Friday, November 8, 2013

The advice they give: Studies that prove things about sex that we'd rather not face

There is a video over at the Wall Street Journal that has been in the top five most viewed things at their site all week long. The subject: What Motivates Married Couples to Have Sex? That alone tells you something important, namely that a lot of married men want to figure out how to encourage their wives to be more motivated about sex.

If you watch the video and read the accompanying article carefully, you'll notice that the research the experts are citing makes them a little uncomfortable. They go to great lengths to talk around the subject. Right from the start, the author of the article, Elizabeth Bernstein, classifies these reasons as "positive" and "negative". She says that "people" who have sex, "to feel closer to their partner", have good sex and people who have sex "so their partner won't be angry" have not so good sex. (The authors of the study used the words "approach" and "avoidance" rather than "positive" and "negative".)

Well, you could classify those reasons as "positive" and "negative" or "approach" and "avoidance" but I don't think that gets you very far. The "negative/avoidance" reason could just as easily be phrased in a positive way. You could just as truthfully say that "people" who have sex, "to feel closer to their partner", have good sex and "people" who have sex "so their partner will be happy" have not so good sex. Now they are both positive/approach reasons! Feel better?

Now I'm going to put it yet another way with the intention of making you uncomfortable: What this study really says is that married women who have sex with their husbands for selfish reasons have better sex. Because that is what that result really says. Mary says that she wants sex because she wants to feel closer to her husband.

But, but, but, selfishness is bad isn't it? Well, maybe. But you might also say that there are good selfish reasons and bad selfish reasons. If Mary says she wants to have sex because she wants to feel closer to her husband that is one kind of selfish and if she says she wants to have sex to conceive a child because that is the only thing she ever really wanted out of this useless marriage in the first place and she is damn well going to get what she wants before she divorces that bastard and makes him pay child support so he isn't around here getting on her nerves all the time that is another kind of selfish reason. Put yourself in the position of her husband and ask yourself which one you want. You can measure the "selfishness" of your actions in terms of how you feel inside when you do them or you can measure it in terms of the actual effect your actions have on other people.

By the way, you may have noticed that I said women rather than married people in general. Well, look at this little vignette from the case of a Julie and Rob Binton mentioned in the article that Elizabeth Bernstein wrote about the study and see if anything jumps out at you. Julie, we are told, just wants to zone out in front of the TV at the end of her day.
But some nights, her husband, Rob, reaches over to rub her shoulders and offer her a back rub. And then Ms. Brinton thinks: "Has it really been three weeks? I guess we should probably have sex."

"I will do it for him," says Ms. Brinton, 34, who lives in Mesa, Ariz.

Mr. Brinton, also 34, appreciates his wife's gesture. "But afterward," he says, "I always feel guilty, that I've been selfish."
Yeah, it's not "people" that we are talking about but women people. This study establishes that women who have sex for selfish reasons have happier marriages than women who, as Julie puts it, "Do it for him". This shouldn't surprise us because other studies have found the same thing.

We should also take a closer look at the "positive" reasons that the authors of the study are so keen to have us see as the real cause of happiness. Bernstein gives as an example of a positive reason the woman who says that she wants to feel closer to her partner. Okay, now read how Julie describes the feelings that actually worked for her.
About a year ago, Ms. Brinton decided she and her husband needed to work on their sex life. "I thought, 'I want to enjoy sex. I want to feel connected to my husband. I want to reclaim my sexuality.'"

So she started doing things to make herself feel sexy: She bought new lingerie and started reading erotic romance novels.
She wanted to "enjoy sex". She wanted to "reclaim her sexuality". She wanted to "make herself feel sexy". And she wanted to "feel connected to her husband". Only one of those statements is about her husband. Three are about her. (And notice that the words "approach" and "avoidance" are just stupid in this case. They are just two more examples of words that people use when they want to make what is really a discussion about the pursuit of human virtue, in this case womanly virtue, appear clinical and scientific.)

