Of course women love sex!
Susan Daly rubbishes Stephen Fry's assertion that women merely use sex as a relationship bargaining tool
Published 03/11/2010 | 05:00
The battle of the sexes has claimed a new casualty. Actor Stephen Fry was drawn into the fray over a magazine interview in which he was quoted as saying that women only had sex to ensure they kept hold of their relationship.
Fry has since claimed he was misquoted and that the "humorous" tone of the article was missed. His remarks, accurate or not, were all the tinder needed to reignite the debate about what women and men want -- and who wants it more.
There seems little doubt that women are traditionally thought to be less interested in sex than men.
A whole industry of chocolate, flowers and other tokens of male-to-female seduction is built on the presumption that men need to do more than wave their magic wand to woo a woman into bed.
The question is if this presumption is actually true at a biological level, or if it's a social construct. Elizabeth Taylor was once at pains to remark that she only ever had sex with men she was married to.
Given that she was married seven times, was this really a sign of her sexual reserve, or just that she felt pressure to place her healthy appetite for intimacy into a neat 'respectable' package?
There is evidence in antiquity that women were at least as equally sexually active as men in certain societies. Ireland, surprisingly enough given our 20th-century history of repressed sexuality and prioritising of the mother role over all other female models, was more open to fluid sexual behaviour in its early Celtic past.
Queen Maeve is probably the best known example of this kind of equal-opportunities love-making (because, being top of the social pile, her history was more likely to be recorded than your average Irish woman). The Táin, which recounts her struggles to get one over on her husband King Aillil, records that Maeve could take any lover she liked.
"I have never denied myself the man I took a fancy to and I never shall, whatever husband I have now or may have hereafter," she speaks in The Táin.
Anthropologist Peggy Reeves Sanday has also noted how societies whose deities tended to be female and depicted as being fecund tended to have a more equal attitude towards inter-gender relationships. The women of Sparta in ancient Greece, who were not denied any role in their society on the basis of their sex from weapons masters to educators, were encouraged not to rush into marriage. On the contrary, Spartan laws explicitly advocated marrying girls only after they had reached an age to "enjoy sex".
What is interesting is that these societies were not traditionally patriarchal, and so open female sexuality was not regarded as a 'threat'.
In Celtic society, as in Sparta, property was passed down the matrilineal line. The number of children a woman had, or whom she married or consorted with, did not affect their rights to marry.
As Dr Mary Condren, Irish author of The Serpent and the Goddess, has pointed out: "As patriarchal structures developed, property became invested entirely in the male lineage, which meant that rich people could not afford to let their daughters loose, mating with people from the lower classes, because otherwise their property would be divided and dissipated all over the place.
"The virginity of women then became a political issue rather than a solely sexual issue, although the sexual question became the means of enforcing the patriarchal lineage and structure."
If we are to take the point that women were taught to subjugate their natural desires as civilisation 'developed', it might go some way to explaining the paradox of the very proactive sex life of one particular monarch.
Queen Victoria ruled over one of the most morally rigid societies in the western world in the 19th century -- but behind closed doors, she was not afraid to dispense her affections freely.
We are familiar with the love story of herself and Albert. His life was cut short by illness when she was 40 but even up to that time (considered middle-age then, in context of the average life expectancy) and with a rake of children produced of their royal union, Albert and Victoria were still enthusiastically enjoying a sex life.
They even had a bedside switch fitted which operated an automatic lock fixed to their bedroom door so that their lengthy bouts of lovemaking would be uninterrupted by their children.
Those willing to consign Victoria to history as a byword for thin-lipped repression should take a peek at some of the letters she wrote to her favoured men, including two prime ministers who she flirted with outrageously, Disraeli and Melbourne. After Albert's death, she was suspected of having two affairs with male servants including her ghillie, John Brown, whom her children referred to (perhaps not so jokingly) as "Mama's lover".
So, has female desire just been bubbling under the surface for centuries?
In the Kama Sutra, the ancient sexual instruction tract, women's pleasure is attended to as diligently as their flexible male friends.
Jumping forward to the extensive research of American biologist Alfred Kinsey into male and female sexuality in the 1940s and 1950s, he maintained that the frequency of marital sex declined, not because of women's lack of desire but because of men's ageing.
He also said that "frigidity" is not common among women, which went against the grain of centuries of psychologists and medical practitioners who had sought in vain to get to the bottom of women's "hysterical frigidity".
In fact, Kinsey's own wife was the one in their marriage to complain about a slow sex life, saying wryly: "I don't see much of Alfred since he got so interested in sex."
In the end, though, Stephen Fry may be correct about one thing: both sexes may worry more about the perception that they are not having enough sex than worry about actually having it.
It was Madonna, who we are led to believe invented sex in the '80s, who said: "Everyone probably thinks that I'm a raving nymphomaniac, that I have an insatiable sexual appetite, when the truth is I'd rather read a book."
With Boy George once remarking that he'd sometimes prefer a nice cup of tea to sex, I'd say the score is nil-all.