Wednesday, April 4, 2007

What's at Stake When We Argue About Women's Sexuality

For a first-time author treading ground as worn as women's alleged low sex drives, Joan Sewell sure is making a lot of noise. Her book, I'd Rather Eat Chocolate: Learning to Love My Low Libido, has generated a sheisse-storm of press in the short two and a half months since it came out. The Atlantic Monthly devoted a decent amount of space to an interview with the author in its February issue, followed up by a review a month later that hailed the book as "groundbreaking," and Ms. Sewell's voice as "authentically fresh." Syndicated sex column writer Dan Savage wrote a cheeky affirmation of Sewell's premise in his column three weeks ago, generating internet-pages of responses from readers who swore by their (or their girlfriends') raging libidos. The book has been praised by Kirkus Review, People Magazine, Publisher's Weekly, and even women's magazines that normally seem to err on the side of nymphomania, like Elle.

At this point in popular culture, jokes about "not tonight" are comedians' boilerplate, and sex is still viewed as something that men want from women, often precluding the occurrence of the reverse. While it's always hard to quantify general cultural attitudes and assumptions, just try to think of the last time you heard a man warned about women who just wanted 'one thing' from him- sex- as opposed to money.
...But then again, there is Cosmo, with its sex-obsessed covers, and Sex and the City, and Desperate Housewives, and Lil Kim and Trina, and... The list goes on with women who proclaim their love for sex, and at this moment in post-feminism, it's probably a little counter-cultural to argue that things should be, or even are already any other way. Enter Joan Sewell.

Now to be fair, I have to admit that I still have not read Ms. Sewell's book, just lots and lots of reviews and comments on it. And given the higher level of scrutiny that women in the public eye tend to be subjected to, I'm going to forego the vituperative that started brewing in my head when I first heard about I'd Rather Eat Chocolate. What's really significant, to me at least, is how big a deal this book is supposed to be. What elicits the highest praise, or scorn, is the idea that Ms. Sewell, by being brave enough to cop to her low libido, is making the world safe again for women who genuinely don't like sex that much- or at least not as much as some nice fudge. And as reviewers are saying, Ms. Sewell thinks that's most of us, including the ones who have bought into pro-sex, post-feminist cant about women liking sex just as much as men- which is unfortunately just as politically correct as it is untrue. The obvious problems with creating standards of normalcy for something as universal and personal as libido notwithstanding, the issue that seems to be hiding in these arguments about whether or not women want sex is one of consent.

The idea that women don't really, in their heart of hearts, like sex, problematizes consent because the natural conclusion is that when women do have sex, it is either forced, or there is an ulterior motive. When we choose to do it, it is to please men because we really like them, or need to get something from them. Undoubtedly this is the reasoning that has laid the foundation for some of our more troubling ideas about sex; that it's only elevated out of its base character by procreation, or the bounds of institutionalized divine approval; that penetration is tantamount to 'violation'; that patriarchy is natural because men penetrate. This is also, I believe, part of the reason why rape is supposed to be so much more of an ordeal for female victims than it is for males. Women who like sex more than chocolate, or even more than the men who they happen to be having sex with, are throwing a wrench into things. Books like Sewell's do us the pseudo-favor of taking us back to a simpler time when a lot of our underlying attitudes about sex, and by extension, domination, didn't have to be questioned. As Dan Savage's readers can attest, female sexual pleasure is not an anomaly, and its achievement has a lot to do with women being accepted as equals, on our own terms. Ms. Sewell's proclamations that her attitudes toward sex are normal add creedence to the ideas that women who like sex are sluts, or even that there is such a thing as a woman who likes sex too much. Her personal issues aside, the success of Sewell's book feels much more like a loss for all of us.

-dial 917

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