Anti-sex feminism? by Linn Marie Tonstad


Linn Marie TonstadLori Gottlieb’s article in the February 9 New York Times magazine, “The Egalitarian-Marriage Conundrum,” was yet another tired entry in the New York Times’s annual clickbait misogyny Olympics. Who doesn’t remember the supposed opt-out revolution, and the sadness of the decade-later follow-up demonstrating every single consequence that any feminist could have predicted? Or the weekly gender terrorism spewed by Maureen Dowd, who somehow gets people to believe that constant belittling and feminizing male Democratic politicians counts as incisive, progressive political commentary? To name just a few of the most memorable, and most infuriating, examples.  

Gottlieb’s article rehashed the studies – I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve read about them in one version or another – that suggest that equality in household labor leads to decreased frequency of intercourse among married heterosexual couples. The most revolting lines in the article – among many contenders – start with a quote from Julie Brines, the author of the study in question: ‘”The less gender differentiation, the less sexual desire.’ In other words, in an attempt to be gender-neutral, we may have become gender-neutered.” It is possible that Brines may be quoted out of context, or that what she intended to say was something quite different, but as the quotation stands, it implicitly suggests that so-called “traditional” gender differentiation is necessary for sexually satisfying heterosexual relationships. (For, of course, there are plenty of other ways in which gender differentiation might be present in heterosexual relationships. Gender differentiation is here being equated with a very particular set of decisions about ‘housework’, a notion that arguably exists only to render some parts of women’s work invisible.) That’s before getting into the implications of the word “neutered” used in the second sentence. Why would egalitarian distribution of household labor be considered “gender-neutral” to begin with?

I just said the above may be the most revolting lines in the article, but on re-reading I think the subsequent ‘discussion’ (scare quotes intentional) of same-gender relationships may be even worse. It quickly becomes clear that gender differentiation actually means power inequality, and that the responsibility for the ‘absence’ of sex in any relationship that involves a woman is the fault of women’s derogated tendencies to care about things like intelligence and shared values. The ‘erotic’ is sharply distinguished from the kinds of things that women tend to care about, and gay men are credited with the proper attitude of putting sex first. Worse yet, the article assumes that female submission in heterosexual sex means lack of communication and being ‘taken’ by someone, but as anyone who practices any form of sexual power exchange will explain, consent and negotiation aren’t a hindrance to eroticizing power roles: they are the condition of its possibility. Later on, vibrators and dishwashers are compared – as though giving one’s life partner sexual pleasure is akin to the day-to-day labor of cleaning the house. The article consistently uses the effects of sexism to argue for maintaining sexist structures.

It’s a depressing read, and I’d like to take it apart line by line, but the reader’s patience would fray long before my fury would be exhausted. Unsurprisingly – since this is why such articles get written in the first place – much online discussion has resulted. In Religion Dispatches, ethicist Kate Blanchard shouted a resounding “Amen,” because she approves of the reduction in frequency or quality of sex (never quite clarified) that the article purports to show. Blanchard connects reduction in sex (pleasure or frequency) to what Jack Halberstam might term straight time (in contrast to queer time): the ‘natural’ development of human beings as they move from an implicitly hedonistic youth “happily spent in a coupling frenzy” to the more valuable, lasting goods of “feats of strength or endurance” or, importantly, “friendships, or even great sacrifices … on behalf of others in need.” Why passionate, pleasurable, even frequent sex would interfere with such pursuits remains unclear. The desirability of progressing along a straight line from sex to parenthood to sublimation does not comport with many of the Christian sources that Blanchard counts as allies, for Christian time has never quite been linear in this way. The ‘unnatural’ community that Christians inhabit lives in expectation of the end of ordinary time and the transition to an eternity of coupling frenzy (what some might term the pansexual or supra-erotic relations of persons plural-married to Christ).

Blanchard’s inexplicable desire for people to have less sex does fit a trend in Christian theological reflection on sexual ethics. To give just one example: in “Ecclesiastical Sex Scandals: The Lack of a Contemporary Theology of Desire” [PDF], theologian Sarah Coakley argues that married people – straight or gay – would benefit from practicing asceticism: lifelong, vowed fidelity to a single partner which will invariably entail periods without sex based on “delicate pregnancy, parturition, physical separation, or impotence” (14). Unmarried people? Well, permanent celibacy is their only option until the eschatological fulfillment of the meaning of eros in human nature.

Why is it so important, so worthy of celebration, that people are or may be having less sex? The derogation of sexual pleasure arguably does more harm to women than derogation of sex itself does, for it is women who – on average – have more difficulty achieving orgasm than men do, despite women’s – on average – multiorgasmic capabilities. But women find few or no models for choosing relationships in which their own sexual pleasure is a priority. Making one’s own pleasure a priority requires a sense of the goodness of sex and the validity of one’s own desires that cultural and Christian mores put astonishing amounts of effort into denying women. Misogyny is a many-headed mutating beast, and when one head gets cut off, another appears in its place. Equality in housework? No sex for you. You’re having sex? Too bad you don’t care about sacrificing for those in need. Sexual mores are changing? Let’s make sure that we bring gay people too in under the umbrella of religious sexual control (marriage, lifelong vowed fidelity to a single partner). There is nothing to celebrate here.

