Sex is a tangled web, snarled and knotted with the threads of religion, economics and history, interwoven with the bonds of love and marriage. To understand the place of sex in society today means trying to untangle that web, to examine each thread separately.
Beginning where all threads begin takes the search for understanding back into the depths of prehistory. And logic suggests that studying our closest biological relatives – other primates, like monkeys and chimpanzees – may yield some clues to the nature of sex between the first human beings. Primates – like early humans – have a complex social life, but no organised economy and no ceremonies of birth marriage of death. They grow nothing, harvest nothing, own nothing, sell nothing. They are the nearest example available of what pre-cultural humanity might have been like.
Great caution is needed when generalising from animal studies to humans, however, because such generalisations have been used to create a biologically-determined view of human beings which justifies every ugly sort of racism, sexism and classism in society.
Bearing this in mind, recent studies of primates indicate that previous interpretations of primate societies – in which adult males are portrayed as dominant over a submissive harem of females – have wrongly projected the prevailing sexual inequality between human males and females on to our primate relatives. On the contrary, female apes and monkeys have now been discovered to occupy the central position in their societies , supported, in a complex matriarchy of mothers, aunts, grandmother and sisters, by their alliance with their male and female offspring.
And it is females who are the initiators of sex, not the males. What is more, a female may initiate intercourse with a variety of males while she is oestrus, thus dispelling once and for all the myth of the passive primate harem, exclusive sexual property of a single promiscuous dominant male.
This makes it possible to venture a hypothesis about what sex might have been like for the early human woman ina pre-patriarchal epoch. Since sex could have been initiated by her, with a man (or woman) of her choice who had no ultimate economic or physical power over her, and since sex could not yet have been understood to be linked with pregnancy and childbirth, it seems reasonable to suppose that sex would probably not have occurred at all were it not a pleasurable experience for women.
It would appear that woman’s power in early human societies would have resided largely in her alliance with her children, an alliance which, by sheer weight of numbers, countered man’s greater physical strength. Extending this logic, it seems clear that a man’s main hope of increasing his power would have been to undermine this close network of women and children and , by dividing, rule them.
The discovery of man’s role in procreation gave him the lever he needed to wrest a women’s power away from her. And marriage is the weight he has used to lean on that lever and force a rift in the alliance between women and her children.
Two vital rules allow the institution of marriage to sever the link between women and her children and create a new link between those children and man. These two rules – common to marriage in every country of the world – are fidelity and inheritance. A women’s fidelity is the only way a man can ensure that the children she bears are the result of intercourse with him. That is women’s fidelity rather than man’s that is crucial is demonstrated by the many ways in which a married woman must signal that she is attached to her husband: the red tikka on her forehead, the ring on her finger, the changing of her name to his. The children of the marriage bear the man’s name to in the vast majority of countries, as a tangible way for them to recognise their link with their father.
The alliance is finally sealed by inheritance. As has been pointed out previously, the laws of marriage and inheritance are usually superimposed on laws allowing women equal access to land and income
The alliance is finally sealed by inheritance. As has been pointed out previously, the laws of marriage and inheritance are usually superimposed on laws allowing women equal access to land and income, tending to pass control of whatever wealth a woman manages to amass into the hands of her husband. He can then use that wealth to purchase the loyalty of his children - his male children in particular.
The economic underpinnings of marriage and its function - historically as well as in the present, in many countries - to give men control over children are illustrated by the large numbers of women who are divorced by their husbands for failing to bear any children at all or for bearing only girls.
Virginity, circumcision and shame
When man’s role in procreation was realised, and his control of it enshrined in the marriage contract, woman’s previous important role in religious ceremonies began gradually to be destroyed too. Today’s major religions are controlled almost exclusively by men. Christianity and Islam - the two biggest world religions, which together inform the spiritual and moral lives of half of the world’s people - both have a ruling male deity (God the Father and Allah), male prophets (Jesus the Son. John the Baptist, Mohammed) and male priests. Women are denied a place in the priesthood and often excluded from parts of the mosque. Together, religion and marriage combine to remove woman’s power to decide when, whether and with whom she will have sex, and what form that sex will take.
Female circumcision is the most extreme way of ensuring virginity and fidelity. But there are many others - guilt, honour, shame, for instance - all of which have the backing of male-controlled religion to ensure that women adhere to the terms of the marriage contract.
