We may like to think we’re quite sexually free and equal these days, but an End Violence Against Women Coalition/YouGov survey of nearly 4,000 adults finds that two-fifths of people think men want sex more than women do. And between a third of and half of us think it is more likely that in heterosexual couples men will initiate and orgasm during sex, and decide when sex is finished, than women. In contrast, women are believed to be much more likely to refuse sex and to “go along with sex to keep their partner happy”.
This shows the persistence of the idea that sex is more “for” men than it is for women. The female climax is talked about in terms of being elusive, and yet the fact that this “orgasm gap” exists solely in heterosexual sex speaks to a lack of understanding, effort and mutuality, because lesbians are not having this problem. It’s a product of setting up the male orgasm, usually achieved through penile penetration, as the centrepiece of sex.
It is a sad state of affairs that there is a lower expectation that women will experience pleasure or climax during sex, and that this is accepted as to be expected, or “normal”. It’s self-perpetuating, because if women believe that “going along” with sex is a common female experience, they may be less likely to articulate and explore their needs and wants in early sexual relationships or when older. They may also feel pressure not to express discomfort or pain. And when sex is only one part of a long-term relationship, alongside persistent inequality around work, chores, caring and other people’s gendered expectations, plain talking and yet another plea for fairness might be just one battle too many.
Sexual inequality matters enormously, in and of itself, because women should be able to expect and enjoy sexual relationships that are based on mutual pleasure and equality. This shouldn’t need contesting or sound radical any more but apparently it does.
But there’s even more than this at stake. The sexist ideas about sex that we identified can also be a basis for some men developing a sense of greater entitlement to sex, as well as the excusing or minimising of men pestering or pushing women for sex. If you combine these ideas that men want and need sex more, and that women are just less motivated and more likely to refuse, you end up with a toxic status for women as the “gatekeepers” of sex, where it is a woman’s role to manage sexual interactions and access to her body.
If women are “gatekeepers” of whether sex takes place, then it is women who carry all the responsibility for every single sexual interaction they have. And this means that women are also seen as responsible if their boundaries are broken and they experience sexual violence. And it will be principally her who is investigated to ascertain whether a rape took place if she alleges it. The man’s behaviour apparently does not need close examination. It is assumed he will have been up for and will have pushed for sex – only 1% of people think men ever refuse sex, and 2% think men “go along with” sex. This can then lead to the rhetoric of sexual violence being set up as an unfortunate failure to properly gatekeep, a regret, just a big misunderstanding. These are powerful myths that have malign consequences. However, if we thought about sex differently, based on equality, these would be less likely.
This entrenched sexism about sex matters when we consider what is going wrong in a society that is utterly failing to deter, reduce and prevent rape. These ideas are part of why reported rape prosecutions fail, as police and prosecutors decide they can’t build a case if they think a jury will see a woman who “failed to gatekeep” before they see a man who knew he was crossing the line.
This is why we are calling for more, accelerated and frank conversations about actual sexual practice. We need men to recognise their responsibility and accept accountability both for sexism and for good sex. We need to put an end to the notion that sex is something done “to” women, and to reach a place where enthusiastic, mutual consent, equality and pleasure in sexual relationships is the norm.
Sex will be so much better when it’s more equal.
• Rebecca Hitchen is campaigns manager at the End Violence Against Women Coalition