Again, it's "selfishness". It's good selfishness when we consider that Julie might also have accomplished her goals by finding another sex partner. What redeems her selfish goals is not only that she decided to pursue them within the marriage but that it also met his selfish needs by solving his problem of "But afterward, I always feel guilty." He doesn't have to feel guilty if she wants to feel sexy.

The advice that should be given to women is that if they want a happy marriage they should work on claiming or reclaiming their sexuality. They need to figure out what works for them—what really works for them and not what they feel, because of peer pressure or "morality", should work for them—and apply it to their lives.

I think the key question here is, as I noted above, what is the actual effect our actions have as opposed to how do we feel inside. Suppose I buy you dinner at your favourite restaurant as a gift "for you". All through the meal I'm focused on you and your happiness but you can't help but notice that I toy with my food and take no pleasure in eating it. Can you really enjoy that meal? You'd get more pleasure if you left me at home and went out and paid to have that meal with someone who really enjoyed it.

Now, the Lemon Girl likes Vietnamese food and I don't. I, on the other hand, like satay dishes a lot more than she does. We can both meet these needs by going to different restaurants. Why not do the same thing with sex? People do cheat sexually, of course, but very few people start off meaning to cheat or casually agree to "go to different restaurants" every now and then.

I think the reason for this really jumps out at us if we look at another study that was written up in a really short article in Salon. That "really short" part matters. The headline reads:
Study: Non-monogamous couples as happy as other couples
And then we get this paragraph from which I have removed one word:
Researchers looked at consensual non-monogamy — relationships in which both adults agree to have multiple sexual or romantic partners — among ___ couples and found nearly identical levels of satisfaction as those in monogamous partnerships.
Convinced? Here is the quote with the missing word back in:
Researchers looked at consensual non-monogamy — relationships in which both adults agree to have multiple sexual or romantic partners — among gay couples and found nearly identical levels of satisfaction as those in monogamous partnerships.
Well, that kinda changes things doesn't it? Lest you think I'm making a point about same-sex relationships, ask yourself whether you think lesbian couples would be as happy with non-monogamy. (That's a rather odd word, don't you think; it's sort of like saying "non-truthful" so as to avoid saying "lying". It should tell us something that humanity has gotten along for several millenia now without ever having had to come up with a word for "consensual non-monogamy".)

If we read on, we find that "consensual non-monogamy" is a lot like anal sex—meaning that despite positive press in outlets like Salon, the vast majority of people decide they don't want to do it. "People" here again acting as a stand in for "women".
There are very few studies on consensual non-monogamy out there, perhaps because it appears to be so rare. Currently, between 4.5 to 10 percent of all relationships fall into this category, but the number could be higher.
If the vast majority of people choose not to do something it's usually for a good reason.

That's also one very weaselly paragraph. Yeah, the number could be higher. It could also be lower. And that there is a variation of more than 100 percent in the cited numbers tells us that we should be very dubious.

And I would want to know a lot more about how consensual non-monogamy works out in practice before reaching any sort of judgment. For starters, what's the break-up/divorce rate among these couples. And how does the power relationship work? Or, to put it more graphically, who does most of the sleeping around? It's one thing if Mary agrees to non-monogamy because that is what she really wants and another thing altogether if she does it because she thinks that is the only way she can keep her partner from leaving her.

To get back to my main point, sexual faithfulness means not holding yourself back. Doing something "for the other person" is to withhold yourself. Your spouse could get the same deal from a prostitute and probably feel slightly less guilty doing so. You are also telling them that you see sex as purely a physical outlet for them by doing this.

Jesus famously said that a man who looks at another woman lustfully has already committed adultery in his heart. He was deliberately using hyperbole to shock us when he said that and not saying that looking really amounts to adultery. You could make an equal hyperbolic claim that a woman commits adultery when she walls off her sexual life. That, in my experience is what women who cheat do. But it is also a betrayal if you wall off your sexuality but don't take another partner. You may feel better about yourself because you're not betraying him by having sex with another but you are withholding yourself.

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