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Women and Sex: Shame vs. Expression

Sexual sexism through a psychoanalytic lens.

Women and men face a conundrum of mixed messages about sex while living in a culture that exploits sex and women on the one hand and encourages freedom of expression on the other.

As a psychodynamic psychotherapist, I believe that unconscious processes matter a great deal in understanding human motivation. And to a female sex therapist, American culture is one of contradiction.

Studies show that women tend to underestimate the number of sexual partners they have had during their lifetime; men tend toward inflation. Researchers from Cornell University found that among 500 women surveyed, a hypothetical woman who had more than 20 partners was considered "less competent and emotionally stable, less warm, and more dominant" than a hypothetical woman who had only two sexual partners. The researchers also surveyed men with identical information about a male peer—20 partners versus two. The subjects rated the more sexually active male as "more competent and emotionally stable" than the hypothetical male who had two sexual partners.

These findings resonate with the belief that women ought to be modest and suppress, or, worse, feel ashamed of their sexual interest and longing. A relational fall-out from this double standard is that it incentivizes people to conceal the truth about sexual past experiences. But guilt and dishonesty are deadly issues in a relationship. Lies can lead to more lies, especially as one attempts to conceal if suspicion arises down the road.

Sometimes women use sex as a tool when seeking a partner. Men routinely complain that their wives are not who they were or professed to be during their courtship with regard to sexual interest. Men often feel duped. On the one hand, women who withdraw from sex for no 'apparent' reason after marriage may have used sex to manipulate their partner into marriage. The obvious analytic questions confront issues of dishonesty, ulterior motivation, duplicity, or the existence of a personality disorder. The gender and cultural questions in many parts of the country and world reveal how women must behave or rationalize their behavior to "get" a husband. Might a woman be naturally inclined to communicate honestly about her sexual needs, likes, and dislikes if raised to celebrate sexuality?

The revelation of the number of sexual partners one has had is a matter of prowess for some, but for others, it is fraught with ambivalence; ambiguous answers prevail. Others fear criticism or feel downright ashamed about their sexual activity. Some believe that sex is exclusively an expression of love within the confines of marriage or a committed relationship. For others, sex is a practical way to get needs for affection and pleasure met and release built-up excitation and stress. Sex in both these views can fulfill the edict of "better than sliced bread." Some see the confluence of beliefs that sex is an expression of deep love and a fantastic way to physically share in utter pleasure. Ask anyone who knows the difference between sex and eroticized lovemaking. Apples will never be oranges. Gender does not dictate which view is right or wrong for men or women.

Developed countries continue to strive for equality for women and men regardless of orientation, race, or ethnicity. Gender equality requires fair treatment, positive regard, respect, and acceptance of difference. Partnership equality relies on the integration that all parts fit together to create a collective whole, striving toward wholeness through cooperation, responsibility, and contribution. Most will agree that women continue to be at greater risk of exploitation and sexual discrimination. Women have achieved definite success toward not subjugating their needs to their male counterparts.

Yet sexual activity is layered with gender expectations. Gender norms prevail, for better or worse. In a heterosexual world, men typically dominate their female partners during sex; heterosexual women often desire, if not prefer, this physical scenario. But dominant versus sexual submission does not give a license to transfer this dynamic outside of the bedroom.

Having lived in California for about a year in the recent past, I joined a local health club with a pool in the Silicon Valley area. On three separate occasions, almost sequentially, I was the only woman swimming in a lap pool with six lanes. All the lanes were filled. As the seventh man approached the pool on each occasion, which necessitated using a shared lane, the man gestured, through aggressive hand signals, "move over." Never once did the new swimmer ask or approach any one of the men. This same scenario happened on two occasions in North Carolina. (Fortunately, this was never a personal experience in the health club swimming pools in New York City.) Speculation: sexism exists.

Culture overall dictates messages to women that make it difficult at best to communicate needs openly. However, psychological issues prevail as well for women. Pathological anger and entitlement exist in women as well. Men who are kind and forthright may wind up scratching their heads about whether they can trust a woman to be honest and not manipulate.

People have different sexual needs, perspectives, practices, and reactions; gender is only an identifier, not a predictor of sexual norms. If gender bias were not present, how possible might it be for many couples to communicate openly about sex?

Sexism, through a psychodynamic lens, is a defensive maneuver. Jealousy, shame, insecurity, and competition often are at play beneath its veil.

The easiest way to unearth what is deep within one's feelings, thoughts, and motivations is to ask the question, "Am I blindly adhering to sexist norms without really questioning what is behind the adherence to a sexist belief system?"


Vrangalova, Z. “Birds of a Feather? Not When It Comes to Sexual Permissiveness.” Journal of Social and Personal Relationships. May 19, 2013.

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