religion, and economic dynamics, women lost their previous social status and became defined by men, even owned by them.
Martin then makes the case that women don’t necessarily have less desire for sex than men, but cultural myths around marriage and monogamy have us feeling ashamed of our sexual appetites because of the constraints we’ve put around them. And until very recently, the economic fallout of cheating and divorce may be a major factor in why a woman is unwilling to prioritize her sex life. It’s the patriarchy still fogging up our lenses.
So, is the pendulum swinging back now in the age of resurgent feminine autonomy? For sure. And we can see that in how we legislate sex. Marital rape was finally outlawed in the UK and US in 1991 and 1996 respectively. Gay marriage was legalized in 2014 and 2015. Women are gradually narrowing the infidelity gap by making their own money and becoming less dependent on men. We’re also delaying marriage, no longer an economic advantage for many of us. Then why do women still express a sense of shame for their sexual appetites? Martin writes, “When woman after woman in a committed relationship tells you she is unusual, sexually speaking – because she wants more sex than she’s supposed to, because she feels compelled or tempted to stray – you can’t shake the feeling that in matters of female desire, sexuality and monogamy in particular, “unusual” is normal, and “normal” desperately needs to be redefined.”
I feel badly that I’ve suggested in past writing that women will naturally lose interest in sex as they age, obliquely laying the blame for their mate’s infidelity on their low desire. But I think I got it all wrong. Of course, hormones are a factor, but flagging desire may have a lot to do with how we perceive sexuality as a culture and the repercussions of straying outside those boundaries. (There’s also the difficulties of kindling desire for the one you’ve been bonking for decades, but that’s another post.) I’m no stranger to being shamed and condemned for speaking up about cheating. But chances are, in a culture with less inflammatory attitudes towards sexuality, my pieces might have never registered ire. Morality is cultural, not universal.
Having good sex, when you really noodle on it, is largely a byproduct of culture, especially for women. In countries with a greater safety net than we have in the US, one big bugaboo of pleasure – economic insecurity- is largely absent. Health insurance alone in the US can cost over a thousand dollars a month – basic doctor visits are an additional charge - a fact no person in a country with universal health care has to face. I swear, if Republicans ever overturn Obama Care it’s going to put an enormous strain on my ability to orgasm.
But take a look at the countries where sexual equality is highest and bankruptcies rare, and you’ll find a society that subsidizes the needs of families regardless of whether marriage is present. By supporting families, culture is, in essence, freeing up the time for any parent to contribute equally to the social and economic fabric of a society. Like the hunter-gatherers, child rearing becomes collective and the status of women is one of equals. These are also countries where the roll of religion has become essentially insignificant. “Scandinavia’s secularism decoupled sex from sin, and this worked out well for females.” writes Lynn Parramore in a Reuters piece called ‘Why Scandinavian Women Make the Rest of the World Jealous’.
And Scandinavians might be having the best sex. An often cited study carried out on the data collected by VictoriaMilan, a website for partnered people seeking affairs, showed that Finland, Sweden, Denmark and Norway topped the charts as home to the most women saying they have a “high sex drive”. Give a woman health care, education and daycare, and not only are you going to grow an egalitarian society, you’re going to see a lot of post-orgasmic afterglow powering the economy.
Of course, it’s not just women whose lives are shrouded by cultural myths. Men also grapple with the messages culture has impressed upon them. The so-called “toxic masculinity” became a talking point in the mythopoetic men’s movement of the 1980s and 1990s, and is still discussed today. Toxic masculinity is, according to the sociologist Michael Flood, the “expectation that boys and men must be active, aggressive, tough, daring, and dominant”. Given that so many boys and men I’ve known over the years ARE active, aggressive, tough, daring and dominant, I’ve no doubt the culture in which we marinate from birth is defining what it means to be a man or a woman. Men may be overall more aggressive than women, and women, overall, more cooperative than men. But myth becomes toxic when these traits become the expectations of gender. And the psychological toll of falling outside these norms affects each of us differently. A woman who loves sex feels she is abnormal. A man who loves cuddling believes himself to be less than a man.
We do, as individuals, have some say in the evolution of sex by scrutinizing the messages we give our kids, partners and, most importantly, ourselves. Being a single mom has allowed me the opportunity to grow my competencies in areas that I would have earlier left to my husband, such as fixing the bicycles and exploring science with my son. This is the first place we can affect change. We perpetuate our cultural myths inside the home; through the division of labor, the way we fight, and the excuses we make for not challenging our stereotypes. Pick these apart at dinner and you’re going to be raising a new generation of cultural critics. Find opportunities to encourage women to be horny and men to be tender. We shouldn’t be telling our daughters to protect their ‘virtue’ and our sons to get to third base on the first date. The message should be the same to both: respect your partners, seek connection and consent, and don’t be afraid of sex – it’s a wonderful thing! God does not kill a kitten every time you masturbate. Don’t negatively judge what someone says feels good or how many people they want to feel good with. That’s culture talking. And sometimes culture talks shit.
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