News & Politics

Carnal Ignorance: Should Women Enjoy Sex?


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October 7, 1971, Vol. XVI, No. 40

Carnal Ignorance
By Ellen Frankfort

For the longest time a woman wasn’t supposed to enjoy sex. Then suddenly a woman was neurotic if she didn’t achieve orgasm simultaneously with her husband. Proof of a woman’s health was her ability to come at the very moment the man ejaculated, in the very place he ejaculated, and at the very rate restricted for him by his physiology. If she couldn’t, she went to a male psychiatrist to find out why.

In the last few years there’s been a shift: a whole slew of men around 40, who learned about sex by “doing it” in the back seat of a car instead of by talking about it in some psychoanalytic institute, are now insisting that their experience, shabby and clumsy as it was, forms the body of carnal knowledge.

Following the steps of Portnoy, men have started to come out announcing it is they who have the problems, the hang-ups, the insecurities. And while women are no less responsible for the sexual difficulties of men than they were for their own, they are in a position to extend the patience, understanding, and sympathy men formerly were unfree to demand.

In a book entitled “Any Woman Can!” and promoted as one which “tells every woman how to understand herself,” David Reuben, M.D., presents the latest case for male insecurity. “Men are much more closely related to puppy dogs,” he says. “Underneath the tough guy is a tender little boy.” That all of us suffer from sexual insecurities and that neither males nor females monopolize self-doubt is an assertion few would argue with. But Dr. Reuben goes beyond the obvious when she says with underlined emphasis: “Every man, deep inside, has the wish to be taken over sexually by a woman.”

Let’s put aside the issue of validity, since Dr. Reuben never concerns himself with it, and observe how he proceeds. No sooner does Dr. Reuben come up with an idea one would like to see developed than he brings out his how-to kit. If men secretly long to be passive but society forces them to conceal this longing, woman “can utilize one of the best kept secrets of the human race.” For she is the “custodian” of a powerful weapon and “the name of that all-powerful weapon is SEX.”

Dr. Reuben is so limited in actual experience that even when he shifts to the world of the utilitarian he runs into difficulty. “The most successful pornographic films depict a relatively sedate female gradually being whipped into an erotic frenzy by an obviously delighted gentleman.” Here is Dr. Reuben at work translating fantasy into reality. First, women can do simple little things, like “keeping the bedroom lights burning brightly and lying as still as possible for at least 30 seconds immediately after the penis is inserted into the vagina.” By going from corpse to frenzied creature, woman communicates that the man is not about to be rejected, information she must reinforce with verbal reassurance. A sample conversation in between sighs and groans is offered: “Man: ‘Well, how was it this time?’ Woman (leaning over and kissing him): ‘Wonderful! Just wonderful!’ Man: ‘That’s good. Maybe I can do even better next time.’

“While, strictly speaking, his erection may have been only 70 per cent as hard as seven sessions ago and the orgasm may have registered only six on a scale of 10” (the Reuben sexual report card is present even at moments of sexual frenzy) “by reacting positively and with encouragement, the woman almost guarantees that he will do better next time…When it comes to sexual intercourse, in a sense, the man is the manufacturer and the woman is the consumer.” Right in line with the principles of advertising, women are to praise the sexual “products” of men, even when shoddy.

But sometimes things become sticky. “A woman who is performing fellatio can’t do something even more exciting at the same time. She can’t talk with her mouth full.” This sober observation causes Dr. Reuben to wonder: “Then is fellatio a good idea at all?” Well, Dr. Reuben is not quite sure. “The very fact that mouth-penis activities have a ‘forbidden’ quality for most people adds to their allure and drives the man’s brain to wildly intensify the impulses to the erection and orgasmic center in the spinal cord.” For the woman who is lying wondering whether to “keep her mouth full” or start talking, it may be helpful to know that not only doest mouth-penis contact excite a man, but mouth-clitoral contact “has an almost explosive effect on male potency.” Whether you suck or get sucked, woman, you’re adding to the man’s sense of security. Now if only you learned how to talk with your mouth full.

When Reuben’s adolescent fantasy world collides with that of the utilitarian, the result is a logistic impasse bordering on the absurd. But not for Reuben, whose cheery, earnest optimism is ever with us. “By every test, sexual intercourse is probably the purest and daintiest activity that a man and woman can engage in, aside from being the most enjoyable. The genitals themselves are normally free of harmful bacteria, the secretions are perfectly sterile, and the penis and vagina were obviously designed to be brought together in their won inimitable style. By contrast, the throat of every person, including the anti-sex orators, is crammed with a dozen varieties of lethal bacteria.” Intercourse: “dainty?” “pure?” Even English ladies enjoying tea would expect stronger adjectives to describe their delight, although they might be surprised tolerant that each sip is “crammed with lethal” germs.

I’m afraid it’s not the secretions of the body that are perfectly sterile, but Dr. Reuben’s notion of sex. If Reuben couldn’t make it through the “Kama Sutra,” surely he could get through “Sensuous Woman.” Whatever happened to smells, tactile sensations, time, music, food, baths, oils, and all the other text-book ingredients of sensuality?

But alas, the closest a man who learned about sex in the back seat of a car can come to sensuality is to keep the bedroom lights burning and eradicate that dark, fumbling, beat-up memory of adolescent groping. I have no wish to deny Reuben a catharsis. I’d even empathize with his gropings toward liberation, if only he kept them to himself. But as long as he insists on marketing them, manufacturers will continue to exploit the middle-class mania for cleanliness that his book reflects, making millions of dollars so that women can dry up their own lubrications, eradicate their own body odors, and be told that to be “natural” is to be filled with chemicals. Undoubtedly, by the time Reuben’s third sequel is manufactured, commercial considerations will compel him to acknowledge anal sexuality. And thenI hesitate to consider the number of sprays that will appear on the market.

Because in Dr. Reuben’s narrow hierarchy of sexuality, penis-vagina combination sits on top, and because Reuben, like his Freudian predecessors, assumes that sexuality is uniform, he automatically excludes lesbian love. Its’ curious that he never connects the voyeuristic interest men have in lesbian lovemaking while arguing his case for male passivity. Could it be that the “best kept secret of human nature: that all men, in fact, wish to be dominated by women” derives not so much from fears of rejection, which only female sexual initiatives can minimize, but also from the desire to experience tenderness, non-competitiveness, and the absence of domination by either partner. Why is it that men who become involved in group sex like to lie back and watch women fondle one another? Perhaps they are seeking the sense of play so conspicuously missing in the Reuben sexual scenario…

[Each weekday morning, we post an excerpt from another issue of the Voice, going in order from our oldest archives. Visit our Clip Job archive page to see excerpts back to 1956.]

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