The ‘Agenda Setters’ discussed in The Sex Myth hold views of women that you see everywhere. These messages are constant and can influence all kinds of choices. Here I’ve picked out a few of the main ones.
Women’s sexuality is passive
This is possibly the most persistent myth. The history of psychology is littered with things like horrific treatments for nymphomania. Literature is rife with the demonisation of sexually confident women. One popular way to belittle a woman in the press today is to mutter darkly about her past, even when her number of lovers is modest. Every woman learns to undersell her real number of conquests. It not only skews survey results; it encourages people to think of perfectly normal temporary encounters or relationships as things that “weren’t real sex” or “don’t count”.
The equally problematic flipside is the pressure to be sexually available: it’s provocative but still passive, as if sexuality is a switch women press, take a pill for, or must fake. Sexual expression is portrayed as a dressing-up game. We take sexuality as inherent in men – why not in women, however it is expressed?
The dark side of this myth has worrying consequences. Take cases of rape and sexual assault. Decades after “No Means No”, the media still dissects a victim’s nonverbal – and sometimes unintentional – ‘signals’, as if these are more important than what was actually said. This still happens within the legal system. It’s a problem that is only possible by imagining that women’s gestures and clothes matter more than their thoughts and desires. It’s bonkers.
This view – men aggressive, women passive – effects issues like sex work. Many stories you hear in popular media paint all men as potential attackers and all women as potential victims. Not only is this not supported by evidence, but it leads to laws that may harm more than they help.
Because there is so much invested in this myth, there’s a lot of guilt surrounding sexuality. Women whose desires don’t gel with classic romantic stereotypes – i.e. everyone at some stage – are made to feel they’re doing it wrong. This creates an enormous demand for self-help books and advice columns, fictional characters no reality can live up to and (perhaps most egregiously) terrible lingerie. It also fuels an industry in treating disorders that may not exist, or that may be the temporary result of normal ups and downs.
Women and men want different things
If you’re trying to influence a group, there is no more effective strategy than pointing at someone else and declaring them the enemy. The so-called war between the sexes is a prime example. If anything, our (supposedly) post-feminist society is more obsessed with this myth than ever before.
We’re still led to believe that women have to cajole or trap men into commitment. This adversarial model of relationships is usually played for laughs, but writing off any group of people as ‘useless’ or ‘animals’ is really repugnant, no matter what the punchline. It also makes it harder for people to come to an understanding of where the healthy limits of a relationship are for them. Sometimes this expectation that men and women want different things at home can mask issues such as genuine incompatibility or domestic violence. More commonly, it leads to poor communication and seething resentment.
It also does a disservice to men. If half of the population was not interested in partnerships and families, they would not exist. Sure, sometimes people in relationships want different things. There may even be biological or social factors contributing to those interests developing at different rates in men and women as they grow up. But denying that men have a genuine interest in families (and painting them all as potential sources of harm to children) puts our species on approximately the same level as feral cats. If you believed the hype about men and what they want, you’d be better off marrying a penguin. At least he could juggle eggs on his feet.
Again, the benefits to the self-help industry are a big factor here, but so too is anxiety. I believe the more we buy into fetishising human differences, the less we can relate to other humans. Depersonalising any group of people – including by biological sex – is a step backwards.
Women are their own worst enemies
‘If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em,’ they say. In this case, if you can’t get people agreeing with your agenda by demonising another group, get people inside a group to demonise each other. Divide and rule, as Diane Abbott notoriously put it. She was not wrong. There is no more effective avenue for controlling behaviour than our own minds. Time and again we see that if a group is raised with low expectations, their outcomes will reflect that. Even relatively rich and powerful women are susceptible to this kind of thinking.
Recently there was an interesting debate at Cambridge University’s Student Union, pitting glamour model and author Katie Price against editor and journalist Rachel Johnson. At issue was whether women’s lack of achievement is their fault. Love or hate Price (I am a fan), you have to admit that her success owes nothing to her relationship status or family arrangements. It’s very easy to write off the success of Price by saying that she has help (staff, nannies and so on) or by saying it’s not reasonable or desirable to expect women in general to be like her.
What such an argument neglects is that Katie Price is not average… but neither is Rachel Johnson, whose brother is the Mayor of London, and who has had arguably more of a leg up in her life than Price ever will have. (Incidentally, that’s not a good reason to write Johnson off either – the point is not to sort people into tribes.) Pitting women against each other happens a lot these days, often under the banner of promoting ‘real’ women, whatever that means! It also neglects that while good outcomes from positive thinking are not guaranteed, bad outcomes from negative thinking absolutely are.
There are a lot of inescapable messages in our day-to-day lives and a lot of people who profit from them. They inevitably have an effect: you’re either going with the tide or going against it – either way, you have a relationship with what it’s doing. I really want to spark a discussion about the bigger picture. We can keep buying into these messages and being surprised when the outcome is not making us happy. But, as a famous saying goes, that’s pretty much the definition of insanity: always doing the same thing and expecting a different result each time.
The Sex Myth by Brooke Magnanti is published by Weidenfeld.