“I disagree with copulation without love” – Married Man, 29, 1949
It’s funny. Women are often associated with things that I find to be more applicable to men. For instance: a tendency towards drama, irrational behaviour and reasoning, jealousy, even hysteria and over-sensitivity to criticism.
One of these things is the concept of sexual liberalness. It’s said that men relish the idea of multiple sexual partners more than women and find monogamy more constraining than women. But a recent book called What Women Want by Daniel Bergner went some way towards showing a very different story. And indeed, when I think of the people I know who are keen on open relationships, they are women. The open relationships are vetoed by their partners who prefer monogamy and fear sharing.
But I’m not sure how fruitful or pleasant I find discussions that start from a point of looking for difference between men and women. Such differences have been used to justify unpardonable double standards, eg “men just can’t control themselves” versus “if your husband strays, maybe it’s your fault for having gained five pounds”. And these days, they serve more as a polarising device than a helpful one: we are angered by gender inequality, as we should be, but we are also obsessed with gender difference to a degree that I am not sure is helpful or representative of reality.
The “men versus women” stance is particularly unhelpful, I find, on the question of casual sex. A number of studies have shown contradictory things: men seek it, women avoid it; men regret not doing enough of it; women regret doing too much of it. A new study of American college kids has indicated that casual sex might be bad for both parties, psychologically.
Such studies indicate that the idea that men and women relate so differently to sex because of evolution is increasingly questionable. I’ve just been reading an article by Claire Langhamer, the queen of marriage and dating studies, called Adultery in Post War England. There was plenty of double standardry in attitudes to extra-marital affairs, but by and large, nobody was particularly shocked at it on either side. In fact, adultery was – despite being the central legal grounds for divorce until the Divorce Act in 1969 – not considered all that bad. It was understandable, at least.
More interestingly, both sexes reported thinking that extra-marital sex had to be judged on a case by case basis and that if you loved someone then that might explain sleeping with them outside marriage.
The talk today about young men wanting sex all the time and hating commitment, with womanly love as the enemy to the fun, strings-free life all young dudes desire, is usefully framed by the feedback of young men in the late 1940s. These men liked the idea of sex, but didn’t like the idea of sex without love, a notion that runs counter to the Mars-Venus paradigm that still governs much gender discourse today.
In 1949, a married assistant drainage officer, 28, told Mass Observation in answer to a question about whether sex should only take place in marriage: “I don’t think it matters if one is married or not. The parties however should feel that they are in love”. Another man, 29, said: “If people love each other and wish to copulate and for one reason or another are not married I see no reason why they should not. I disagree with copulation without love.”
Two things emerge here. One: only 60 years ago, one of the prevailing attitudes among 20 something men was that sex and love should go together. This shows that what we now call a woman-associated behaviour is either true for both sexes, or dependent on historical and social contingency. Two: adultery was not always the demon it is today. Ironically, in the pre Sexual Revolution days it was at its most accepted. In 1951, an sociologist called Geoffrey Gorer found that infidelity “was rarely perceived to be the worst ‘crime’ that a spouse could commit: only a minority of the sample believed that infidelity should automatically end a marriage” (in Gorer’s Exploring English Character, 1955; quote from C. Langhamer 2006, Adultery in Post War England). We should remember that every generalisation we make about men and women might either be a function of our times and places; or just – as Bergner wants to show and as I suspect – sometimes actually the wrong way round.