Meet Chris and Afton Mower. For the first six months of their marriage, the Wall Street Journal reported yesterday, the couple was in wedded bliss. But soon, “Mower developed a rather significant concern: They weren’t having enough sex—and the situation was getting worse by the week. When Mr. Mower attempted to talk to his wife about the problem, she changed the subject. He tried whispering in her ear. She ignored him. After reading online that women are turned on by men who do housework, he washed the dishes and vacuumed more often.” As the months marched on, “Mr. Mower tracked their sex life in a notebook he kept in his nightstand. He drew a chart and filled in different-shaped dots to represent various scenarios,” and concluded that he was “rebuffed 95% of the time.” But despite the statistical legwork, Chris Mower still wasn’t getting laid.
Typical male-female dynamic, am I right? That’s the WSJ’s take. The story is called “How Often Should Married Couples Have Sex?” and is subtitled “What Happens When He Says ‘More’ and She Says ‘No.’” Reporter Elizabeth Bernstein calls in psychologists and sex therapists to flesh out the gender divide in the Mower family’s bedroom expectations. “Increasingly, experts believe sex is a more emotional experience for men than for women,” she writes. “Men, much more than women, relate to a partner through sex … as evidenced by their fear of rejection, concerns about performance and desire to please.”
But Chris and Afton Mower aren’t exactly universal stand-ins for Man and Woman. Later in the piece, we get more information about their particular circumstances. Both raised in the Mormon Church, the couple waited to have sex until their wedding night. Neither was satisfied. (“We expected sparks and it didn’t happen,” Chris says). And that dry spell early on? It started when, “early in the marriage, Ms. Mower became pregnant and lost the baby. Her libido was diminished, and she was uncomfortable discussing sex with her husband.”
The Mower’s sexual incompatibility can’t be explained away by gender stereotypes like masculine sexual needs and feminine frigidity. This couple married before they even figured out whether they were sexually compatible. In a culture that prioritizes the childbearing potential of marital intimacy, it’s understandable that a woman would be uneager to jump into another risky pregnancy. And in a world where women are expected to see their sexuality as a way to please their man as opposed to themselves, glorious charts detailing their failure to do so are probably not helpful (says Afton, “all the pressure I felt made me want it less”). Frankly, it’s insulting to tell any woman who’s just lost a child that sex is “more emotional” for men.
This gender divide that Bernstein is describing may hold true on the level of the population. Or it may not—the WSJ doesn’t cite the studies that are “increasingly” pointing to the conclusion that men’s emotional needs are satisfied by sex, while women’s are satisfied by (seriously) “heart-to-heart chats with everyone from their best friend to the bus driver.” Bernstein does point to one study on the benefits of “sexual communal strength” in relationships—essentially, a fancy way of talking about Dan Savage’s “GGG” directive, which advises partners to be “good, giving, and game” in the bedroom. (For instance, a GGG person will give her partner’s fantasy a shot, even if she finds it less than tantalizing, because she cares about satisfying both halves of the couple.) That study found that “people who rated high in sexual communal strength had more sexual desire” in their relationships, while people “who rated low started out with less desire and it declined.” That’s interesting, but it doesn’t have anything to do with men and women: “There weren’t significant gender differences” in those findings.
Then again, Bernstein brings in one other relationship case study to back up her gender theory: When Alvy Singer tells his therapist how often he and his girlfriend, Annie Hall, have sex, he says, “Hardly ever. Maybe three times a week.” Annie characterizes their sex life this way: “Constantly. I’d say three times a week.” Bernstein concludes, “Sure, it’s funny. Just maybe a little less so if you’re a man.” Except that both Alvy and Annie were just saying what Woody Allen wrote them to say. In 1977.
In the real world, we have relationships with individuals, not statistical gender profiles (or, thank God, Woody Allen characters). An individual’s sex drive can’t be predicted to fall at any particular point on the gender spectrum—and those drives also fluctuate based on the cultures we live in, the relationships we form, the age we’re at, and the circumstances of the evening. And, as Dan Savage has repeatedly advised frustrated partners, the Mowers’ model isn’t the only one—other people might find success opening their relationship to other people, or going their separate ways. It’s as much of a mistake to assume that a man needs sex constantly as it is to assume that a woman doesn’t. Better to talk about (and test-run) each partner’s respective sexual and emotional needs before getting hitched—or publishing a trend piece purporting to apply to all people.