Dr. Lisa Firestone discusses the ways our society still condemns women for their sexuality.
Months have passed since Rush Limbaugh apologized for the scathing insults he spewed about a female student who spoke out before congress on the importance of birth control to young women. Yet, echoes of the terms Limbaugh used, “slut,” “prostitute” and “feminazi,” should still be ringing in our ears. Moreover, they should force us to look beyond extremist political personalities and examine how society itself views a woman’s sexuality and what effect this is having on women.
In 1960, the birth control pill put women in charge of their bodies and their sexuality. In the following years, The Feminist Movement demanded women get equal opportunity, pay, responsibility and choice. The degree to which society has shifted since then is considerable. However, we somehow still find ourselves living in a world where our culture persists in sending women mixed messages about their sexuality. We want women to be objects of sexual desire, yet we expect them to be pure. We ask them to own their sexuality but deny them easy access to birth control. Women who’ve taken an equal position to men in acknowledging their sexual nature are often accused of being “easy” or “manipulative.”
One of the most shameful insults to a man is the accusation that he is not masculine. For a woman, it is that she is sexually loose or a slut. For a man, sleeping with a lot of women can be a point of pride. For a woman, it’s a point of shame. These contradictions and double standards should have us asking why it’s considered shameful for a woman to be sexual.
Despite our social advances, our culture is still guilty of casting women as what author Estela Welldon described as “Mother, Madonna, [or] Whore.” To put a woman into any of these categories is to deny essential aspects of who she is. Common opinions about female sexuality range from accusing women of being prudish or withholding of sex to being seductive and using their sexuality as a source of power or manipulation. These skewed views steer us away from seeing the reality that, just like men, women have a natural and healthy desire to be sexual.
Pushing the idea that men are from Mars and women are from Venus only helps make the sexes feel more alien from each other. In fact, when it comes to an untainted expression of sexuality, women and men are much more similar to each other than you may think. In explaining “The Gender Similarities Hypothesis,” researcher Janet Hyde emphasized that although gender difference is “large for incidences of masturbation and for attitudes about sex in an uncommitted relationship, the gender difference in reported sexual satisfaction is close to zero.”
Some stereotypes regarding women’s sexuality are based on the fact that because of influences from both society and family, many women are less likely to reveal their sexual desire. Society’s point of view reminds us that men are designed to want sex, while women are designed to withhold it. These attitudes drive a man to hide a lack of sex drive for fear of facing the same negative scrutiny a woman dreads for showcasing her sexuality. When a person’s sexual nature is stripped of these hurtful and shaming cultural and psychological influences, a man and woman’s desire for sex is basically the same.
A common distortion in our society views men as wanting sex more than women. In my personal experience as a therapist, I have found this to be untrue. Many couples I’ve seen have complained of the opposite dynamic, with the woman feeling frustrated over her partner’s lack of interest in sex. Other therapists have noticed the same. In an article on WebMD, Louanne Cole Weston, Ph.D. stated, “When people wrote in about the discrepancy of frequency and desire [for sex], about 40% of the time it was men wanting less.” Irwin Goldstein, M.D., director of sexual medicine at San Diego’s Alvarado Hospital and editor in chief of The Journal of Sexual Medicine further stated to WebMD that one in five men have a low libido, and “almost 30% of women say they have more interest in sex than their partner has.”
In the U.S., 15 to 20 percent of couples reportedly have sex no more than 10 times a year, which experts define as a sexless marriage, and 20 to 30 percent of men and 30 to 50 percent of women say they have little or no sex drive. The reasons for this are complex. Many of our attitudes toward sex are shaped by how we were raised and how sexuality was portrayed to us in our families and in our communities. It also has to do with how much we’ve matured and developed our capacity to tolerate mental and physical intimacy.
If women are in fact less sexual than men, there is a certain degree of explanation in the family dynamic. Families tend to be more protective toward their daughters. Parents impose their own moral, religious or personal views toward sex onto their children, and this is particularly the case with girls. Feelings of guilt and shame are born in the household and at a very young age, when little girls are taught to hide or repress their physical selves. As they reach adolescence and start dating, protective or critical attitudes from parental figures tend to teach young women to suppress or resist their sexuality. Everyone from their parents to their peers may be sending them the message that being sexual is synonymous with being a slut.
Of course, not every woman is brought up with an unhealthy or repressive view of sex. Many young girls are well-educated and rightly taught to respect their bodies and that developing as a sexual woman is a natural and enjoyable part of becoming an adult. Nevertheless, a parent’s outlook toward his or her own sexuality also impacts their children’s perspective on sex. The subtle attitudes we indicate to our children do not go unheard, and the conversations we have or fail to have help shape their feelings toward themselves, their bodies, and their sexuality. When we are critical, intolerant, or not accepting toward them, we teach them to feel these ways toward themselves. Teaching our children, with our words or our example, that sex is shameful, dirty, or not to be talked about leaves an impression that is hard to outgrow.
People often cite their young adulthood as the years they were the most sexually free or “themselves.” As we get older, our responsibilities increase, and we often become involved in long-term, committed relationships. Three reasons are typically given for a woman’s decreased sexual desire at this stage in her life: marriage, career and kids. Yet, it isn’t just a lack of time or an influx of responsibility that disconnects us from our sexuality.
Marriages and long-term relationships tend to deaden when each party pulls away from being close, attractive, attracted and alive. This naturally affects our sexuality. When we become too dependent on each other or become disrespectful in our familiarity, or restrictive of one another’s freedom and individuality, we become less sexually attracted to each other.
For many women, becoming a mother and shifting her focus onto her children can further interfere with her desire for her partner. Most of us didn’t see our mothers as romantic, and we tend to mimic these tendencies when we become mothers ourselves. Society feeds into this notion, indicating to women that now that they are a mother, it’s no longer appropriate to be sexual. Being free is deemed irresponsible, and being spontaneous is shunned as immature. The same can be said of work. Being overly focused on a career or parenthood disconnects a woman from her sexuality, allowing her life to get out of balance in a way that fails to acknowledge her as a complete person.
The primary goal for every individual in a close, sexual relationship should be equality. Having a personal, honest and emotional exchange is the best we can hope for in regard to intimacy. When a woman gives up her sexuality, she sacrifices an essential part of who she is. It’s not just about having sex, but about being acknowledged and acknowledging of her full self, her physicality, and her wants. Failing to recognize or repressing this part of ourselves can have serious consequences. Every person must feel they can accept themselves and their whole identity. If you are cut off from such an essential feeling, you become less alive and less you. That is why it is so important to debunk the myths about a women’s sexuality and allow every individual to live freely as their fullest selves.
This article was originally published at PsychAlive . Reprinted with permission from the author.