A Point Of View: Does the sex debate exclude men?

Couple kissing at 1960s festival in Hyde Park

Sex is everywhere in modern society - but why are women doing all the talking about it, asks Sarah Dunant.

I was 18 in America, au pairing before university. It was 1969 and the world was changing. Everyone was reading John Updike's novel Couples about middle-class swingers, and lots of couples were trying to emulate them.

In my Californian family, the doctor husband was working hardest on it. I, deeply fond of his wife and kids, was watching from the sidelines. But when he got caught with her best friend and his wife stormed out of the house to stay with her mother, I was left holding the fort.

Home from work the next evening he asked my advice on how to reconcile with her. I was flattered, though a little uncomfortable. Later there was a knock on my door. "I need to talk some more," he said. I opened it to find him naked outside.

The first thing to tell you is that nothing happened. Well, when I say nothing, nothing I could have him in court for now.

Find out more

Sarah Dunant
  • Sarah Dunant is a writer, broadcaster and critic
  • A Point of View is usually broadcast on Fridays on Radio 4 at 20:50 BST and repeated Sundays, 08:50 BST

The combination of my evident physical terror and desperate fast-talking persuaded him that maybe I wasn't worth the effort. Next morning as I breakfasted the kids, he nodded at me on his way out. I doubt he gave it much thought.

I, of course, was devastated. Not so much at the horror of what had been avoided, as at the guilt I felt. Had I somehow provoked it? Should I tell his wife? What would she think of me? Alone in a foreign country with no e-mails or cheap phone calls, I swapped frantic letters with my best friend and kept it to myself.

A few months later I came home and got on with my life. I was lucky, 1969 was the cusp of a major societal shift. Post-the contraceptive pill, with emerging feminism and economic independence, women were about to challenge all kinds of conventions about sexual behaviour, and this nasty encounter could be fashioned into a cautionary tale as a thread in the sexual tapestry which I would weave for myself.

I've thought about that night in California a lot over the last few weeks as once again the snake pit of policing sexual behaviour and the conflict between men and women's perceptions of it have become news, such as the would-be US senator who claimed that after what he called "legitimate rape" women's bodies protect them from pregnancy, and George Galloway's assertion that what Julian Assange did or didn't do in bed in Sweden was simply bad sexual etiquette.

From left to right, Ken Clarke, George Galloway, Todd Akin Politicians Ken Clarke (left), George Galloway (centre) and Todd Akin (right) have all made controversial comments about rape

Meanwhile, a story about a young woman in thrall to a certain Mr Grey who gives her sexual pleasure by causing her pain is being bought by millions of women, at the same time as others are calling for it to be publicly burnt. The proverbial Martian arriving to study contemporary sexual behaviour might find him/ her/ itself most confused. All one can say is welcome to the human race. The story of how men and women negotiate doing the one thing necessary to continue their existence, is a complex and often painful one.

For those incensed that our legal system still drags its feet when it comes to taking sexual violence against women seriously, history offers a sobering perspective. You don't have to go back far to find a time when rape was an acceptable last resort of courtship.

Historians now combing court records in 15th-17th Century Europe (themselves asking new questions about sex and sexuality) find that while Juliet's father might bully his daughter into his choice of husband, if that didn't work he could always get the suitor to finish off the job for him.

Once the threshold was crossed, the young woman was used goods and marriage was the only option. As such, this was merely an extension of a deeper view of women imbedded not just in law but also in the religious culture that informed it. Many may shiver at fundamentalist Islam's view of women now, but for centuries Christianity peddled an equally fertile line in misogyny.

Women, basically, were the problem. Such was their irresistible temptation to men, that for the well-being of society they had to be controlled. Either through flesh and blood marriage or to the only other man who would do - Christ in a convent.

Adam and Eve at the tree of knowledge Has Eve been blamed disproportionately for the apple incident?

This notion of women goes right back to Eve and that rosy-cheeked apple. Imagine, if you will, another narrative - a garden of Eden where Adam says: "Hey Eve, you know we're not allowed to eat that. Put it back." Alas no.

The fact that Adam succumbs is Eve's fault and within the blink of a theological eye forbidden knowledge becomes linked to sex. Its impact on policing sexual behaviour was immense. For centuries European women of good families would have wedding chests in their bedroom painted with cautionary tales of female obedience.

High on the list was the Rape of the Sabine Women: the story of how out of their - what shall we call it - "stoical availability"? came the Roman people.

Rape of the Sabine women

Romulus, king and founder of Rome, is said to have increased the population of the city by offering asylum to fugitives and exiles.

