Americans have rejected most of the stereotypes and double standards that prevailed 50 years ago when The Feminine Mystique was published. Very few relationships today are organized on the principle that men and women are opposites, with totally different capabilities, needs, and duties. We no longer believe that a happy marriage requires a man to be the breadwinner and decision-maker and a woman to take care of all the emotional and nurturing work. (Read more on the new mystiques at the Council on Contemporary Families.)
But the last bastion of the feminine mystique may be a sexual mystique. Like the feminine mystique before it, the sexual mystique relies on the fantasy that men and women live in different worlds, and that these differences must be maintained for everyone to be turned on and sexually satisfied. According to this mystique a happy sex life requires a macho man who is in control and a woman who is charged up with desire, yet submissive and teachable.
Think about the appeal of Fifty Shades of Grey, seen by many as a daring exploration of up-to-date, high risk sex. In fact, the domination/submission theme in the book not only misrepresents BDSM (bondage, discipline/dominance, submission/sadism, masochism) communities, but is based on a very traditional sexual script: man in charge, woman submitting. The protagonist’s turn-on is that the bright, feisty, but innocent young heroine submits to him; hers is that this dangerous, powerful, commanding man will eventually take care of her. From the sexual mystique point of view, Fifty Shades isn’t kinky or risky at all. Instead Fifty Shades’ link to sexual fantasies is safe, familiar territory, catering to very old fashioned anxieties and desires.
These mystiques linger in real life as well. On the one hand, research shows that men and women are much more likely to share housework than in the past and that sharing makes their marriages happier. But a new study from Julie Brines and colleagues looked at what kind of housework couples share, in terms of “feminine” or “masculine” tasks (think doing the dishes versus mowing the lawn). They found that men and women who share housework in more traditional ways seem to have more sex than those who share housework without regard to traditional notions of what are men’s versus women’s tasks. In other words, these new-school housework-sharing couples found that following old-school gender scripts fueled their old-school sexual scripts.
Other social science research tells us the same story. Despite the significant decline in the double standard about the desirability of virginity for women over the past 50 years, Paula England and colleagues found that among college students, there is an orgasm double standard. Men have more orgasms than women in straight couples, and this is especially true early on in the relationship.
Pepper Schwartz and her colleagues surveyed 70,000 people about their relationships for their just-released book, The Normal Bar . They found that although the sexual fantasies of men and women were more similar to each other than in the past, men still reported more active fantasy lives, with a third more men than women imagined seeking another partner if they could. Times have changed since the 1980s, when Schwartz found that men were threatened when women initiated sex “too much.” But even today, sexual fantasies of freedom and pleasure still bear traces of traditional gender stereotypes.
The old feminine mystique has been banished from most homes and workplaces. But it still remains in the bedroom. People should not be judged for their sexual fantasies, but if we could bring our sexual desires more in line with the equality and flexibility we now expect in other aspects of our relationships, we might reduce some of the frustrations and misunderstandings in contemporary relationships.