Saturday, August 2, 2014

Do men want sex more than women? We didn't think so for most of history

In the 1600s, a man named James Mattock was expelled from the First Church of Boston. His crime? It wasn’t using lewd language or smiling on the sabbath or anything else that we might think the Puritans had disapproved of. Rather, James Mattock had refused to have sex with his wife for two years. Though Mattock’s community clearly saw his self-deprivation as improper, it is quite possible that they had his wife’s suffering in mind when they decided to shun him. The Puritans believed that sexual desire was a normal and natural part of human life for both men and women (as long as it was heterosexual and confined to marriage), but that women wanted and needed sex more than men. A man could choose to give up sex with relatively little trouble, but for a woman to be so deprived would be much more difficult for her.

Yet today, the idea that men are more interested in sex than women is so pervasive that it seems almost unremarkable. Whether it’s because of hormone levels or “human nature,” men just need to have sex, masturbate, and look at porn in a way that simply isn’t necessary for women, according to popular assumptions...

And yet for most of Western history, from ancient Greece to beginning of the nineteenth century, women were assumed to be the sex-crazed porn fiends of their day. In one ancient Greek myth, Zeus and Hera argue about whether men or women enjoy sex more. They ask the prophet Tiresias, whom Hera had once transformed into a woman, to settle the debate. He answers, “if sexual pleasure were divided into ten parts, only one part would go to the man, and and nine parts to the woman.” Later, women were considered to be temptresses who inherited their treachery from Eve. Their sexual passion was seen as a sign of their inferior morality, reason and intellect, and justified tight control by husbands and fathers. Men, who were not so consumed with lust and who had superior abilities of self-control, were the gender more naturally suited to holding positions of power and influence. ...

Early twentieth-century physician and psychologist Havelock Ellis may have been the first to document the ideological change that had recently taken place. In his 1903 work Studies in the Psychology of Sex, he cites a laundry list of ancient and modern historical sources ranging from Europe to Greece, the Middle East to China, all of nearly the same mind about women’s greater sexual desire. ...

The story of how this stereotype became reversed is not a simple one to trace, nor did it happen evenly and all at once. Historian Nancy Cott points to the rise of evangelical Protestantism as the catalyst of this change, at least in New England. Protestant ministers whose congregations were increasingly made up mainly of middle-class white women probably saw the wisdom in portraying their congregants as moral beings who were especially suited to answering the call of religion, rather than as besmirched seductresses whose fate was sealed in Eden. Women both welcomed this portrayal and helped to construct it. It was their avenue to a certain level of equality with men, and even superiority.