In the Name of Love

A philosopher looks at our deepest emotions

Does Equality Encourage Sexual Activity?

Good sex is not always associated with equality

"There is an important difference between love and friendship. While the former delights in extremes and opposites, the later demads equality." Franoise DAubign Maintenon

"Equality is slavery. That is why I love art." Gustave Flaubert

Equality is considered a positive human value while inequality is usually condemned. Nevertheless, the role of equality and inequality in sexual activity involves certain ambiguities. I will briefly indicate some connections between equality and sexual activity while indicating that good sex is not always associated with equality.

Below are a few of the issues that are relevant to this topic.

Gender equality and sexual activity: Baumeister and Mendoza found that relatively high gender equality in a certain society was associated with greater female permissiveness in terms of sexual norms and practices. Women in such societies were found to engage more in casual sex, have more sexual partners per capita, have their first sexual experience at a lower age, and approve more of premarital sex. Baumeister and Mendoza explain this by arguing that when women lack easy access to resources such as money, education and jobs, sex becomes a crucial means with which to improve their life and so it is vital to female self-interest to keep the price of sex high by ensuring that supply is low through restricting men's access to sex. When equality increases and women have easier access to resources, they do not have to restrict their sexual activity to only those circumstances in which they can obtain resources in exchange; they can engage in sex whenever they enjoy it; and this means an increase in their sexual activities.

Another related explanation, which is more relevant to our discussion, is that greater gender equality is associated with greater personal freedom and a reduction in the weight of religious and social norms that restrict sexual activity. Gender equality enables women to lower restrictions upon their sexual appetite.

Equality and extramarital affairs: Inequality between romantic partners increases the likelihood of extramarital affairs. Involvement in extramarital relationships can sometimes serve as a way of compensating for such inequity. The under‑compensated may perceive extramarital relationships as something they deserve because their spouse gets more from the marriage than they do. The over-compensated tend to be involved in extramarital relationships to escape the unpleasant state of inequity and to prove to themselves and to their partner that they actually are deserving and attractive to other people (see here).

The issue of equality here concerns people's self-image and deservingness and those factors determine their sexual activity in the context of extramarital sexual affairs. Unlike the situation in the society at large, in personal relationships equality reduces sexual activities outside these relationships.

 Equality and enjoyment of sex: Feeling that we deserve each other is important for a flourishing romantic relationship. In the short term, inequalities might give rise to great admiration and hence may increase love and, even more so, sexual desire. Thus, people who can provide us with social status, such as the rich and the powerful, will generate more intense sexual desire and sexual satisfaction. A survey of hundreds of Italian women indicates that two-thirds found greater sexual satisfaction from "powerful men in socially respected positions"; bosses are perceived to be better in bed. The enjoyment that people derive from being submissive during sex might also be associated with the sexual excitement of being in a position of inequality. The inequality here is associated with admiration, which is a significant element of love and sexual desire.

In the long term, however, significant inequalities become problematic for both sides, whereupon superficial short-term goals (such as being associated with a powerful person) becomes of less importance and can even reduce the intensity of romantic love. For example, the "higher status" person might begin to show a lack of reciprocity, which will eventually damage the "lower status" person's love and could even generate negative emotions such as envy, jealousy, and anger.

A woman who has participated in cybersex writes: "The best sex, obviously, is with someone literate enough to 'paint a picture' describing activities or thoughts. I suppose that in face-to-face activities, someone stupid could still be extraordinarily sexy. But stupid doesn't work online, at least not for me." Here, the lack of admiration is an obstacle to enjoyable sex.

Equality and envy: Envy is not related to any type of inferiority; it usually arises in response to people who we perceived to be equal to us. In cases of extreme inequality, especially cases of unattainability, far less envy is aroused than in cases of slight inequality, which inevitably provokes the envious person to think, "I could easily be in her place." Where no equality exists, comparison is less likely to arise and we are less prone to feel inferior.

Here equality is associated with the issue of the availability of alternatives-in circumstances of equality the alternative appears more available and hence emotions are more intense.

In a similar vein, it has been found that the person who stands to lose the most is apt to be the least likely to risk ending the relationship by having another sexual partner. Accordingly, if the woman has a higher level of education than her partner, she is more likely to risk the relationship by having a secondary sexual partner than if both members of the couple have equal levels of education (see here).

To sum up, the major claims mentioned here concerning equality and sexual activity are as follows:

  • Equality and sexual activity: Greater gender equality in a given society increases sexual activity. Equality here is associated with women's freedom to express their sexuality in the way that they want.
  • Equality and extramarital affairs: Greater equality between romantic partners reduces extramarital affairs. Equality here is associated with self-image and deservingness. When people receive what they believe they deserve, the incentive to go astray decreases.
  • Equality and the enjoyment of sex: Many people enjoy sex more with someone whom they regard as superior to them; they often cannot enjoy sex with someone who is considerably inferior to them. Inequality here is involved with admiration. Of course, the reverse can also be true; there are some people who can only get sexual satisfaction with those whom they regard as inferior.
  • Equality and envy: Reducing inequalities can increase envy. Equality here is associated with a stronger comparative concern and greater availability of the alternative. For similar reasons, greater availability of alternatives also increases the likelihood of extramarital affairs.

We can see that the connection between equality and sexual activity is complex and depends upon various circumstances (such as equality in society or in personal relationships) and different attitudes and concerns (such as freedom, deservingness, self-image, admiration, or the availability of the alternative).

As people are different, and these differences are of emotional significance, a mechanical equality is not always desirable. The romantic framework, in which reciprocity is a significant element, should involve profound equality, while also leaving room for inequalities (or rather differences) that are suitable for each person. These have greater weight in sexual activity.

The above considerations can be encapsulated in the following statement that a lover might express: "Darling, even though you may not be as good in bed as my former lovers were, because you are so kind and caring I can still to some extent enjoy sex with you."

Aaron Ben-Zeév, Ph.D., former President of the University of Haifa, is Professor of Philosophy. His books include: In the Name of Love: Romantic Ideology and its Victims.


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