Lori 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.