So two stories came up on my FB feed today, and together, they made me see red. They are unrelated stories, and I will link to them both:
The first is about a heroic teen who saved a friend from a drunk driver: ”Teen saves friend from suspected drunken driver, gets hit instead”
In the first story (which was also carried on other news outlets), the main takeaway seems not to be that a teen boy risked his life by pulling a friend out of the way of a drunk driver, saving her life at the cost of some serious injury to himself. No, the takeaway is that that poor kid saved the girl’s life, and STILL ends up in the ‘friend zone.’
And the second wasn’t a story, but a video someone shared: ”The Sex-Starved Marriage: Michele Weiner-Davis at TEDxCU”
If you don’t have the stomach for watching the TED talk, I can summarize: wives, stop mistreating your husbands, if he wants sex and you don’t, just live by the Nike motto, and ‘just do it.’ Yes, she actually said that. Just do it. In the comments, she said “What’s 15 minutes out of your life when you consider the great benefits to your spouse, your relationship and your well being?” She did say it’s not just a problem with women, but I all her examples were women, so….
Now the problem with the friend-zone is one I have been railing about for a while. The “friend-zone’ is essentially the idea that women are sex-dispensers into which so-called “nice guys” put niceness coins and therefore rightly expect sex to pop out. And if a woman is not romantically interested in a guy, even if he is (always by his own assessment, I notice) a ‘nice guy,’ he has been unjustly consigned to the ‘friend-zone,’ a pitiless realm where good men are denied sex by the women they desire. It’s misogynist claptrap of the highest order, but it simply won’t go away.
The fact that roughly half of the comments on the first story revolved around how the “poor kid” was “friend-zoned for life” reveals the horrifying prevalence of the idea that there are times when a woman, not otherwise interested in a man, is obligated to give them sex. This is simply wrong. What’s more, it’s a prime specimen of sexist, patriarchal rape culture.
There is NEVER an occasion in which a woman (or anyone) is obligated to have sex if she does not want to. There is NO amount of emotional blackmail, guilt-tripping, whining, or false entitlement that makes that expectation OK. Period. Full stop.
Now I am not saying that the kid in the story is guilty of this; the interviews don’t say. But certainly this is how this incident is parsed in the public conversation, and therein lies the problem.
So how does the second item figure in? This woman, who claims to be a sex therapist, essentially accuses married woman of friend-zoning their husbands. She doesn’t use those terms, but it amounts to it. She says that the person who wants less sex/sexual contact needs to just do it. Just do it. If you don’t want to, if your sex drive suffers from age, hormones, fatigue, whatever? Too bad. Do it anyway, you might even end up enjoying yourself. Isn’t it worth a few minutes of your time if he’ll be happier and easier to live with?
I can’t begin to say how wrong this is. This IS rape culture. Yes, she claims it’s not only women, but all her examples are women. And honestly, while I do know that men can suffer from low desire, I’m guessing the numbers are far from even. (I’d be delighted to be proved wrong; Medscape says 26-43% of women experienced low sexual desire compared to 13-28% of men; Archive of Sexual Behavior reports a far higher lifetime prevalence of low sexual desire among women (16%) than men (4%)) So please, spare me your slipshod veneer of ‘I’m speaking to guys, too.’ Shall I define ‘privilege’ for you?
Essentially, what this woman is saying is that if you are a woman who has a lower sex drive than your spouse, you are broken, you are selfish and unfair, and you are hurting him and courting divorce. (The entire video, outrageously, is couched as ‘divorce avoidance advice;’ don’t get me started). Spouses are entitled to sex, so you have to provide it. In this formulation, being married is only one more set of circumstances in which women are obligated to put out whether they want to or not, and in this case, their relationships, home, and family may depend on it. ‘How dare you expect a man to stay in a relationship with you if you won’t give him sex? It’s only 15 minutes out of your day….’ HOW IS THIS EVEN OKAY?!
Gee, wait a sec, don’t we have some word for unwanted sex? Let me think…oh, yeah, RAPE. Oh, it’s a choice? (I question that logic because emotional coercion and abuse is most definitely a thing, but let’s say for a moment there is a context in which we can say it is a ‘choice.’) It’s a choice to provide sex in exchange for financial, emotional, or social stability and security? Oh, that is different. But don’t we have a term for exchanging sex for some other consideration? I know there’s something….oh, yes; we call that prostitution. A man doesn’t have to leave a $50 on the dresser for a woman to be aware that she is prostituting herself. (And no slight here to sex workers, but when a woman doesn’t want to be doing sex work but is forced to in order to sustain her safety, that’s something very different.)
Having known women who struggle with unequal desire in their relationships, I have seen the damage this does. Women who struggle with this end up trying to ‘just do it,’ and end up feeling cheap, used, objectified and ashamed, to say nothing of losing trust and intimacy with their partners. They struggle with feeling defective, broken, and unworthy because society (and, often, their spouses) tell them the inequity is their fault, and that it is their responsibility to fix it, to pay up and put out. They struggle with spouses who equate sex with caring, and use guilt and emotional manipulation to make them feel that ‘if they really cared, you’d be willing to have sex as often as I want it.’ It’s toxic, and it’s regressive, and we, as a society have to stop perpetuating this idea.
What is so terribly, horribly hard to understand here? What is so complex about women having sexual agency that is so hard to wrap our heads around? Are there actually men out there that WANT women to ‘put out’ when they don’t want to? (Don’t answer that; the obviousness of the answer is the whole problem!) But haven’t we fought this out by now? Hasn’t it been established that no, women do not have to lie down and shut up when men demand it, no matter the circumstances? Haven’t women struggled long enough with blame, guilt, and labels like ‘frigid’ or ‘cold fish?’ Do we really expect women to simply accept that dispensing sex is their function in life, and is more important than their own self-worth, their own sexual selves and sexual agency? Because I thought we were in 2014, not 1714. (I’m beginning to think I’m mistaken on that point, however….)