Plutarch relates that Romulus invited the Sabine tribe to games in Rome and at a given signal from their king, Romulus, the Romans abducted the Sabine women, who later married their captors.

The scene is denoted in a painting by the famous Flemish artist Peter Paul Rubens.

So just for a second let's be dazzled by how far we have come in the West. Because it is dazzling. And in so short a time.

It is less than 50 years since reliable contraception took away the fear and stigma of sex for women, allowing them into the workforce as serious earners and consumers whose desires (in all senses of that word) had to be taken into account by the market. The result was indeed a sexual revolution.

At the risk of my children putting their fingers in their ears shouting "Too much information", I should clarify a little. It has not all been great.

Sex - to state the obvious - is not a rational pursuit. For all our cultural and scientific progress, close the bedroom door and what goes on inside is largely animal. It transcends thinking. Sometimes it transgresses it.

That is what is so wonderful and so terrifying about it. It even manages to defy the market. You can make yourself the most attractive human being on the planet but it won't guarantee sexual satisfaction.

Brad and Angelina don't necessarily do it any better than anyone else. The rule is there are no rules. You can have good sex with someone you don't love and - what a kick in the teeth for romance - when you do find "the one", the earth may not move, or eventually sex will become so ordinary you run the risk of desire from outside ripping both of you apart.

So where does that leave us? For years now it has been women who have made the cultural running when it comes to really talking about sex.

Feminism spawned a huge debate about all such things. From the uncompromising idea that all intercourse is close to rape because it is about subjugation, to those like Camille Paglia or Katie Roiphe who took modern women to task for not taking enough responsibility for their own behaviour: if we are to own our desire and be equal players in this dangerous game - we have to careful how and when we chose to paint ourselves as victims.

Book shelf displaying Fifty Shades of Grey Fifty Shades of Grey might cause confusion to extra-terrestrials

Then there is the power of fantasy. The director of a charity for victims of domestic abuse recently called for Fifty Shades of Grey to be burnt, claiming it portrayed female abuse in ways not dissimilar to the crimes of Fred West. Except this is fiction and the heroine in the novel is getting pleasure out of the pain.

Submission and domination is an age-old business. For many years it was a national joke that some men in power (judges, politicians, businessmen) might seek out a dominatrix to allow them to experience lack of control.

Could it be that something similar is happening to women now they have a greater footprint on the world? Or, if masochism has always been a component of sex, that women can now play with the idea more confidently. Maybe it's simpler.

With sex still the number one way to sell us most things, but modern life giving us little time to explore it, maybe the fact that Mr Grey, loaded in all manner of ways, puts so much attention into pleasuring both of them is the secret.

One thing I do know. If these novels had been written by and for men highlighting the S rather than the M and outselling Antony Beevor and footballers' biographies there would be any army of women commentating on it.

Start Quote

We have a long way to go, but we can't do without the views of men”

End Quote

And that, I suppose, is what worries me. Where are the heavy-weight male voices debating contemporary sexuality? It's difficult - getting men to talk honestly about sex. Not the nudge-nudge in the pub, or the throw-away gags of comedians, but serious questioning.

We accept that in the aftermath of feminism growing up male can be hard: but where are the big public conversations about men's sexuality. The impact of pornography. How far has our desire changed theirs? Is their line between what is and is not acceptable different from ours?

Such admissions will not necessarily be politically correct. Sex often isn't. It doesn't help that when men do open their mouths on the larger stage, they are firmly shot down. Both George Galloway and our now ex-Justice Secretary Ken Clarke might have been ill advised in their remarks about sexual behaviour and the law, but like it or not, they thought something needed saying, only to be met by a storm of female outrage that effectively stifled all debate.

Yes, we have a long way to go. But we can't do it without the views of men.

For me there'd be one exception. After I'd written this I decided to look up that Californian doctor on the internet. What I found is that a man of the same name, age and place of work was stuck off the medical register 15 years ago for negligence and involuntary manslaughter. I am still working out how I feel about that.

Add your comments using the form below. A selection will be published.

You have already answered your own question. If a man opens his mouth, even to state the bleeding obvious, he will be attacked by the female outrage. Why bother ? Decent men are not as stupid as we look. It is easier to learn from the Alpha male Bad Boys who women of all ages (and educational levels) so love. They don't bother entering into a debate. Thank god for pornography. A little light relief for the ordinary decent men of this world. But of course we get criticised for watching it, unlike 50 Shades which is OK because it's for women! I suspect we are heading in the direction of Japan where huge percentages of men exist without ever having a relationship and where birth rates have fallen to negligible levels amongst the educated middle class.

