Register Sunday | June 17 | 2018

Are Women the New Men (in Bed)?

Who holds out?

Before the Mr. Bigs and the Aidans, before the substantial relationships (and relationship problems) of the infamous Carrie Bradshaw, there was a different premise to Sex and the City. It was the idea that four attractive New York women could treat their sex lives the way men do-that women could also unabashedly want and enjoy an active sex life. Being a comedy, of course, the show played on stereotypes in order to make this point. Every heroine had a different hair colour so that viewers didn't get confused: the prudish coquette Charlotte (brunette), the outrageously promiscuous Samantha (blond), the wry and intellectual lawyer Miranda (redhead). But the show revolved around Carrie (highlighted Botticelli curls), the cutely neurotic, chain-smoking sex columnist, who got the most screen time and thus the most emotional complexity. But did any of these women actually treat sex like men do? What does that even mean, anyway?

In order to subvert stereotypes of how women and men see sex, we have to agree on the bedroom behaviour clichés. Traditionally, women have been encouraged to be ladylike, taught that modesty is a virtue and told that they should enjoy sex once married, but even then not too much (heaven forbid). "Holding out" was a strategy mothers passed down to daughters. "Who'll buy the cow if they can get the milk for free?" was seen as worthwhile advice for how to snag a husband.

"Holding out" was a strategy mothers passed down to daughters. "Who'll buy the cow if they can get the milk for free?" was seen as worthwhile advice for how to snag a husband.

The clichéd man is unemotional about it all. Oh, he wants sex (and all the time), but if you have it with him, don't expect him to love you. In fact, if you have it too soon, it might ensure that he never will. It's not about love for him, it's about male urges that must be fulfilled. They absolutely must. If a guy is left with pent-up sexual feelings, you see, he might be inflicted with the imaginary but still dangerous "blue balls" disease. Of course, these clichés of female and male sexual roles seem ridiculous and laughable, but that doesn't mean they aren't powerful. If they weren't, why would a massively popular TV show commit itself to subverting them?

Unfortunately, remnants of these standards exist, and people still pass judgement on women who enjoy sex. (Or, for that matter, on men who don't want it enough.) A couple of months ago, I shared a pitcher with a friend and some of her friends' friends who I'd never met before. Someone (and it wasn't even me) brought up the question of one-night stands: "Do you look down on a girl who would sleep with you on the first night?" I made the point that a one-night stand is only deemed such if a relationship doesn't develop from that point on. It is a risk that some people like to take and some people don't. I know many relationships that have started with sex, I said, and these couples seem happy to me. One of the guys, a ruddy-faced twentysomething from Boston wearing a red baseball cap, got flustered. "No," he insisted, "they may seem happy, but the guy will always look down on the girl for being loose." I retorted that this was absolute bullshit and no one thought that way anymore. But Red Baseball Cap looked at me accusingly and told me that no one buys the cow when they're getting the milk for nothing. I looked at him incredulously and then at my friend. Who was this guy? And why was a metaphor in which a woman is depicted as cattle up for auction still being used in the year 2004?

It seemed to escape Red Baseball Cap that the guy is just as implicated as the girl in the act of sex. To him, there was a difference: there are the girls you sleep with and the girls you marry. What bothered me was not the importance he placed on purity, but the double standard: apparently, a girl who guiltlessly enjoys sex is dirty, but a guy who does so is not. What is this, the 1950s? As I looked upon Red Baseball Cap with contempt and amazement, I realized he was looking at me in the same way. I got the impression he isn't the only one who believes these dated sexual axioms. In fact, I'm pretty sure there was something like that in Bush's platform as well.

So maybe women are the new men in bed-if that means that some women are being honest about wanting and enjoying sex-but it doesn't seem that the world has quite caught up yet.

Later, I told this story to a table full of friends. Everyone laughed, including the men. "Anyone who would say such a thing obviously sees sex as a dirty act-something to be ashamed of and blame on the woman," a guy friend analyzed. "I pity the guy." I asked him what he thought of the cow metaphor, "Buy the cow? Man, if she was good, I'd sell the farm." We all laughed, but even though I knew Red Baseball Cap is just one guy with whom I disagree, I still felt perturbed. Sure, I read about the Madonna/Whore dichotomy in The Da Vinci Code, but after that conversation it hit home that there are people out there who still see women this way. And they are my age. And they are from Boston. It disturbs me that we still have (and I still actually know) sayings like "She's an angel with the children and a whore in the bedroom." What makes a woman who enjoys sex a whore?

Even Sex and the City had a hard time with it. The character who most "enjoyed sex like a man" would have to be Samantha: she despised any emotional attachment and had sex with a new guy at least once an episode (and over ninety-four episodes, the score really racked up). But Samantha's character was so over the top that she became a cartoon-fun to watch but not all that realistic. She turned into a stereotype in her own right: the infamous "slut."

The scary thing about stereotypes is how insidious they are. These judgements slip into our language and we end up with a whole lexicon that can be slung as ammunition: "You should play hard to get"; "She's easy"; "She looks like a whore." You can't apply these same statements to a man, it just doesn't work. So maybe women are the new men in bed-if that means that some women are being honest about wanting and enjoying sex-but it doesn't seem that the world has quite caught up yet.

Emma Appleby (Poppy Wilkinson) is a fabulous force on the Montreal scene. Read more recent columns by Emma Appleby.