The model Caprice Bourret recently advised women to lie back and have five minutes of regular sex to keep their relationship going, even when you are not in the mood. Speaking to OK! Magazine, she said that women shouldn’t say, “I’m tired” or, “I have a headache” but instead should “take one for the team”, because “it’s between five to ten minutes of your life”.
Call me naïve, but I hadn’t really heard of the term “maintenance sex” before, even though a quick Google search shows many articles filled with advice for women on how to strengthen their marriage by “doing it” once in a while to keep their partner happy – even when they don’t feel like it. Such advice is targeted always at women, but never ever at men. This reinforces the idea that women’s sexuality or desire is never placed on par with that of men’s desires.
The very idea of “maintenance sex” is based on a heteronormative idea of relationships, where male sexuality is epitomised by a higher sex drive than women; where their impulses are beyond control. This notion that women and men’s sexuality and sex drive has an inherent biological difference – and that women’s role is to lie back and be passive, while men are the go-getters – is also seeped into our medical and biological textbooks.
The way we are taught about fertilisation sets up these ideas of the sperm being the “knight in shining armour”, while the egg is a “damsel in distress”, waiting to be rescued. The scientific reality that both gametes play an active role in fertilisation is never really taught to women, and we start to believe that our destiny is to drift along passively, being “transported” and “swept away”; submissive, docile, dutiful – and waiting to be “discovered” by a man.
Men on the other hand, are supposed to be the real “go-getters”, the ones who have to take the lead and make the important decisions in a relationship: “penetrating” and “entering”, being aggressive, determined and assertive. The imbalance in treatment – with not enough discussion of female infertility and sexual arousal – also creates an impression that the male reproductive system is more interesting or complex.
There are sections in textbooks on male sexual arousal, since erection and ejaculation are the primary facilitators for the act of fertilisation. But there is almost no mention of female sexual arousal, no indication that this is even a factor during sex, hence giving a clear message that it is not very important. A male orgasm is discussed in many textbooks; a female orgasm is only ever mentioned in the context of its value to transporting sperm or aiding fertilisation, views that were held in the late nineteenth century and earlier – but have since been debunked.
The failure to acknowledge female orgasm beyond its role in fertilisation reinforces the myth that women have much lower libidos than men; that they are the ones responsible for setting acceptable boundaries, that any sexual aggression and misdemeanour on the part of a man is because of his naturally higher sex drive, thereby absolving men of responsibility for their actions. The misrepresentation in these scientific textbooks bolsters the illusion that female sexuality is only for the purposes of reproduction.
While these ideas trap women into believing that they should always have a lower sex drive than men, it also traps men into believing that sex for them is devoid of intimacy.
This creates a performative imbalance in relationships, where men and women try to conform to certain societal ideals of femininity and masculinity, without giving priority and space to what their actual feelings and desires are. This also creates space and validation for sexual abuse and rape in long-term partnerships and marriage, and blurs ideas around consent and respect, which have to be the cornerstone of any relationships.
Marital sex is not anyone’s “right”, yet shocking statistics from a YouGov survey of 4,000 people have shown that a quarter of British people do not view non-consensual sex within marriage as rape. More than a third of over-65s – and 16 per cent of people aged 16-24 – do not consider marital sex “forced”, even though marital rape has been illegal in the UK for more than 30 years.
This seems to me a very outdated idea of gender roles, and something that should have been left behind in the Middle Ages, where men and women had very distinct roles: men as active beings dominant and forging ahead in the public domain, while women’s role was very much confined to keeping her husband happy, and to echo his emotions and sentiments. These ideas have no place in our modern society.
Dr Pragya Agarwal is a behavioural and data scientist, author, speaker and founder of research think-tank The 50 Percent Project. Her book, (M)otherhood: On the choices of being a woman is out now.