Linn Marie Tonstad is assistant professor of systematic theology at Yale Divinity School. She is currently completing her first book, tentatively titled God and Difference: Experimental Trinitarian Theology.



Categories: Body, Christianity, Embodiment, Feminism, Feminism and Religion, Gender, Gender and Power, Gender and Sexuality, LGBTQ, Relationships, Sexism, Sexual Ethics

Tags: , , , , , ,

12 replies

  1. This is the second piece I’ve read on Gottlieb’s article in the last week. I’ve been left with the same questions after each read. Maybe it’s a no-brainer or just plain obvious to everyone else. Or maybe I’ve missed it. Anyway, I don’t think lack of sex in these marriages is because there’s more equality. Duh, right. I think it’s because no one is really redefining gender roles past the surface yet.

    Most hetero sexuality is based specifically on gender differences and shallow definitions of what makes someone attractive within their gender. Are we then supposed to be shocked when people who share egalitarian relationships, do the same work, and respect each other as equals start losing some attraction? When attraction is based on power inequalities, on life-long conditioning in eroticized dominance and submission in both men and women, this is bound to happen. This is especially true with sexual responses which are conditioned from very young and whose themes are very strongly embedded in the subconscious.

    So I would think the first step in solving this no-sex dilemma among equals is to start finding new, healthy ways to define our sexuality that has nothing to do with patriarchal mores and power struggles or shallow recognitions of differences and gender markers. But in order to do that we’d all have to get super comfortable talking about sex deeply and openly which is easier said than done even for the most progressive folks.

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    • Agreed, definitely not because of more ‘equality’. There are so many other issues going on here – and they conflate equality in doing housework with similarity in other areas. That’s confusing different kinds of difference (sexual, household labor) with each other, and I’m entirely in agreement about the societal training that underpins that confusion.

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  2. What is or was the opt-out revolution?

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  3. Thank you!!! On FB, this article has been making the rounds to prove that traditional Islamic gender roles are correct, including the right to rape one’s wife. It’s such bad science. It just feeds into the worst assumptions of traditionalism.

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  4. There is also the absurd assumption that more = better. Baloney. Better = better, whether it is “more” or “less”. Yeesh. What a stupid study.

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    • I agree MaryAnn. Not only is it a bad assumption it’s used poorly. There is a big difference between a study that shows a “correlation” and a study that shows “cause”. Most studies don’t bother with more than statistics which are usually correlations.

      More or less sex does not make a better marriage. My relationship is based on intimacy not sex. People have sex without any intimacy all the time. And you can have intimacy with or without sex. There is no magic number.

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  5. Dominance and submission— that is the heteronormative definition of erotic, with women being forced into ritualized submission to men… the make-up, the high heels, the machoness, the fake feminine behavior forced on women. The make-up that almost all women are forced to wear to maintain hetero-conformity. I just can’t imagine this life at all; it is horrifying in its entirety.

    The very dullness of eroticism — the male sexuality as a tool of terrorism in male supremacy worldwide.

    As a lesbian, I find the whole hetero-normative nightmare just a complete failure in what women could have, and do have outside the systems of compulsory heterosexuality and the vulgar marketing of this during valentine’s day.

    The erotic as power and inspiration within lesbian imagination outside this system, posits equality as erotic, in that it frees both women to create, to be, to love. As I’ve said 100 times, what we view

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  6. as sexuality is really dominance and submission, the fact that when women live with men, they are forced to have sex the male way, and if they refuse this, the man will leave. Hetero women are essentially sex slaves to men in this system. valentines hearts and chocolates are just the lie sold within advanced capitalism. No thanks.

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  7. Perhaps a ray of hope is the fact that sexuality and the subsequent sexual expression we’re all gifted with can be made mindful and fluid throughout our lives, malleable from different decades or different partners.

    My sexuality as a straight woman is no longer about dominance and submission. I do know it started out that way from childhood as I was raised as a member of this boner-powered patriarchy. And before my eyes were opened to these personal politics at play in our lives, I suffered through ridiculous amounts of obligatory patriarchal sex. It’s taken some effort to reprogram my subconscious responses but it’s only been a few years and I’ve already seen near full recovery of what I would consider my own unique and natural sexuality.

    We can make a conscious choice to not participate in patriarchal sex and still make love to men; to remove ourselves and our relationships from a culture of dominance and it’s sexual influence. It is very possible for a woman to make love to a man and not be his submissive (so long as we are consciously aware of the social stratas in our society based on gender). It is possible to be completely each other’s loving equals and downright worship each other as divine expressions made manifest. That’s the equality I’m fighting for.

    And we celebrate something more like what we imagine as a pre-patriarchal Lupercalia in our home in recognition of the creative, fertile, and protective attributes of the Goddess. There are some love-hearts and cheesy poetry but we don’t buy into the commercialism. Only love.

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