My dear friend recently shared a story with me. It highlighted one of the issues she and I have talked about before in such a perfect way. She’s given me permission to share some things with you. Her name, for the purposes of anonymity here, will be Jasmine.
There is a problem in the way sex is handled with women versus with men. Guys are societally expected to have a high libido. They are supposed to not just want sex, but need it. I’ve even been told that masturbation should be encouraged for abstaining teens and men because without regular, frequent release they can experience physiological problems. (I’ve yet to find any medical evidence to support such a claim.) Girls, on the other hand, are expected to not want sex very often. It is common to read articles in the online parenting world about the “woman’s problem” of having to either put out for or disappoint a husband who has a stronger drive than hers. Even in the Christian church it’s acceptable to talk about men loving and needing sex, and women tolerating it as a side effect of relationship stability. What is not so common and acceptable is to hear about women loving and needing sex. We, the church, avoid this discussion to our peril when we allow this wolf in sheep’s clothing to sneak around diminishing one half of the human race.
Jasmine is a busy mama with kids at home, a husband, and a somewhat recent diagnosis of depression, for which she is now receiving medical help. Not long ago she visited her doctor to talk about her low libido. Normally, she loves sex. Normally, it’s a lot of fun. Lately, though, her meds are blocking her responsiveness.
“I’m frustrated,” Jasmine told her doctor, who is also a woman and a Christian. “I said, ‘It’s just not normal for me to feel yucky about sex. But I do.’ [My doctor] laughed and said, ‘Your poor husband probably doesn’t like that at all! Well, we gotta get that fixed for him.‘ I replied, irritated, ‘My poor husband?! My poor husband is fine! Aladdin can get off any time he wants. And he doesn’t want to have sex but then feel icky about it, or want to have sex and then not successfully come. He doesn’t want to have sex but then find it not enjoyable because it hurts! He doesn’t have the problem! I do!‘”
Jasmine shared her story with me, outraged that she should even have to defend herself in such a way to her doctor, and another woman at that. “I used to like sex, I want sex, I want sex with my husband, I desire to have sex with my husband, I love having sex with my husband, and I want it to be normal, fun, enjoyable, kinky, exciting, hot and sexy sex!!!! I WANT IT. This has nothing to do with ‘my poor husband’. Why the hell is everything about men!!!!”
Why, indeed? How does a woman’s libido, a very personal matter, become a man’s pleasure or problem? This wasn’t an instance of being married and sharing everything. This wasn’t a rebellion against two becoming one. This was, quite simply, Jasmine’s being assumed to be the object of Aladdin’s sexual need fulfilment.
Jasmine’s story is an example of Benevolent Sexism. Hostile Sexism is fairly easy to recognise. Benevolent Sexism is sneaky and far more socially pervasive. It parades around wearing a facade of chivalry, making out women to be weaker, lesser, diminished, objectified, by using what are perceived as good manners, male consideration, and role definition.
Benevolent Sexism operates on the fundamental belief that, whether observed in practice or not, there IS a gender hierarchy. It makes women other than men. It focuses on the differences rather than the similarities. It keeps humans apart and places division in marriages and families by the knock-on effect of simply being different. It often starts with biological differences, such as menstruation and pregnancy, broad shoulders and leaner muscles, and creates purpose and identity for children even before these biological differences are even pertinent.
Benevolent Sexism even uses compliments and praise to disarm and disempower women. “Women are kinder, gentler, naturally more loving. Women are not as strong as men, so they require protection. Women are not as naturally competitive.” Benevolent Sexism may appear not only harmless, but appealing. Women who protest the inequalities that result from this BS are cast as dominating, controlling, bitchy, unladylike, while those who go along with it are supposed to be pure but helpless, loving but incompetent.
Both Jasmine and I have desire for sex. This includes both physical and mental desire. Our womanhood does not exclude us from feeling physical desire for orgasmic release, nor exempt us from the sinful ability to misuse sex. The maleness of our husbands does not automatically provide them with raging desire, and at times they may experience lower libido and less desire than us. Men may desire sex for closeness, companionship, and for personal acceptance just as much as women. Women may desire sex for fun, pleasure, and for pain relief or sleep aid just as much as men. When Benevolent Sexism enters the bedroom, it brings the idea that Jasmine encountered from her doctor — that she only needed to be interested in sex for her man’s sake. But for her own? It wasn’t even on the table.
When Benevolent Sexism enters the bedroom, it brings the idea that a woman’s pleasure is a man’s responsibility. His orgasmic pleasure is seen not as her responsibility — she can lie back and do her duty — because she is not really a participant. She is the receptacle, the object, of his pleasure. But further than that, her orgasm is his responsibility. If a woman doesn’t “come” he’s doing it wrong. Once again, she is objectified, not considered an active or equal member of a partnership.
Not only are women disserviced by these attitudes, but men are harmed, too. Men are handed an undue burden when they are expected not only to always be ready for action but also to single-handedly bring all the pleasure to the game. If a woman doesn’t orgasm, somebody must be at fault. But why is orgasmic release so all-important? Cannot sex be enjoyable for other reasons? Yet if there remains the fundamental belief that men and women are not equal beings, men and women cannot meet here, in a vulnerable, naked state with all facade stripped away, with equal expectations and opportunities and without judgement.
Now, there are a lot of practical details that I don’t wish to enter into here, as not only would that require a very long discussion but is also probably best suited to private examination between you and your spouse. The fundamental idea I would like to share is this: ability and desire do not equate requirement.
If my orgasm and my libido are mine, as an autonomous human being, if I can claim my right to them and challenge sexism that would seek to lessen my enjoyment of sex, then these things are also mine to lay aside. It is okay for me to desire sex from my husband. It is okay for me to initiate sex. It is okay for me to not be particularly in the mood but to pleasure him anyway. I am not required to orgasm. But if I want to? Then it’s my orgasm, not his.
Chew over these thoughts and I will see you in the next article for part two, bringing the topic into more direct relevance in the church.