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Reluctant Lovers


new internationalist
issue 158 - April 1986

Reluctant lovers
If the attraction between men and women is normal and irresistible,
and sexual intercourse between them is natural and pleasurable,
why do we have to work so hard at it? Rosalind Coward reports.

Illustration: Wendy Hoile OUR society is definitely schizoprenic about sex. On the one hand we hear that sex between men and women is the most natural thing in the world. On the other we hear that there is, in fact, nothing more difficult than good sex between men and women. If we want sex to work, we are told, work is exactly what we are going to have to do.

It's a contradiction. But one we seldom attempt to resolve. Mostly we stop at the first impression, that sex is a 'natural instinct' and that heterosexual penetration is the ultimate proof that - underneath it all - we are still just like animals. It is the animal instinct which draws men and women together. And, just like the animals, the real reason for sex is to reproduce. Couples may now delay conception, and pleasure may have been discovered as a gratifying side effect of sex, but all the new-born babies around bear witness to the fact that the fundamental purpose of sex is still being fulfilled.

But this so-called natural instinct is a curiously elastic concept. It explains why we have 'normal' heterosexual sex. But it is also used to explain why we shouldn't have any other kind of sex - like lesbian sex, for instance. Some of us may feel that lesbian sex comes naturally. But we'd better not believe it: because it is definitely, so we are told, a profoundly unnatural act.

Here is a curious paradox. This supposedly natural urge - the heterosexual urge - cannot, after all, be left to nature. If it could, then why should we be subject to so many laws, controls and advice about what is, or is not, natural? The fact is that no human society leaves sex to nature. All societies legislate - either through custom or actual law - about what is acceptable in sexual relations. And in the West we're no exception. Heterosexual sex (albeit in a multitude of different and pleasurable positions recommended by Dr Alex Comfort in The Joy of Sex) is discreetly but firmly enforced.

Yet if we look back at British history, for instance, we find a singular lack of evidence that the 'natural' heterosexual urge could ever be left to itself. As far back as the 1690s 'moral transgressors', including violators of the Sabbath, profane swearers, prostitutes, keepers of bawdy houses, actors in indecent plays and buggers, have been subject to sustained efforts at moral control by both Church and State.1

By the 19th Century sexuality had become a major area of public and political concern. There were endless treatises on masturbation, on sex between 'nannies and their wards', and on social reforms designed to 'clean up' working class morality. The Society for the Suppression of Vice pushed for a policing of morality and the introduction of legislation to control perverts' and 'transgressors'. It was during this period that buggery - long regarded as too horrible even to mention - became the specific crime which, in its homosexual form, it remains today.

Throughout the 20th Century actual laws on sexuality have been liberalised, culminating with a series of reforms in the 1960s. With the repeal of laws on homosexuality and divorce, and with the widespread availability of contraception, it was easy for people to believe they were witnessing a great lifting of the traces of Victorian sexual repression. Today there's a widespread belief that we are now genuinely free in sexual matters. And the fact that most people appear to choose heterosexuality rather than homosexuality is taken as further proof of how natural it all is.

But this is a total myth. Though no-one is standing by to cut off our tongues if we've put them in unspeakable places, sexuality is, if anything, even more subject to theories, to prescription, to advice, explanation and help, than ever before; with the addition that now our sexuality is even seen to define the health of our personalities. This is how beliefs about the naturalness and joy of good heterosexuality marginalise those who don't conform. Not only are they defined as 'perverts', they are made to feel like perverts. And perhaps being made to feel weird, marginal or perverted is just as bad as a physical punishment.

Even sexual attraction cannot be left to itself. If we are to take seriously the advice offered to women in magazines and advertising, the untended female body would never attract a mate. Men, it appears, do not like us in our natural form. They don't, for example, like our bodily hairs. They certainly don't like them in our armpits or on our legs. And now even our pubic hair is under threat as bikini lines recede further and further.

The shape of our bodies would also be no good if left to nature. Large child-bearing hips might be good for bearing large children, but men, strangely, put these considerations aside. It's the energetic, firm, immature, adolescent body which now apparently guarantees you a mate. Reading all this beauty advice it would be easy to believe that heterosexuality would never happen at all unless women undertook major tasks of body reconstruction. So there is clearly more to male desire than the 'naturalists' would have us believe.

If natural desire is a problem for men, it's a chronic disease for women. Only a small amount of eavesdropping reveals women subversively confessing to one another that they don't always (don't often, in fact) find men's bodies attractive. (And, in their fear of being thought homosexual, no-one could be quicker to agree with this than heterosexual men. 'Men's bodies! Ugh! Horrible and hairy. Furry ears. Can't think what women see in us!') Nature has lamentably failed here too. It's only the strong presence of social reasons for desire - his 'kindness', his 'strength' and so on - that allows any sex even to get off the ground, let alone into the stratosphere.

But even when the human beast does successfully pair, there's still no guarantee that nature will have her way. Instead of unrestrained copulation, there are couples in the consulting room. And the cry from the couches, the cry from the pages of women's magazines, is the cry of a machine that's broken down. Make it work, make it last, make it fun! And what do we need to do this? Not an animal instinct, but a skilled technician.

