Research often provides supportive evidence for our social beliefs in the quasi-scientific sphere of social psychology but it can also refute these beliefs despite reluctance to confront them as baseless.
A recent article in The Weekend Australian about gender perspectives of US social psychologist, Professor Roy Baumeister, now at the University of Queensland, contends there are several gender differences in sex drive only to ignite the ire of prominent feminists who vehemently disagree with him.
Quoting American comedian Steve Martin’s quip: “You know that look women get when they want sex? Me neither,” Baumeister investigated the truth about this perception, perusing 150 past but recent studies to conclude there was overwhelming evidence that men have more frequent sexual desires than women. His findings included men think about sex more often, desire more partners, masturbate more, want sex sooner, are less able or willing to live without sexual gratification, initiate more and refuse less sex, expend more resources and make more sacrifices for sex, desire and enjoy a broader variety of sexual practices and have fewer complaints about low sex drive. Unsurprisingly, female academics rejected his generalised findings.
Apparently world famous as a leading scholar in sex drive gender issues, he asserts women have an “erotic plasticity” with a more variable sex drive than men that is far more responsive to surrounding circumstances, while men have a more fixed, biologically determined drive that is relatively insensitive to context. Without arrogance and acknowledging his conclusions might be erroneous, he believes the “truth will win out in the end” with freedom of thought, freedom of inquiry and freedom of speech but adds there is “limited openness to new ideas and new facts…”
On one level, irrespective of feminism, I concur with his findings, but what he seemingly ignores is asking why these differences might exist, with no consideration of social sexual conditioning of both genders. Since my adolescence more than fifty years ago and still extant today, two different norms of acceptable social sexual behaviour and attitudes prevail and these different norms may imbue gender differences in sexual desire.
Women defying traditional sexual conventions by fulfilling a strong sex drive similarly to men have too often encountered moral contempt and damning disrespect for their behaviour, not just from men, but sadly, from many women, too. The consequence of two diametrically opposed sexual norms, inspiring men to indulge in all manner of sexual practices with impunity, even applause, yet simultaneously castigating and abusing women for similar practices, may impact on many women so they repress their sexual desires, albeit unconsciously.
It is biologically plausible Baumeister may be right but to substantiate his findings as irrefutable science, he must investigate more profoundly and examine a much bigger picture, exploring social attitudes to sex for both genders to understand the impact of these attitudes on desire.
Continuing the gender debate in a perspective other than sex, he posits that women say women are better than men in this or that, “but it’s rare to hear a story saying men are better than women at anything at all,” presupposing women believe they are intrinsically equal, but perhaps also superior, unable to respect some men’s talents as better than their own. This gender imbalance he asserts ensues from a feminist establishment that intimidates most writers about gender “to conduct an open-minded consideration of the relative advantages and disadvantages of both genders. The basic feminist dogma is that women are equal to or better than men at everything, and that all women’s problems and failures must be blamed on men.”
Furthermore, in a book he wrote looking at how culture exploits men, he argues differences in gender roles are a trade-off. A few lucky men are at the top of society and enjoy the culture’s best rewards. Others less fortunate have their lives chewed up by it. One mistake of many modern feminists is that they “look only at the top of society and draw conclusions about society as a whole. Yes, there are mostly men at the top. But if you look at the bottom, really at the bottom, you’ll find mostly men there, too.” Indeed, statistics in Australia reveal more males than females commit suicide.
Baumeister’s beliefs are very similar to what I’ve penned over 50 years, understanding men were as vulnerable to socially acceptable stereotypes about success as women, not just relating to sex, but career pursuits, financial expectations and lifestyle choices, among other things. My contention is that these stereotypes are permeated by beliefs that ascribe naturally different roles for men and women with supposedly ‘fixed’ desires and demands resulting in different outcomes.
One of the tenets of second wave feminism in the 1960/70s was that women sought to highlight female stereotypes of success, marriage and children with a financially secure husband living happily ever after in suburbia, as shallow, superficial and spurious, “demanding” their rights to what men supposedly enjoyed and believing they were just as capable of achieving it. Their primary focus was equal opportunity at work to enjoy ‘having it all’ as men did. However, what these women failed to appreciate was that many men were not happy with their stereotypes either, believing they circumscribed their roles and were as limiting and unfair to them as female stereotypes were to women. My argument then and now is that if social structures are to change with equal opportunity more than a lip service slogan, social attitudes have to jettison both gender stereotypes and encourage individuality rendering gender irrelevant.
The fact Baumeister suggests gender writers are intimidated by the feminist establishment vindicates my view about why books I wrote 40 years ago addressing some of these issues as well as many articles I’ve written about gender were not and will not ever be published, my writings not adhering to mainstream feminist ideology. I am not, and never have been, part of a feminist establishment that blames men for women’s problems and failures.
I have always accepted that some men were indeed inimical to and threatened by women without respect for their intellect and minds, but women too can be just as inimical and threatened by women, similarly disrespectful to their intellect and minds. Sisterhood as powerful was, and still is, no more than a mythical fantasy that obfuscates reality.
Moreover, the notion of feminism is an irrelevancy as calling oneself a feminist or not misses the fact that women can be “unkind” to women as a female TV media celebrity postulated three years ago. Any digression from blaming men as the significant culprits is superfluous to the argument.
For me now, I no longer worry or care except to recognise that in nearly 50 years of feminism not much has really changed in understanding women’s attitudes to each other and themselves that circumscribe their destiny, far easier and less troubling to simply blame men. It is interesting that the newspaper’s writer about Baumeister, Bettina Arndt, who I’ve often disagreed with, calls his findings and comments “refreshing” because he “doesn’t steer clear of controversy.” It is sad her perspective perceives him as ‘controversial’ when I believe he is succinctly, sanely and sensibly stating an old reality still extant in our lives. Arndt doesn’t question Baumeister for failing to explore beyond the surface as she often fails to, too.
It is an article with no surprises about sex, gender or the feminist establishment but as a male with impressive psychological credentials, his thoughts and beliefs earn half a page in a broadsheet, the media still promulgating an ‘old’ story without opening itself up to consider new and different ideas. I am simply silenced in the media and by publishers. A woman daring to assert the feminist establishment, as well as many other non-feminist women, are misguided, mistaken and misandrist is simply a ‘misfit’. I’m sorry for these women who seem deluded not just about themselves, but about men, too.
I am thankful I don’t fit in to their establishment. I never did. At the same time though, I proudly call myself a feminist. It’s disappointing that a scholar such as Baumeister doesn’t create a genuinely refreshing dialogue that embraces more socially significant and interesting ideas about gender than what I’ve read. Same old, sadly.