There are two major types of female circumcision. Its milder form - sunna - is ‘excision’, where all or part of the clitoris. and sometimes the internal vaginal lips, are removed. In the second, more radical, type of operation - ‘Phaoronic circumcision’ - all of the external genitalia are removed and the outer vaginal lips sewn shut (‘infibulation’). leaving just a tiny opening through which urine and menstrual blood can pass. In Mali, Sudan and Somalia the majority of women are infibulated. In fact at least 74 million woman and girl-children are circumcised in Africa alone.
Though it has become closely associated with the Islamic religion, female circumcision dates back over 2,000 years. to before the birth of Islam. And in many Muslim countries - Pakistan, Iran. and Saudi Arabia, for instance - the practice is almost unknown. In fact, female circumcision has occurred at some time in every continent of the world, sometimes quite independently of its link with Islam.
As recently as the 1930s, for example, female circumcision has been recorded in India, Australia, Mexico. Peru and Brazil, In late nineteenth-century Europe too, and up to 1937 in the US, circumcision was regularly used by doctors to ‘treat’ nymphomania and masturbation and prevent hysteria.
The aim of the operation - and of that part of religious morality that tends to uphold it and other less drastic restrictions of woman’s sexual pleasure - is to ensure that sex, for women at least, is linked with procreation, not enjoyment. If women enjoyed sex they might be tempted to have intercourse outside the marriage contract, thereby undermining a husband’s control over her children.
The power to say ‘no’
Insisting on virginity and fidelity prevents women from saying ‘yes’ to sex with anyone other than her husband. But there are many additional pressures that prevent her from saying ‘no’ to him too.
Arranged marriages, for example, are usually contracted between a young teenager and an older man. In many countries the majority of women are married while still in their teens. In the Indian subcontinent and in Africa, for instance, 58 and 50 per cent of women respectively are married before their twentieth birthdays. In fact all over the world the custom is for women to marry men who are older - and therefore more experienced, usually more educated and more dominant - than themselves.
Another factor that undermines a wife’s ability to refuse to have sex with her husband is the ‘patrilocal’ custom of many countries, where a wife leaves her own family and moves in with her husband’s family. Cut off from all sources of support, the new wife becomes the most inferior person in her new home - until she bears a son.
Unmarried women, too, often find themselves unable to refuse a potential husband. Caught in the trap between the fear that a man will not be interested in her if she does not offer sex, and the fear that he will lose interest if she does (thereby relinquishing her bargaining card of virginity), many young teenagers take the risk and have sex before they feel they are ready.
The physical consequences of a young woman's restricted ability to say ‘no’ to sex are well-documented. Adolescent pregnancy is associated with anaemia, retarded foetal growth, premature labour, underweight babies and complicated births. In the Dominican Republic, for instance, teenage mothers are nearly three times as likely to die in childbirth as mothers aged between twenty and twenty-four.
Related to women’s inability to refuse to have sex entirely is their lack of control over the type of sex they have. Obviously it is sex with penetration and ejaculation that leads to pregnancy. But these are not the only consequences for the woman who feels unable to refuse to have sex with her male partner. Twenty different kinds of venereal disease have now been identified. For men the effects of such infections tend to be relatively fleeting. But for women the consequences can blight her whole life, WHO estimates that, worldwide, as many as one in 20 couples are involuntarily infertile - often due to the sequelae of venereal disease in women. Another serious, sometimes fatal, consequence of penetrative sex is cervical cancer - a disease almost unknown among celibate women.
Pleasure and orgasm
It would be surprising, given these restrictions on a woman’s freedom to initiate or refuse sex, or to control the type of sexual activity she and her partner engage in, if sex were a joyous and pleasurable experience for women. And, sadly, the figures for the sexual pleasure of uncircumcised women in the rich world may be lower than figures for circumcised women in the Arab world.
Kinsey’s landmark research on North American women in 1953, for instance, indicated that only between 70 and 77 per cent of women have ever experienced orgasm at all - either by masturbation or during intercourse. In contrast, a major study of 4,024 Sudanese women found that 88 per cent of women who had the sunna type of circumcision operation, where the clitoris is removed, had experienced orgasm.
It is tempting to dismiss Kinsey’s 1953 figures as having little relevance to today’s post-sexual-revolutionary society. But a recent study in Denmark in 1981 - the country where the sexual revolution is reputed to have originated - reveals that only 47 per cent of Danish women have ever masturbated to orgasm at all.
Not surprisingly, half the women questioned in research conducted in Somalia, where the majority of women are circumcised, said they disliked intercourse, while half the men said they had no idea whether their wives enjoyed it or not. In the UK, too, the same echoes bounce back from the caves of intimacy. A recent study of 10,000 women found that 36 per cent ‘rarely’ or ‘never’ experienced orgasm during intercourse and most admitted faking it to please their husbands.
