“Fun exercise: try insulting a woman by implying she doesn’t have sex very often” declared a commenter on my piece on sexist language. It was a response to my suggestion in the article that readers “Try insulting a man by suggesting he has lots of sex in various different ways with a number of partners. That takes some doing in our language”. The person replying clearly thought they’d produced a knock-down counter-argument, proving that men face sexism in just as damaging forms as women. Women may be shamed and reviled in our culture for engaging in sex or demonstrating sexual desire, but men are ridiculed and degraded for not coming up to a required standard of sexual conquests.
My regular commenters quickly pointed out the major flaw with this idea, by mentioning the terms – starting with “frigid” – in which they and their friends had been abused by men for not being sexually available enough. It is clearly nonsense that our language doesn’t have a whole series of tropes for women who don’t have “enough” sex, or don’t have sex in the ways which the male speaker thinks they should. It’s part of the classic double-bind which a misogynist and patriarchal culture attempts to put women in. Display sexual desire or agency on your own terms and you’re labeled a “slut” or “easy”. Fail to conform to the required levels of heterosexual availability and you’re “frigid” or a “prude”. Try to steer carefully between the two by playing within the rules of sexual convention but making decisions about your own body and what you want to do with it, and you’ll be called a “cock-tease” as soon as a man decides that going on a date with him was an implicit contract to have sex when he wanted.
As generations of feminists have pointed out, this is an impossible situation. Under this system no woman could ever avoid being either too sexual, or not sexual enough or sexual in the wrong ways, or not sexual at the right moment. The stories friends tell me of being called whole combinations of the terms above within the same month – or within the same night out – highlight the fact that this is not a system which simply prescribes a particular sexual or moral code. It subjects women to a host of competing and contradictory imperatives. It is literally impossible to ever be the “right” woman, to be neither “whore” nor “frigid”, or even not to be both at different times. That is part of the point. This symbolic system insists that women have no right to control of their own bodies, or to make their own sexual decisions. The criss-crossing slurs are designed to keep women in the wrong, and to allow men to determine their status and duties.
It is certainly true that men are mocked and ridiculed from time to time for being sexually inexperienced. It is hurtful at any age to have one’s sexual life and identity subjected to public scrutiny, and perhaps more so as a teenager when that identity is often still developing. But it is not remotely the same for men. For a start, there is no double bind here: men may be belittled for not having had enough sex at times, but there is no vocabulary to degrade men who have too much. On the contrary, there are plenty of words – like “stud” or “player” – which valorize the kind of behaviour in a man which would be considered “easy” or “tarty” in a woman. Men’s sex lives absolutely shouldn’t be policed by a macho culture which prescribes how and why they have sex. But they don’t face the kind of logical impossibilities women do when their sexuality is subjected to scrutiny. And a man’s failure to have “enough” sex is usually troped as not having “scored” or had enough “conquests”: in other words, a failure to succeed on a scale which uses women as the counters. So the shaming of an individual man nonetheless reinforces a system where men as a group are afforded superiority over women. It isn’t women who benefit from the ridicule of insufficiently macho men, it’s men.
What’s more, the ridicule and shaming dished out to men about their sex lives doesn’t come with the edge of threat which those words carry when applied to women. As several friends pointed out in a discussion this morning, a woman being told by a man that she’s too frigid or prudish is often accompanied by an offer to “help” her “sort that out”. In a culture where such a small percentage of rapes even end up in court, where rape “jokes” are commonplace and women are blamed for wearing short skirts or drinking as if that creates a rape from nothing, it is hard not to hear many such comments as suffused with threat. Indeed the “joke” which warns women to conform more closely to men’s expectations of them, with the echo of a threat behind it if they don’t, is one of the ways women are pressured in a patriarchal society. Whether it’s the accusation of “prick-teasing” at the end of a date, or a lesbian being told she just needs more sex with men, this form of shaming is backed up by the culture of sexual assault. Nothing comparable comes across in insults aimed at men for not having “had” enough women. There is no sense that they are likely to be physically assaulted for not playing their role “properly”.
There is a certain appeal in the idea that women are shamed for having sex, and men are shamed for not having sex, if you believe that a sexist society is basically a zero-sum game. Women have it tough, and men have it tough, and feminism has been so obsessed with one side that they’ve ignored the other, goes the argument. It’s a popular line of thought with all sorts of people who would be horrified to find themselves classified with the extremists of the Men’s Rights Movement. It must be particularly attractive to young men who don’t feel they fit in with the sexist culture surrounding them, or who don’t want to conform to traditional images of masculinity. But it overlooks massive aspects of the reality involved beyond the individual man. When men are criticized for their sex lives, it’s not part of a double bind which seeks to strip them of any right to decide for themselves what happens to their body, and tries to put them at the disposal of other people’s whims. The ridicule doesn’t carry the freight of threat which any “joke” about a woman needing more sex to “sort her out” involves. And when men are mocked and belittled in this way, it reinforces the power of other men, and shores up a system which encourages them to see women as objects for their enjoyment and self-definition. In both cases, women as a group are degraded, and men as a group are benefited. There is no pendulum here, but a complex web of power and prejudice which we need to keep in view.
Many thanks for those who contributed to the discussion this morning, and whose ideas I draw on above. They can be found on Twitter: @lacatchat, @mellowdramatic, @KateETaylorJ, @SianNeilson, @clamorousvoice, @M_Z_Harrison, @karinjr.