Mark D. White challenges a Wall Street Journal article that uses tired and insulting clichés about men and sex.
Elizabeth Bernstein’s recent article in The Wall Street Journal entitled “How Often Should Married Couples Have Sex?” amasses psychological research to discuss the age-old problem of differing sex drives between married men and women. (In case you’re wondering, she doesn’t answer the question in the title.) As an example, she presents the story of Chris and Afton Mowers, who have been married for ten years, during which Chris has struggled to inspire Afton to have more sex.
Theirs is not an unusual story, certainly, but the details of it belie some of the research explained in the article, most of which provides a depressingly reductionist view of how men think about sex in their relationships. I take no issue with the research itself, but as presented it paints an incomplete and inaccurate picture of male sexuality.
To begin, Bernstein writes that:
Increasingly, experts believe sex is a more emotional experience for men than for women. Men tend to express feelings with actions, not words. Unlike a lot of women, they probably don’t have heart-to-heart chats with everyone from their best friend to the bus driver, and they often limit hugs and physical affection to their immediate family.
It is encouraging that men are acknowledged as experiencing sex emotionally, although I think it’s a matter of experiencing it differently rather than simply “more.” But Bernstein then resorts to the trope of “men act, women talk,” which is nicely contradicted by the Mowers’ story: Chris tries to engage Afton in discussion about their sex life but Afton is reluctant (following a miscarriage early in their marriage).
The next paragraph, though, deflates any recognition of the rich inner lives of men that we may have hoped for from the article:
No wonder they miss sex when it disappears. It’s a way for them to be aggressive and manly but also tender and vulnerable. “For some men, sex may be their primary way of communicating and expressing intimacy,” says Justin Lehmiller, a Harvard University social psychologist who studies sexuality. Taking away sex “takes away their primary emotional outlet.”
So for men, sex is “a way of them to be aggressive and manly,” “their primary way of communicating and expressing intimacy,” and “their primary emotional outlet.” (Wow.)
Again, Chris Mower provides a wonderful counterexample to this—as if one were needed. While he does say that “for me to feel good about myself, I needed her to have sex with me. Otherwise I thought she didn’t love me,” he also says, when he comments on the miscarriage and the sexual lull that followed, “Here was an opportunity to get to know my spouse on an intimate level, yet neither of us was opening up.” Here is a man who values sex for many reasons but doesn’t seem to rely on it as his primary way of connecting with his wife emotionally—just one of many.
According to therapist Esther Parel (as paraphrased and quoted in the article):
Men, much more than women, relate to a partner through sex… as evidenced by their fear of rejection, concerns about performance and desire to please. “When a man gets depressed because he’s not being touched, it’s just like the little boy who stands in his crib and cries to be picked up,” she says. “He is experiencing emotional deprivation.”
And here I thought touch was important to everyone—shows how much I know! What’s more, “fear of rejection, concerns about performance and desire to please” do not necessarily point to the claim that men rely on sex more than women do to relate, and are in fact common to both men and women, though again in different ways. (And isn’t a desire to please is a good thing?)
Many couples in long-term relationships have problems with sexual compatibility along any number of dimensions, one of them being frequency (and not always with the man desiring more frequent sex than the woman). But it doesn’t help to trot out tired and insulting clichés about men—especially when the central example in the article paints a much more nuanced picture.