The physical sensations of normal, male-controlled, penetrative sexual intercourse - which give a man the perfect moist sensual environment for his penis, while a woman must snatch at what pleasure she can from crude pelvic bumping - are a major reason why so many women get so little pleasure from sex. But another is the ambivalence they carry with them into the bedroom. Kinsey found, for example, that religious beliefs had little or no effect on a man’s sexual pleasure, but could slice as powerfully as the circumcision knife into a woman’s enjoyment, undermining with guilt and shame any pleasure she might otherwise experience.
The wages of sex
Seeking pleasure in sex might be shameful to many women. But actually demanding payment for these services is seen as even more shameful. And the characteristic that defines prostitutes’ shame is the fact that they are not the sexual property of just one man. They are offering an independent service to any man who wishes to avail himself of it. At the cost of social censure, they receive an income for services that their married sisters are providing free.
In fact a group of militant French prostitutes have argued that what is shameful about their occupation is not its moral status, but the fact that it is almost invariably the occupation of poor women. This is as true in Paris and in the UK - where the Yorkshire Ripper’s prostitute victims were all poor working-class women - as it is in Thailand - where one per cent of the entire population gets some income from prostitution - and India - where interviews with some of Calcutta’s 10,000 prostitutes reveal that it is an occupation of last-resort for women unable to get any other job.
A large number of women are prostitutes. But a much larger number continue to provide sexual and domestic services free of charge to their husbands. Sheer social and economic powerlessness are major pressures forcing women to accept the terms of the marriage contract. But romance and love disguise these unequal terms with flowers and lace.
The most famous international publishers of romantic fiction are UK-based Mills and Boon, with 1,500 titles on their list, each of which sells between 80,000 and 100,000 copies apiece. They have been translated into Spanish, French, Dutch, German and even Tagalog and Bahasa Indonesian. In Malaysia 15 Mills and Boon titles are published each month, around eight of which climb straight into the country’s best-seller list.
Romance and love are offered to women in exchange for wifely services. But vital to the package - and perhaps the element that makes is so appealing - is the image of women as weak, fragile flowers being plucked and protected by powerful men. The implicit bargain between him and her is: ‘If you will love me and only me forever, I will protect you from harm and hunger and make you happy.’
Unfortunately, many men fail to honour their side of this bargain. And this is why romance is really nothing more than the acceptable face of pornography, in the sense that, just like its uglier doppelganger, it justifies and enhances men’s power over women. Because, far from protecting women from harm, marriage often makes women more vulnerable to male violence - from their husbands.
Rape and incest
One quarter of violent crime in the US, for instance, is wife assault. And these are just the cases that are reported. Many more women keep quiet out of loyalty or fear, backed by the knowledge that the authorities are usually unwilling to intervene in ‘domestic disputes’. As a result, secret refuges for wives fleeing from violent husbands can be found in countries as different as Norway, India. Thailand and the UK.
But bruises, black eyes and broken ribs are not the only injuries husbands inflict - often without punishment - on their wives. One UK study found one in seven wives had been raped by their husbands. Unfortunately the marriage contract so legitimises a man’s sexual demands that it is only recently that the offence has been considered a crime at all. In Australia. for example, a husband can only be convicted if he commits some violence to his wife in addition to the rape. And it was not until 1979 that a woman won a rape prosecution against her husband in the US.
But it is not only wives who are raped. Daughters, too, also fall victim to the sexual violence of the man in the house, Research in countries as far apart as Australia, the US, Egypt, Israel and India indicate that as many as one in four families is incestuous. And, in the vast majority of cases - between 80 and 90 per cent - it is girls being sexually used by their male relatives, usually their fathers.
Part of the shock that attaches to facts like these comes from the betrayal of trust, the abuse of power, that they imply. Women all over the world are fearful of walking the streets late at night. But the real dangers often lie inside the house. Just as wives and daughters are abused by the men to whom they are closest, so rapes outside the family circle are overwhelmingly committed by men who are known to the victim. A study of 1,236 London women, for example, discovered that one in six had been raped, one in five had fought off an attempted rape, and that half of the assaults had occurred either in the house of the woman herself or in that of her assailant.
If you would like to know something about what's actually going on, rather than what people would like you to think was going on, then read the New Internationalist.
– Emma Thompson –
Save money with a digital subscription. Give a gift subscription that will last all year. Or get yourself a free trial to New Internationalist. See our choice of offers.