The way we talk about sex is based on some very dubious assumptions, starting with the idea that “normal” is a thing.
So I was reading this lovely Charlie Glickman piece about listening to Robert Jensen give a talk about how porn is a guy thing that’s bad for men, and how his own reaction to much of it was utter WTF. The money quote, for me, is this: “It isn’t clear to me … why he left pleasure out of his list of things that we might want from sexuality.”
The respectful bafflement there is very telling, to my eyes, and it mirrors a similar bafflement I’ve seen in a lot of other places. I think there is an enormous, rarely-bridged communication gap between people of varying libidos, and I think it tends to result in conversations where both parties are talking completely past each other without realizing it.
Let me start by clarifying what I mean by varying libidos. Different people have different levels of horniness, and different ways of expressing that. For some people, sex is a relatively low priority; not getting off in their preferred manner is like giving up smoking or eating pork–maybe less fun, but not that big a deal. For others, sex is a very high priority indeed; not getting off is like giving up breathing or eating food–a seriously unacceptable plan. In between, you’ve got a whole spectrum of complex interactions of desire, which is, from a humanist perspective, totally awesome. Where this scale comes from is interesting, but not relevant to the subject at hand. A weird mix of biology, socialization, formative experience, and a visit from the Libido Fairy, perhaps.
Now, some will point out that I’m leaving out compulsive sex addicts from the high end of this scale, and leaving out asexuals from the low end. (Note: I am not trying to equate asexuals with people suffering from an addiction. It does not work the same, as far as I’m aware.) I’m leaving them off for a reason: those groups of people are aware that they’re outliers. They know that most folks don’t share their particular drives, and they deal with that in their own ways.
What’s key to this understanding is that everyone on that libido spectrum assumes they’re normal. It’s the Typical Mind Fallacy cranked up until the knobs snap off. It’s that blasted quote from Annie Hall about a guy and a girl who are having the same amount of sex and he thinks it’s too little and she thinks it’s too much. (I say “blasted” because that quote reinforces the idea that women aren’t that into sex and men are constantly horny, which is horseshit.) Therefore, if I’m normal, everyone who’s more or less horny than I am must be abnormal. It’s the old joke: A prude is someone who gets laid less than you, and a slut is someone who gets laid more than you.
Because of the weird blind spots in the ways our culture talks about sex, most people never really grasp that there’s a lot of variance in libido out there. That, combined with the Typical Mind Fallacy, means that most of us are working from some very wrong assumptions. I myself, when I hear about someone who’s happily monogamous with a single person, have to restrain myself from going “Yeah, but… really? I mean, you’re not really happy, are you?” I would not be comfortable in such an arrangement, therefore obviously no one else is either, right? And again, that’s from someone who knows that’s wrong.
Now, let’s look at feminism for a second. One of the deepest and longest-running schisms within the feminist movement has been, to oversimplify just a notch, the sex-positive vs. sex-negative fight. In the form of a brief dialogue, it’d look a bit like this:
Neg: …and we will be liberated from the bonds of economic oppression!
Neg: We will be liberated from having our own identities defined by others!
Pos: Hell yeah!
Neg: We will be liberated from having to pretend we like sex!
Pos: Y… wait, what?
Neg: You know, all that stuff about having to have sex to please men. We can stop doing it.
Pos: I don’t want to stop doing it. I actually kinda want to be free to do more of it. Also with women. And with myself. And combinations of the above.
Neg: It is completely alien to me that you would make sex such a high priority. I have no model to explain this, other than to assume you are brainwashed by the patriarchy.
Pos: …I brainwashed your mom’s patriarchy.
Obviously, from there the conversation does not go anywhere productive.
The flaw here is partly the flaw in so much gender thinking, the conceptualization of Men and Women as two monolithic, homogeneous groups. Thus, if any given woman thinks a thing, such as “I am tired of being pressured for sex when I’m just not that into it” then obviously All Women must think the same thing. Nobody quite sets out to model things that way, but damn, it keeps on happening, doesn’t it? There is something profoundly Manichaean in human cognition, and it tends to lead us into error.
The key issue about this dichotomy is that both sides have a hard time understanding the other’s premises, just as Glickman struggled to understand what the heck Jensen was basing his assumptions on. Thus, we have Pat Califia in 1981, with her seminal article “Feminism and Sadomasochism”, in which she answered the question “Why would any liberated woman want to be tied up and whipped?” with, basically, “Honey, if you have to ask, you ain’t never gonna know.”
Today we have the exact same conversation going on, with Naomi Wolf (who I do respect) and Gail Dines (who can take a flying fuck at a rolling doughnut) still saying “Yeah, but Women aren’t really into that kinky stuff, that’s just something Men like.” Thirty years, zero progress in this conversation. Hell, even feminists of my particular stripe have been dismissed by some radical feminist commenters as “sexpozzies”, a derisive slur I had never previously heard, and in which I probably take too much delight.
That said, I don’t want to dismiss the sex-negative crew’s viewpoint out of hand. If sex is just not that high a priority for you, the constant barrage of sexual imagery in culture, the constant messages that sex is what defines you, that’s got to feel incredibly alienating. If you only masturbate occasionally and aren’t really into the freaky stuff, the rise of the Infinite Porn Machine, or the internet as some people call it, has got to look very weird indeed. Why the hell would people put this much time and energy and money into something that’s just not a big deal? The answer, of course, is that it is a big deal to them, but there we walk straight into the same old fallacy: I’m normal, you’re weird, let’s construct models to explain why you’re weird.
This lack of comprehension is very much a men’s issue, of course. Just that we tend to gender the same conflict in societally-taught male terms. Speaking personally, I’m a horny bastard, no denying it. I prioritize sex very highly, and I’m very much okay with that. So when I hear male friends talk about how they’re not really looking to date anyone right now, that’s gibberish to me. I cannot understand it. It’s very, very tempting for me to start thinking “Well, he’s a loser. He couldn’t hack it in the dating world, so he’s just punking out and giving up.” Not because I actually believe that, but because growing up male, I was taught to think of things in terms of winners and losers, and that it was bad, reprehensible, unmasculine to be a loser. I have to actively fight that programming, as do a lot of guys, I think.
At the same time, my friend is probably fighting the impulse to look at me as a dumb horny bastard, a two-bit Lothario who spends all his time chasing girls instead of doing something useful or productive. (A vicious lie: I can’t afford two bits.) That, too, is another male stereotype, another model of dysfunction created to explain why someone is different from ourselves. Again, I’m normal, you’re weird, let’s construct models to explain why you’re weird.
And boy howdy, do we internalize these models. Horny guys like me often feel like we’re sex-crazed beasts, inflicting our unwelcome penises on a world that barely tolerates us. Less-horny guys often feel like failures of masculinity, like they’re supposed to have lush Frazetta women clinging to their legs, or at least to want that more than they do. Both these things are bullshit, but we don’t have a good societal vocabulary to talk about them.
What we need to let ourselves do is acknowledge that sex is a big deal for some people, and really not a big deal for others. We need to get better at saying “Eh, that’s not really my thing, but if you like it, rock on with your cock on” and meaning it. Otherwise, we will only continue to be opaque to each other. We will miss the enormous pain in someone who would really like to get some, but isn’t. We will miss the pain in someone who doesn’t want to have sex but feels obligated to. We will miss all the people who can’t reconcile the contradiction between their utterly filthy fantasies and the social role they find themselves in. Understanding can only arise from acknowledging our mutual incomprehension.
This is an edited version of a previously published Noah Brand piece.