Women Control Sex. Now What?
Confronting the reality (or theory) that women control sex won't get any of us far.
Hello and welcome to Many Such Cases.
About a month ago, I received an email from a reader named James. He had just finished my New York Times op-ed “Have More Sex,” and took issue with what the piece hadn’t said.
“My one problem with the article is the 800 lb. gorilla in the room (or article, in this case) that you glaringly avoided to mention. That is.......women control sex! There, I said it, why can't you, or anybody for that matter?” James asked.
“We all know it but no one will actually say it,” his email continues. “And why not say it? Because it reflects the reality of the power that women hold? And to openly state that would somehow disrupt the comfortable narrative we all maintain that men are the power-bullies in this world and women are the victims of that power narrative? It might put women in a poor light? That it is somehow anti-women.....anti-feminism?”
Fine, I will say it: women control sex. Specifically, they primarily control when consensual, heterosexual sex takes place. It’s not a scary thing to confront at all — the reason it often goes unsaid is because it’s obvious.
Women know we control sex. Some of us even derive a sense of pleasure or power from it. Others don’t. It isn’t some sort of revelation to admit it, nor does it offer some disruption to the status quo. Most importantly, it is unlikely to yield more sex for the men who delight in pointing it out.
Men who work so hard to drive home the narrative that women control sex seem to think some lightbulb is going to go off in women’s heads, that we’re all going to say, “now that you think about it, you’re right — and gosh, there’s something wrong with that!” Most women who know that they control sex like that they control sex. A woman who doesn’t know of her gender’s dominance in this regard isn’t going to give it up once you make her aware of it. Perhaps it does offer some type of long term, cognitive shift — a new awareness of her authority in this arena, one she may even decide to employ more often as such. A woman who cares about the sex recession our culture is undergoing may take it upon herself to use her capabilities to improve it. But a critical point here is that she will likely not be sleeping with the men who make this one of their talking points.
A bigger question to think about, one that I believe James was trying to get at in his email, is how we can deal with an issue like a cultural decline in sex with the knowledge that women are in this position. The problem, however, is that it’s not women’s — or men’s — fault that fewer people are having sex, that we have a less erotically-charged landscape. There is collective fault, sure, and specific commonalities contributing to the problem that we can generalize according to gender, but it still not gender’s fault. Women controlled sex before any of this began. To eradicate this would likely be to eradicate gender entirely — something, I think, that is neither possible nor desirable.
If we consider exactly why women control sex, this becomes more transparent. While it may be reductive, one theory useful in dissecting this dynamic is that of the sexual marketplace. Social psychologists have posited that we can interpret sex as an in-demand resource owned by women and dictated by the economic principles of the free market. Women have the supply of sex, and men have the demand for it. This divide has occurred according to gender for a number of possible reasons: namely, because sex carries more social/biological risk for women (pregnancy and its complications, perceptions of purity and promiscuity) while yielding more social/biological reward for men (the opportunity to reproduce without physical consequence, status among other men). Moreover, in the biological framework, some of women’s sexual “supply” is finite: we have a reproductive window, and can only be pregnant with one person’s offspring at a time. Men, meanwhile, can reproduce essentially until death, with no limit on how many women they could hypothetically have pregnant at any given time. And thus, women are more likely to take part in a sexual exchange when it offers something for them, too, be it something as abstract as social advantage or as basic as physical gratification.
Of course, this is an over-simplistic interpretation of sex and gender, and there are countless nuances (birth control, money, non-hetero sex, etc.) that add new arenas to dissect. It also ignores the fact that many women enjoy having sex and pursue it, too. But even with the developments tied to “feminism,” as James suggested, such as the pill or workplace equality that would appear to have leveled out this sexual marketplace, womanhood still remains. The repetition of the idea that women control sex is evidence that the basic premise here is true: women hold the supply of sex, men hold the demand. And like going into a store and telling the owner that they’re participating in capitalism, pointing out this reality to women is unlikely to change the conditions.
I’m not just talking about women who strategically use sex in a relationship as a negotiating tool, or otherwise wield it over their partner. That’s a topic for another day. Instead, I’m talking about women writ large — on dates, at bars, what have you. Those who we’d say are holding the available “supply.” Say it’s these seemingly sexually available women who are gatekeeping sex from men. The problem isn’t that these frigid gals love to lord their erotic jurisdiction over guys, but that in this sexual marketplace, most of the guys who would complain about women’s erotic authority are not offering enough resources in return.
Why don’t we admit that? Why don’t we do the difficult work of untangling the fact that many men, embittered by our culture and sexual politics, have become unfuckable? I don’t blame them — like the sex recession, much of this isn’t entirely their fault, either. There’s no denying that our culture enforces incoherent expectations of men that can feel impossible to meet. But trotting around the concept that women control sex is one example of a way some men do this to themselves. Once you have become the type of guy who publicly complains about sexual inequities, you’ve made yourself unappealing. Say there’s a man finds himself unattractive, or thinks he doesn’t make enough money, or perceives a lack in any of the other hypothetical values one might offer as part of this sexual exchange. Compare this man to someone with identical conditions who also spends his time vocally lamenting that women don’t want to fuck him. Who do you think has a better chance of ultimately getting laid?
I’ll say it again: women control sex. Still, goal for individual men shouldn’t be getting women to grasp that we control sex and change our ways. It should be to be the type of man that a woman would want to have sex with. I’m not saying that’s easy — but being mad at women for a dynamic that has persisted long before our current moment isn’t going to help the cause. The problem of our sexual culture is not going to be solved with gendered animosity. It won’t be solved by doing away with what has made women control sex, either.