Shut up and spread your legs. That’s the gist of some of the most recent advice offered by Australian sex therapist Bettina Arndt to the heterosexual women of the world in her series of books about what men want in bed and why women should give it to them.
Over the last few years, Arndt has variously suggested that men have innately higher sex drives than women; that wives should put out for their husbands, even when they don’t want to have sex; and that women should “stop banging on” about pornography and just accept that all men will use it, including their intimate partners.
There is nothing particularly new or radical about most of this. Such advice merely harks back to a time when performing your wifely duties and ‘lying back to think of England’ was the norm. A time when women were generally assumed to be asexual, and masturbating meant risking a referral for clitoridectomy; a surgical procedure to remove the clitoris.
Nor is there anything new in the claim that men can’t help themselves and are slaves to their hormonally hard-wired sex drives. It is this very idea that has often been used to excuse rape on the grounds of biological necessity. It is the same idea that underpins defences of prostitution which suggest we need a class of women to bear the brunt of male sexual violence in order to save the rest of us.
The concept of a completely biologically determined sexuality is reactionary. And Sexologists, clinicians and therapists have asserted pushed this concept now for more than a century, well, at least when it comes to men. In sexological thinking, women are not thought to be so susceptible to sexual urges and instead are seen as requiring helpful ‘advice’, detailing the ‘correct’ way to have sex.
What is new about this recent advice, however, is the acceptance and even praise of pornography. Arndt is not alone in promoting porn and admonishing women who are critical of porn use. A number of high-profile, practicing psychologists and sex therapists in Australia and North America take a similar approach.
Last year, for example, Sydney-based psychologist Raj Sitharthan openly condoned porn use, even endorsing it as “healthy.” He was quoted as saying: “If a male client is enjoying a healthy use of soft-core porn…then I’d probably advise him not to tell his girlfriend for fear of hurting her.” So there’s nothing wrong with porn use then, it’s just these troublesome reactions from girlfriends. Of course, it’s women that have the problem.
Indeed, a recent study found that about 1 in 3 sex therapists in the US actually use pornography as part of their recommended treatment to patients. The few academic articles available on what such treatment actually entails are illuminating. In one article: “Stimulation of the libido: The use of erotica in sex therapy” (erotica in this instance, merely being a euphemism for porn) New York-based therapists Sharna Striar and Barbara Bartlik explain, not only that pornography use is acceptable, but that couples should actively incorporate it into their sex lives.
In addition, Striar and Bartlik claim that pornography is particularly useful for “couples with incompatible sexual fantasies.” They go on to extol the virtues of porn, explaining that: “it can be used to introduce a partner to a new mode of sexual experience that he or she might otherwise find distasteful or unacceptable”. This advice is often represented as radically liberating when, in actuality, it is outright repressive – it advocates, and attempts to legitimise, a form of sexual coercion.
Indeed, a lot of sex advice literature is deeply conservative and reactionary. Far from allowing an open and honest discussion about sexuality, it serves to shut down discussion altogether by citing spurious notions of biologically determined sexuality. In this view, there is no point in talking about what the joys of sex might be, as sexuality is simply delivered by the stork.
Fortunately, this idea is more fairy-tale than fact. Any sociologist, anthropologist, or historian can tell you that sexual practices and norms differ enormously around the world and across time periods. The culture we live in largely determines our sexual norms and even conditions and shapes our own sexual desires, experiences, and enjoyment.
Too often we believe that culture is only something that happens elsewhere, or is a remnant of bygone era but we do have a sexual culture in the West and pornography is an increasing part of that culture. It is sheer arrogance to believe that only in the suburbs of the Western world are we able to live out our biologically determined, ‘natural’ sexuality, unaffected by social surroundings.
Acknowledging that sex is a social act may be a challenging idea but it is also genuinely liberating. It provides the freedom to talk about the kinds of sex, sexual pleasure, and sexual equality that are possible, rather than retreating to tired old notions of immutable urges. It also moves us forward from the repressive Victorian caricature of the asexual woman, needing to be ‘taught’ sexual response to meet the demands of her husband.
Recognizing the role of the social in sex means that there is a point to “banging on” about porn too. Our sexual tastes and interests can change depending on context and circumstance, so the desire for pornography is no more or less biologically determined than the desire for a cheeseburger. Therefore, we can, and should, question what kind of sexual culture turns titles like Service Animals, Jenna Loves Pain, and Meatholes into best sellers.
Those critical of pornography are endlessly accused of being anti-sex, but this couldn’t be further from the truth. Porn narrows rather than widens our understanding of what sex is and can be. So if you would like to see a sexuality based on something more than multiple penetrations and watching people paid to fake their own sexual enjoyment, don’t shut up, speak out.
Meagan Tyler is a lecturer in Sociology at Victoria University, Australia. She is the author of Selling Sex Short: The pornographic and sexological construction of women’s sexuality in the West. She tweets @DrMeaganTyler.