Thursday, October 1, 2009

What Does Woman Want?

A fascinating piece on sexless marriages and more in First Things by Mary Eberstadt, a Hoover Institute Research Fellow (at Stanford) and a Catholic Scholar.  There's also a audio interview with her here.

Note: this piece talk about some of pornography's effects on a marriage, among other things coming up in women's popular literature and magazines in the commercial marketplace.

Here's a snippet:

Something else lurks under the rocks picked up by the fashionable writing about marriage these days—something that crawls away from the light even as it squirms just under the surface of much of the new confessionalism.

“Don’t eat too many snacks, or you’ll ruin your dinner.” Every woman issuing the new literature of complaint and heartache will understand just how meaningful the saying is—at least when it applies to kids and dinnertime. Yet sexual satiety, of the kind that oozes by other names from so much female confessional literature these days, is almost never recognized the same way. In particular, pornography is the invisible ink of many of these essays and lives—obvious one minute, unnoticed the next, and the bearer of a message no one apparently sees. Understood or not, however, it appears to be leaving a mark on at least some of these publicly lived lives.

In Loh’s essay, for example, a husband—as it happens, one of those husbands no longer interested in sex with his wife—bookmarks his pornography on the computer; his wife knows all about it, even reports it to her friends who are also commiserating about their sexless marriages—and no one seems to connect the dots at all. Another writer for Salon, reflecting on Loh’s essay, similarly nudges up against this obvious if missing piece of the puzzle (in a piece called “Why Your Marriage Sucks”), noting, “I write this article from a hotel room in New York City, where nearly a dozen porn movies are on offer”—a fact the author uses to highlight what she thinks of as an irony, when it might instead suggest something else: a possible causal relation between all those movies on the one hand and, on the other hand, a loss of romantic interest on the part of those who think them inconsequential.

Or consider the critical success of a recent chick-lit book called I’d Rather Eat Chocolate. Praised in Salon and The Atlantic and other cutting-edge venues, it is the casually told story of a husband and wife whose tension over marital sex leads finally to an amicable solution: She has her chocolate, and he has his Internet pornography. Might there just be a connection between all this casual talk (and use) of pornography and all those frustrated women and disinterested husbands?

Dr. Phil, interestingly enough—among other sexperts concerned with the sexlessness of some modern marriages—has no trouble connecting the dots at all: “It is a perverse and ridiculous intrusion into your relationship,” he writes on his website. “It is an insult, it is disloyal, and it is cheating. . . . You need to tell your partner that viewing pornography is absolutely, unequivocally unacceptable in your relationship.” Why does he see what so many unhappy women do not?

The answer is that the kind of feminism these women have so unthinkingly imbibed has come at a great cost. It has rendered many of them ideologically if not personally blasé about something they cannot really afford to be blasé about. InFemale Chauvinist Pigs: Women and the Rise of Raunch Culture, Ariel Levy chronicles the steady infiltration of pornography into female society. The pressure on women to accept pornography as an inconsequential and entertaining fact of life rises by the year—and outside the circles of the conservative and the religious, there is little cultural ammunition for any woman who wants to resist it. In fact, one of the few tony writers who does seem to grasp the destructive role of pornography in modern romance is Naomi Wolf, who chillingly observed several years ago that “the onslaught of porn is responsible for deadening male libido in relation to real women, and leading men to see fewer and fewer women as porn-worthy.” Almost none of her feminist sisters have followed suit.

All of which brings us back to the enigma of this summer’s marriage wars. Perhaps some of the modern misery of which so many women today authentically speak is springing not from a sexual desert but from a sexual flood—a torrent of poisonous imagery, beginning even in childhood, that has engulfed women and men, only to beach them eventually somewhere alone and apart, far from the reach of one another.

At least that way of looking at the puzzle might explain some of the paradox of all that female unhappiness. Between bad ideas of gender neutrality and even worse ideas of the innocence of pornography, we reach the world so vividly described by Sandra Loh and many other dissatisfied women: one where men act like stereotypical women, and retreat from a real marriage into a fantasy life via pornography (rather than Harlequin novels), and where women conversely act like stereotypical men, taking the lead in leaving their marriages and firing angry charges on the way, out of frustration and withheld sex.

It wasn’t supposed to happen that way, but it has. Enlightened people only meant to take the small- s sex out of marriage: the unwanted gender division. Along the way, capital- s Sex headed for the exits as well.

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