Last Saturday, Jill @ Feministe wrote a post poking fun at an article in the New York Times about women who have lost interest in sex. She wrote:
I don’t want to problematize lack of sexual interest entirely, because there are people who are genuinely not interested in sex at all, and that’s fine. To each their own, the world is a big and diverse and interesting place, etc. And I don’t think that the problem is 100% on women who once enjoyed sex and no longer do; there shouldn’t be any guilt or shame in that, because it just is. Those women definitely exist; men like that exist too. If you were once interested in sex but no longer are, it’s not particularly helpful to think that it’s Your Fault And You Are Wrong.
But… it’s still less than ideal, isn’t it, to just give up on sex? I am working here from the basic position that, for sexual people, sex is a good and fun thing (or at least it can be and should be). It’s kind of like food — food can be really reallyawesome, and as someone who really enjoys food, it breaks my heart a little bit whenever I meet people who are just like, “Food is fuel, I eat it to stay alive, I don’t take any pleasure in it and I wouldn’t eat if I didn’t have to” or people who are like, “I only eat things that are white.” That is so beyond my experience that I can’t fully understand it and I admittedly feel sorry for people who take that position. I feel the same way about uncritical reporting on loss of sexual interest. If sex was fun once, but now it’s not fun anymore and you don’t really crave it or think about it, what is going on that has taken such a fundamental, great pleasure and moved it into the category of “meh, don’t need it”?
Obviously we should trust people to organize their own priorities and enjoy what they enjoy and structure their lives as they see fit. But I think we can also cast a critical eye on trend stories like this one, which are based on maybe some nugget of truth that gets dressed up in Me And My Friends anecdotes and culturally-acceptable stereotypes, and also on cultural mores that see women’s lack of sexual interest as (1) inevitable, (2) individual and (3) not problematic for women, but a pain in the ass for men.
While I think her critique of the original NYT article is insightful, and agree with much of what she says — particularly the final paragraph quoted above — what I find even more interesting is the comment thread, where conversation quickly grew heated. A few examples of the more negative reactions, drawn from a comment thread that, as of this writing, contains over 200 individual posts.
From prefer not to say:
But seriously, the idea that I need to examine my sexual exhaustion, unearth its roots in structural oppression, and then work on recapturing the glory of sex at its finest — it makes me hostile. Can’t I just let one damn thing slide?
All I’m getting from your post, Jill, is that women who aren’t interested in sex need to suck it up and get interested in it pronto so the rest of the women out there can provide a united, FALSE front that we all love sex. And apparently you feel really sorry for me because I’m not interested in sex and don’t really enjoy it. Not cool. Really offensive. Stop throwing me under your goddamn bus. And I don’t want your pity, either.
Maybe it’s because I’m still a fairly young woman, but I feel A LOT of pressure to be hungry for sex all the time. I feel like there’s something wrong with me because I’d often prefer to read a book, watch a movie, have a good conversation, go for a walk.
None of my friends would ever admit that they get bored with sex, don’t like it, or would sometimes just rather do something else. I wish they WOULD talk about it – I’d feel kind of relieved. I’m not asexual, I just don’t want sex very often. Isn’t that okay?
I think a lot of sex-positive feminists go too far in the other direction and put way too much emphasis on sex as the be all and end all of everything. Feminism to me is about women having the sexuality they want, and not being shamed for being a “slut” OR “frigid”.
I recommend clicking through to read the whole threadif you’re interested in this sort of thing — though be prepared for a lot of really strongly-held and strongly-worded opinions, including some pretty harsh judgment by commenters about folks with sexual identities and desires different from their own.
Which brings me to my own observatio-of-the-day about conversations we have about sex. This picks up a little from where last week’s post on quantifying libido left off. Namely: Why do we always make it personal when talking about sex? I don’t necessarily think this is a bad thing, but it can often hamper discussions. We seem particularly prone to experience all critiques of sexual discourse or sexual experience as personal judgment. In other words, we grab all the arrows that fly by and plunge them into our own chests — even when they aren’t meant for us! Why is this?
I have a few theories. Please feel free to add your own in comments!
1) Sexuality is a site of personal morality. In our culture, we use peoples’ sexual lives — and often their supposed sexual lives — as a way of judging their morality. Ergo people are particularly protective of their sexual reputations and/or feel it is particularly important to ensure that other people understand their sexuality correctly.
2) Sexuality is a site of personal identity. And who wants their identity to be mis-construed or (worse) maligned? Because sex is a site of moral judgment, people are hyper-aware of being scrutinized by the world vis a vis their sexual identities and behaviors. It’s difficult, therefore, not to take every observation about sexual right/wrong or good/bad intensely personally.
3) Sex talk is almost always generalized. Perhaps because sexuality is such an intimate part of ourselves, we tend to speak in general terms rather than in specifics, but at the same time we conflate the general with the specific (see my previous post on libido).
Finally, 4) Sexual problems are almost always privatized.Scrolling through the comments over at Feministe, I was struck by how defensive many commenters were about their own sexual desires. They felt blamed for lack of desire, or low desire, for sex despite the fact that Jill was actually saying that we need to look outside individual people for explanations about differential desire (and then only differential desire that is making the individual person unhappy). Why do we — even feminists who should know the mantra “the personal is political” at this point in the game! — persist in turning sexual unhappiness inward and locating the problem in our own bodies, rather than in the larger culture?
I don’t really have any larger point to make, other than that I wish we could get beyond reading so much moral judgement and personal blame into talk about sex and instead see how these conversations can open us up to new ways of thinking about, and being, sexual (and asexual!) creatures.