This post is in response to Why Gender Equality Does Not Always Work In The Bedroom by Ogi Ogas

I just read Why Feminism Is the Anti-Viagra, and want to set something straight. Yes, there's some truth to some of what Ogas says about desire. The kind of guy that stars in a woman's sexual fantasy is not necessarily the same one that shares her values or shares parenting. The same is true for men about the women they just want to bonk.  And, yes, women (including feminists) are often aroused by "bad boys." But to say "feminism" is causing loss of desire and damping male arousal is totally misleading. In fact, there is research that supports the opposite. Rudman and Phelan (1) found that men who had feminist partners reported being in more stable relationships and greater sexual satisfaction." Brezsnyak & Whisman (2), showed that more egalitarian decision making was associated with elevated levels of sexual desire. Schwartz and Young summarized a number of studies showing a relationship between equitable couples and greater sexual satisfaction (3).


Feminism is about social, economic and political equity and is independent of what turns someone on in a bedroom or fantasy. Ogas, like lots of folks, finds it easier to parse people and ideologies into black and white polarities than to consider the complex grays that don't fall neatly into categories. A feminist with cleavage in high heels who wants to be ravished in bed is not a contradiction!

What I think Ogas missed is something I see a lot of couples struggling with - understanding the differences between what drives hot sex, warm sex, and utilitarian sex, and figuring out the proportion of each that both partners will find satisfying enough in a relationship. 

Hot Sex

Hot, emotionally passionate sex that can be sustained beyond a one-night stand springs from the build-up of tension between partners, or between partners and the outside world. The dominant man / submissive woman scenario that Ogas focuses on is just one way to stoke the tension (and it doesn't matter whether a male or female is dominant, as long as opposites are paired). 

Sexual tension is also generated by jealousy, fear of loss, distance, psychological projections, mysterious novelty (as in infatuation), fear of being caught, and conflict.  

The tension can also spark when couples face some external obstacle together such as surviving an environmental threat, uniting against family or societal disapproval, or winning a challenge or deal as a team. It doesn't matter what gender the person is - the ingredients for hot, passionate sex apply to men and women equally well! 

Warm Sex

On the other hand, warm, bonding sex is borne of similarities and equality. It springs from values in common, spiritual attunement, knowing each other deeply, enjoying a shared vocabulary and history.  It's gazing into each other's eyes and breathing together - connected, sweet, slow and safe. Generally, women gravitate to the ingredients of warm sex more readily and are more dissatisfied than men if they're not having it (2).  Hot sex is a tango. Warm sex is a waltz.  They're both wonderful, but they're different!

Utilitarian Sex

Utilitarian sex is just getting off.  It's neither passionate or sweet, and doesn't even require a partner. It might be a perfunctory coupling at the end of the day to discharge work tension and go to sleep, or a quickie eye-opener when his morning hard-on appears.  This is where the brain's sex-differentiated arousal circuitry is most apparent. A man is more likely to be thinking about porn and go straight to intercourse during utilitarian sex and the woman he's with is less likely to have an orgasm.

Utilitarian sex is object-oriented and goal-oriented, and more men than women say they're sexually satisfied when they're mostly having this kind of sex. If he wants it more than she does they might both label it as her "desire problem."  But what a man does in bed when he just wants to get off is typically not the stuff that's most gratifying to a woman - so it's natural for her to feel less desire for it.

So Why Do So Many American Women Have Difficulties In Bed?

Back to Ogas' leading question. I don't think low desire has anything to do with feminism. First, lower desire at different points in a woman's life (such as after childbirth and menopause and in response to stress) is normal. It's been over-pathologized by male models of sexual functioning. 

Second, ever since marriage switched from a business arrangement designed to preserve assets and produce progeny, to a romantic love-based institution, we have a conundrum. The romantic idealist hopes to find great love (warm sex), great lust (hot sex), financial stability and good child-rearing (the pursuit of which both lead to stress that can relegate sex to the utlitarian kind) all in the same partner. But we can't have it all, all of the time. The kind of sex that becomes primary will depend on how we choose partners and how we treat our relationships. And there will be trade-offs. 

Maybe what we really need is to teach men and women the tools for generating more hot sex (such as those in Esther Perel's Mating In Captivity (5)), and the tools for enhancing warm sex (with books like Sue Johnson's Hold Me Tight (5)).  Educate them about the trade-offs and let the couple decide for what works for them. But be warned. What it takes to have more hot sex feels risky and might make the relationship feel less secure. What it takes to have more warm sex puts hot sex into hybernation. And that's true whether you're a feminist or not.

References

1. Rudman, L. A., & Phelan J. E. (2007). The interpersonal power of feminism: is feminism good for romantic relationshipsSex Roles: A Journal of Research, 57 (11-12), 787-799

2. Brezsnyak, M., & Whisman, M.A. (2004). Sexual desire and relationship functioning: The effects of marital satisfaction and power. Journal of Sex & Marital Therapy, 30, 199-217.

3.  Schwartz, P., & Young, L. R. (2009).  Sexual satisfaction in committed relationships. Sexuality Research and Social Policy. University of California Press.

4. Perel, E., (2007) Mating in Captivity: Unlocking Erotic Intelligence.  Harper Paperbacks

5. Johnson, S. (2008) Hold Me Tight: Seven Conversations for a Lifetime of Love.  Little, Brown

Copyright 2011, Linda R. Young, Ph.D.  All rights reserved

About the Author

Linda Young

Linda Young, Ph.D., is a psychologist and relationship coach whose work has appeared on or in CNN, NPR, The Oprah Magazine, and USA Today, among others.

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