George, Buckinghamshire, UK

The author asks why men don't comment, well she answers her own question, most of the time men's views or ideas are met by a storm of female outrage! Unfortunately, what were seeing now is a reluctance by many "normal" men to voice any opinion for fear of untold retribution. The alleged oppressors have become the oppressed! My love life is fine but not due to my partner's excellence in love making, I just think what I think (which is sometimes not about my partner and definitely never about England!) and do my best to ensure my partner's experience is the best it possibly can be, because, heaven knows what added psychological issues I would experience if I were to give anything less than a perfect performance every time! There is so much that I would like to say about my experience as a man but men are totally petrified to say anything and women seem to be so wrapped up in how they feel about sex, sexuality, relationships nowadays that they seem to have forgotten that there's another person involved and a totally different perspective to share and work with!

Peter, Greater London

The author says she wants more debate and more men to be heard, yet you will censor our efforts. The irony is as sad as it is funny.

James Back, UK

I think the inherent danger for men talking about sex is that they feel that saying something controversial may end them up in hot water. The number of sexual discrimination cases against women is far far lower than against men as men are less likely to take offence to sexually inappropriate comment as men have not been in the situation of having to fight for their sexual liberty. Free and open discourse is hard to take part in if you run the threat of being condemned or ostracised for saying something that runs against the grain. I have heard female colleagues talking about things in the office that would land a man right in front of their line manager under a disciplinary hearing. Talking about it in social circles among friends is often easier as you know the way people will respond and things are less often taken out of context, but it is still a social/etiquette/legal minefield. As the author of the article states, had 50 Shades been written by a man I seriously doubt that it would have been well received, even if verbatim the same book. The context would have been far more sinister and the 'burn it' brigade would be massively in the majority.

KP, London

Wow, it makes a refreshing changed to be asked for our views! I'm a 48 yr old male and have been listening to women talk about sex all my life. I think they could learn a lot from listening to some (intelligent) men for a change. For instance, now that online porn is ubiquitous, what does it tell you regarding what men find attractive in a woman? Answer: just about every size / shape / colour / combination of features you can think of! I would expect that knowledge to have a distinctly uplifting effect on women ... far more so than the fashion industry stereotype skinny model, anyway.

Mike, Woking

Fifty Shades of Grey seems to have opened a sore within the feminist community. It seems that a large number of women like to at least fantasize about being dominated sexually. But this is uncomfortable for the community because their aim of women taking charge of their own sexuality doesn't seem to include the desire to be dominated. I would like to have seen the reaction had the author been male...

Andrew Young, Alyth, Scotland

Men and women have totally different sexual instincts. Despite the fact that it is obvious, it has remained uninvestigated until recently, and is still very much played-down, no doubt because it is uncomfortable. The effect of this 'suppression' can ultimately only be damaging to our society. Suffering in lonely silence is the male response, but a deep psychological guilt remains and festers.Sex just has too much psychological pain for males to talk about it. See: "Is There a Gender Difference in Strength of Sex Drive? Theoretical Views, Conceptual Distinctions, and a Review of Relevant Evidence". Roy F. Baumeister, et-all. "The Sex Diaries", Bettina Arndt.

Ian Phillips, Plymouth, Devon

Perhaps it is an oversimplification on my part but, it seems that Ms. Dunant is perplexed by another difference betweent the sexes, i.e. that men do not generally spend great deals of time analyzing their interests. One's love of Manchester United football can be summed up a in a single sentence and so can men's view of sex...IT'S ENJOYABLE! What more need be said?

LM Filanosky, Glen Burnie, USA

I can not speak for all men, of course, but the primary reason I do not participate in the "sex debate" is because it is finished. Essentially, we men are superfluous in much of today's society, and this is more due to biology rather than any socio/political phenomenon. Essentially, women have the ability to reproduce without the assistance of a male partner (at least so long as we can keep the sperm banks full). Men, on the other hand, can not. Even donating sperm to a sperm bank is no guarantee that one's genes will propagate...

Charles Warner, Panama, Republic of Panama

More on This Story

Features & Analysis

Elsewhere on the BBC

  • TravelAround the world

    BBC Travel takes a look at the most striking images from the past seven days


  • BatteriesClick Watch

    More power to your phone - the lithium-ion batteries that could last twice as long

Try our new site and tell us what you think. Learn more
Take me there

Copyright © 2015 BBC. The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.