When is dysfunction not dysfunction?
I’ve seen this story all over the blogs—according to ACOG, 44% of women suffer from sexual dysfunction, usually low desire. But only 12% said it bothered them. Which makes a reasonable person wonder if, in a world where we respected women’s opinion of themselves as we respect men’s opinion, we wouldn’t be showing that only 12% of women have sexual problems. In fact, it seems that the researchers themselves are open about how we frame the expectations put on women in terms of what men want.
In an editorial accompanying the published study, Dr. Ingrid Nygaard, a urogynecologist and professor at the University of Utah School of Medicine, told the story of a female patient “who, not bothered herself by her lack of interest but very bothered by her husband’s distress at her lack of interest, asked, “‘Why am I the abnormal one?’”
“What I see on a near daily basis are women of all ages who feel that because their sex drive is less than their partners’, they are inadequate and in the wrong,” Nygaard said in an interview.
It flips the other way, too. If you’re a woman whose sex drive outstrips her male partner, you are also made to feel like a freak. Having been in that position in my life, I can remember swinging between feeling hideously ugly and freakish, because we’re just so used to defining “normal” as male. Luckily, we’ve gotten past thinking of women with high sex drives as dysfunctional, probably under an onslaught of porn that portrays women as insatiable. But does that mean that there are lots of women out there who are happy with a lot less, but who are being classified as dysfunctional?
According to the most widely accepted clinical definition, such problems should cause “distress” before they rise to the level of a treatable dysfunction. The paper’s results would seem to support those who argue that “female sexual dysfunction” has been over medicalized.
One way to approach these issues, Nygaard said, is to “focus on symptoms that are bothersome to the person. A condition is not abnormal until it’s bothersome, and that is a little bit of what the authors of the article did. I think you have to define normal in the context of the society in which we live.”
She was cautious, however, about how perceptions of normal are generated. Pop culture has created widespread sexual anxiety by making us believe that great sex is being had by all.
To my mind, one problem is that we automatically think the vast majority of problems that afflict heterosexual relationships can and should be addressed by changing the woman. The man or the relationship is not eligible. I was alienated by Mary Beth Williams’ blog post on the subject, where she layered on the guilt on women with low sex drives, or women who’ve given up.
I’d be less skeptical of these writers’ claims about their respect for sex if they had indicated an understanding of it in the context of a fully sensual life. And the thing that makes me despair in all of this public discourse is the nagging suspicion that for so many women, the great refusal isn’t just to intercourse, it’s to all that other great stuff that might lead one there — to touch and scent and taste and everything messy and complicated and physical that we so deeply crave. It seems so tragically fearful, so mired in embarrassment. Sexuality isn’t just sex. When Slater says she wants to separate those private moments from “the daily wheel of life,” it seems to miss the point spectacularly. If you lock it up in a box, of course it’ll wither. The loss isn’t merely of those moments of naked sweaty passion, it’s all those human-to-human moments in between, the ones that only come from being open and vulnerable and, yeah, sometimes scared.
Boy, she’s assuming a lot, and the first thing she’s assuming that jumped right out at me is that good sex with all the extras is available to all women, and that therefore they only have themselves to blame if they don’t really see what the big deal is. But there’s a lot of bad lovers out there, to begin with, and a streak of bad luck with a few might make you wrongly think that no one can really do it for you. Add to that all the shame and weirdness layered on women, which means that even if you’re in bed with someone who cares to get you off, you might be too nervous to go there. I’ve had nights when the fear that my thighs were looking dimply meant that no amount of effort was ever going to get me to relax, and I’m pretty chilled out about these things.
But even if you roll the dice and end up with patient, caring lovers and a healthy self-esteem, you might just not really be that into sex. Some people aren’t big eaters, and some people aren’t too interested in music. I don’t understand these things, either, but I certainly believe the people who hold these opinions. Maybe it’s nature and maybe it’s nurture. Maybe a lot of women actually really like sex, but they get classified as dysfunctional because they only want it every two weeks instead of 3 times a week like their husbands do. I fail to see what guilt tripping them will do.
In fact, I’d argue that the problem is not that women with low sex drives exist, and that they are perfectly happy about it. The problem is that such women end up partnering with men who want a lot more, and then they end up in a miserable struggle over it. And by guilt-tripping women about not wanting it as much, we’re encouraging this unhappiness to continue, by dangling the false promise that medical intervention will make her better able to satisfy his desires. Better would be a world where people accept their own diversity, and where judgment-free relationship negotiations occur. If you accept yourself, you’re in a much better position to present yourself as you are to potential partners, and if you find out that your sex drives are incompatible early on, then you happily go your separate ways before you get entangled, and the inevitable going your separate ways turns into cheating and heartbreak. Why does this have to be so hard? I’m sure that I’d find out early on dating someone if he didn’t like music, and so I’d have to move on.
By the way, this letter at Salon cracked me up:
As a man, I have often wondered if women have a sex drive. Seeing what passes for a sex drive in the media, I’m not convinced; “upgrade me” has no relationship to reality, for example. Ordinary women seem to rarely look at men with desire (no, I’m not talking about solely myself here; I’m an avid student of the human spectacle).
On one hand, guys like that need to be reminded that they’re the common denominator. But it’s another example of how being female is the grounds for saying you’re broken—women who don’t gaze are broken, but women who do are weird. Anyway, I suspect he never sees it because women have to learn to look surreptitiously for our own comfort and safety. If you eyeball one guy, even if he ignores you, you’ve just told every man in the room that you’re a slut and you’ve invited attention you don’t want.