As Chinese and US spy agencies will confirm, the world is full of secrets and one of the best-kept is women’s libido. For millennia, priests, politicians and parents have been selling the lie that men are the sexual tigers, while women are the passive pussycats.
It has been a convenient untruth, appealing to the fragile masculine sexual ego and the idea of woman as the faithful, eternal mother of humankind. Everyone has contributed to the myth in some way and are still propagating it. I certainly had accepted it by the time I had reached puberty, when the very notion that a potential girlfriend might have anything near the same sexual desire as me was just unthinkable. It took me decades to realize my mistake.
Now, whenever I hear of a 20-something couple getting married my first reaction is not to congratulate them, but to ask them how they can imagine having sex with each other for the next 50 to 60 years, never mind being faithful.
Of course, such couples will not have sex together for five or more decades. If they are lucky they will manage one decade, produce one or two babies, and then each will go off and “do their own thing,” maybe staying married for appearances, finances and convenience, though increasingly most couples do not manage even this.
One of the biggest breakers of the passive sexual female myth has been the erotic book 50 Shades of Grey by E.L. James, which has sold millions of copies worldwide. The book was translated into traditional Chinese for the Taiwanese market in August last year and has become a best-seller. Of course, China banned the book, though that has not stopped thousands of Taiwanese contraband copies making their way into homes.
Shortly after the book came out in Taiwan, I was at an upmarket restaurant in Taipei waiting for friends to join me for dinner when I saw a fetching 30-something Taiwanese lady openly reading the book at the bar. She was obviously in no way uncomfortable, or ashamed, by its sexual content. Shortly afterward her boyfriend arrived, but she carried on reading for a while.
What struck me was her casual demeanor, which conveyed that she thought reading erotica in public was acceptable — nor was she bothered by what her boyfriend might think.
In my book, The Relationship Manifesto, published last year, I make the point that the 21st century will be about women’s emancipation, but not in the way that the feminists of the 20th century expected.
Feminists themselves have long been in denial about women’s underestimated and constrained sexual desire. Many have colluded in the myth of male sexual prowess largely because they could not bring themselves to imagine that women are anything like men. I say that women in the 21st century are going to prove themselves better than men at most things, including finding sexual satisfaction.
There is now increasing research from anthropologists, psychologists and sociologists that supports my argument that women are more suited to polygamy than monogamy and that they are — typically — more libidinous and orgasmic than men although powerful social conventions have until recently required them not to express this. Due to social conditioning, most women do not find the confidence to embrace their sexuality until they are in their mid to late 30s.
A new book also arguing this point hits the shelves this week. In What Do Women Want? Daniel Berger challenges the idea that men are the gender designed for “playing around” while the wife sits dutifully at home waiting for her lover to return.
Victorian and Confucian notions of gender and sexuality are being consigned to the dustbin of history.
Stephen Whitehead is visiting professor of gender studies at Shih Hsin University in Taipei.