When It Comes To Sex, There's Enough Shame To Go Around


Sex writers Susannah Breslin and Grant Stoddard have columns on The Daily Beast purportedly debating a study that suggests women are more able to express deviations from so-called sexual norms in bed than men.

It’s probably unsurprising that they end up talking about completely different things. Breslin ends up talking mostly about how the public expression of those desires tends to earn women opprobrium, and Stoddard, an alt-sex writer for Nerve, ends up talking about how women with whom he has been intimate were either more inclined to express certain sexual proclivities to him than he was to them, or more apt to have them (he’s not clear which). They’re both sort of right, and both sort of wrong.

Let’s start with Breslin, lest she caterwaul about coming second.

Yet, despite all this “progress,” I’ve found that it’s women who remain subjected to the sexual double-standard. The evidence is written across the Internet.
Take a look at the young women who write openly about their sex lives online, and what you’ll find is that trailing along behind them is a line of rabid attackers looking to punish them for doing so. The more high-profile among them spawn lightning-rod debates as they reveal their sexual proclivities in provocative blog posts and graphic cellphone pics.

Now, outside of exhibitionism, there’s a pretty big difference between being able to ask for and have one’s supposedly kinky sexual needs met, and the public display of them. The study doesn’t delve remotely into whether women in the online or public space who choose to share details of their sex lives with others are subject to attack for doing so. It is much more about how it’s more socially acceptable for women to have an express fluidity in sexual roles than men.

In fact, this is what the study says:

The researchers say the findings “underscore the conflictive nature of the sexual double standard when applied to men … It demands that they evidence greater interest in sexual matters, yet also requires that this interest be channelled into modes of expression that are ‘socially appropriate.'”
One reason for why a greater number of “non-normative” behaviours are considered acceptable for women is that women are allowed to take on both dominant and subordinate sexual roles; men are not given that same exploratory space.

And, to Breslin’s point, it’s not only men who are making judgments about the acceptability to female and male so-called “promiscuity.” More from the study:

When it comes to the traditional notion that it is more acceptable for men to watch pornography or be sexually active, for example, the study shows that women deem men’s sexual prowess as more acceptable than their own, embracing their role as the gender of lesser promiscuity.
“Women, in certain ways, were shown to accept the longstanding double standard,” said Mr. McKay.

Breslin’s takeaway from the study?

Sure, women are freer to explore their sexuality-as long as it doesn’t threaten the male status quo.

I don’t think that’s a fair recap. What the study suggests is that it’s a societal (one might say “patriarchal,” but we all know Breslin hates that word) status quo that is affecting men and women negatively. In other words, sometimes a man wants to be spanked and sometimes he just wants to be held but often, he feels himself no more free to express that than some women do to express their desire for multiple sexual partners.

Stoddard, too, gets it slightly wrong, slightly right, and very overshare-y. How “like a girl” of him.

While I’m supposed to honor requests to slap, restrain, throttle, and enable any Sapphic whim a woman may wish to actualize, a libidinous digression from me means putting an already tattered reputation on the line. Technically speaking, I’m a man, and as such, I’m obligated to keep it simple.

This, too, is not what the study is saying. The study suggests that it’s less socially acceptable for men to express their desire to have those things done to them, not that it’s less socially acceptable for men to engage in so-called kinky behaviors. Stoddard does, however, get this part right, even as he’s judging the women he slept with for being openly kinky themselves.

Though I personally find some of these behaviors, amusing, icky, or occasionally mildly upsetting, I applaud and am inspired by the explorative and uninhibited attitude women are embodying in their sexual conduct. I don’t try to psychoanalyze or pass judgment; I dutifully do what I’m told to the best of my abilities and within the confines of federal law. But what would happen if I asked for what remains of my hair to be pulled, my ass slapped, or to be called a string of nasty names that refer to my undiscerning promiscuity? What if I suggested we invite another gentleman into a sexual act with a female partner? What was playful, de rigueur fun for a woman becomes a rather more complex proposition when suggested by a man-one that could see him at odds with his peers and ostracized from the dating pool.

Leaving aside the irony that a man who rather infamously wrote about kinky sex for a living ended up sleeping with what sounds like a disproportionate number of kinky women and was uncomfortable with that, the study suggests the exact thing about which Stoddard was worried — that men feel more inhibited about playing submissive sexual roles, and that society judges them if they do. And, on the subject of “not being in the mood,” Stoddard felt himself judged on those occasions when he wasn’t.

On several occasions I’ve been invited back to girls’ apartments in the early hours of the morning, ostensibly for intercourse. On a few of those occasions, upon arriving at their respective stoops, I’ve had second thoughts and declined their kind offer. Their befuddled expressions implored me to explain myself. When I didn’t, they verbalized their need for an explanation: “I’m allergic to cat dander,” I say. Or: “I have to pick up my parents from the airport.” “I have to cram for a real-estate exam.” In truth, I simply wasn’t wasn’t feeling like having sex with them or anybody else, and for no reason in particular.
Each of these incidents incited the miffed woman to disseminate mild hearsay about my sexual orientation or general oddness.

Ah, rejection. It’s not pleasant. And calling him gay for declining sex — though the study shows that we all more or less think men do (or should) always want it — is uncool. But he’s wrong insofar as many women also complain that they are subjected to pressure to change their minds or name-calling if they don’t (“frigid” comes to mind). So I’m not sure that it’s really a double standard so much as an immature reaction to sexual rejection too common among both genders.

The reason why the study is interesting is that it focuses on the harm that traditional gender roles [cough, the patriarchy, cough] and traditional ideas of gendered sexual norms do to men as well as women. It’s not equitable for men with multiple partners to be judged differently than women; it’s not fair that men are thought of as “off” for not constantly wanting intercourse; it’s not healthy that men feel unable to express homoerotic fantasies or desires to be sexually submissive — or that society judges them when they do.

The patriarchy hurts men too. Damn, that just slipped out. Sorry, Susanna, I guess I just can’t stop myself from caterwauling about it. It’s so easy sometimes — but I guess you probably noticed that when you were writing your story.

Women Have It Worse [The Daily Beast]
Men Have It Worse [The Daily Beast]
The New Sexual Double Standard [Vancouver Sun]

Related: The Best Female Bloggers Of 2008 [The Frisky]

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