This cry for heterosexual pleasure is rather new. And perhaps this is why many of the problems arise. In the 19th Century female pleasure in sex - even heterosexual sex - was regarded with suspicion. Many doubted whether women had any natural enjoyment of sex at all. It was women's burden, the price women paid for getting pregnant and fulfilling their real desire: for having babies. Women's pleasure was recruited to heterosexuality only gradually throughout the 20th Century: until today, not only must women suffer the burdens of men's desires, they must now enjoy them too.

The 1960s taught us to view the early sexologists as sort of sex saints paving the way towards sexual freedom. But perhaps Saint Havelock Ellis and Saints Masters and Johnson were just part of an ideological drift towards implicating female desire more deeply in heterosexuality? Perhaps they were part of a movement which has tried to bring all the elements of sex - sensuality, pleasure, orgasm, emotion and reproduction - together in one great act heterosexual union.

Keeping all the elements of sex together in the good heterosexual relationship is certainly hard work. And anything that needs that much effort - and which deviates so readily from the approved positions when we aren't vigilant - excites my suspicion. The work required to keep heterosexuality going suggests that heterosexual penetration - far from being the only natural instinctive act - is just one activity among many that humans can do together under the name of sex.

Interestingly, the work of Sigmund Freud confirms this observation. For Freud, it is heterosexuality which needs explaining, not homosexuality. He believed that every child is forced by society to renounce the intense sensual/sexual bond with her/his mother and find sensual satisfaction in the opposite sex because of the necessity for reproduction. It is certainly true that in so far as human society wishes to remain in business it has to reproduce. But it is also clear that different societies police the heterosexual reproductive boundaries with different degrees of severity. In ancient Greece, for instance, it appears that male homosexuality coexisted with heterosexual marriage as different kinds of sexual relationships with different pleasures and functions. And the sophisticated reproductive technologies being developed in our society means that even heterosexual penetration is losing its privilege as the only act that can get you pregnant.

Humans, like animals, do copulate, give birth and take care of their offspring. But, also like animals, we do a lot of other things besides. Animals, too, display a startling disregard for the conventions of heterosexual penetration. You have only to observe heaps of toads randomly mating in the ditches, or the hordes of sodomising dogs which roam our streets. It is our history that makes us believe that natural sex comprises only one kind of sex act. As Roland Barthes once wrote, it is precisely when the importance of history is denied that history is most unmistakably at work. And isn't it a startling coincidence that the idea of 'natural', heterosexual, reproductive sexual pleasure should become so important at just the moment when technological changes and women's increased economic and social choices mean that heterosexual pairing ceases to be their only viable choice?

Rosalind Coward is the author of Female Desire: Women's Sexuality Today (Paladin, 1984) and several other books, as well as numerous articles on female sexuality and feminism.

[image, unknown]

If it's printed it seems true. But you might be having
the wool pulled over your eyes. Each month the NI invites
one author to justify their style of argument.

Editor: Mentioning the 'Society for the Suppression of Vice' seems to ridicule your opponents by association. But don't you, too, have rigid standards - on rape, say, or child molesting?

[image, unknown] Coward: I didn't intend to imply that you could characterise today's exponents of the theory of natural sex in the same way as those of the past. The situation is more complex now. There are groups - including the State in the form of the police and the law - who seek to enforce a certain kind of sexual behaviour on the grounds that it is the natural kind. But I certainly wasn't trying to argue that 'anything goes'. I don't believe that. 'Anything does not go in the matters of rape and child molesting. Both of sexual acts are as much about the desire to dominate as they are about sex. But I think that 'normal' heterosexuality is often about the desire to dominate as well. And it is often people who believe that heterosexuality is the only natural expression of the sex urge who are the most complaisant about male domination. Many object to any portrayal of homosexuality on the media but don't object to the routine representations of male dominance and male power.


Editor: Introducing the promiscuity of dogs and toads is really sleight of hand. Surely dog behaviour doesn't imply anything about human beings at all? What do their activities prove - except that dogs are dogs?

Coward: It wasn't meant to be sleight of hand. It was meant to indicate that you can 'interpret' animals in any number of different ways, depending on what you choose to pick out of their behaviour. Those who appeal to 'natural' theories of heterosexuality tend to pick those aspects which conform to male domination, heterosexual coupling and parenting. There are plenty of other things that animals get up to which could be used to prove that lesbianism is natural. But you rarely hear that kind of argument. Ultimately I'm inclined to agree with you. I distrust any theory that claims animals = natural = humans. What we do as humans is conditioned as much by cultural expectations and social structures as by biology.


Editor: Why do you finish with a question mark? Are you reluctant to say what you think?

Coward: The most honest answer is that it is a style which seems to suit me. I don't like dogmatic statements and often prefer a question, even if it is a rhetorical one. Dogma and rigidity characterise those who think that there is only one proper expression of sexual desire. The last thing I want to do is to produce an equally rigid and unquestioning alternative.

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New Internationalist issue 158 magazine cover This article is from the April 1986 issue of New Internationalist.
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