I've been stewing about this comment thread over at emily nagoski :: sex nerd for about a week now, and in an effort to learn something from the process have decided to share my observations with y'all and ask for any tips you might have!
See, I generally enjoy being active in comment threads on topics that excite me. And I also try to cultivate openness to differing viewpoints and a willingness to engage in conversation with people whose beliefs are different (even diametrically opposite from!) my own. To me, conversation with people whose ideas I disagree with (and sometimes even abhor) is a way to cultivate compassion, empathy and lovingkindness. I also find it to be an interesting opportunity to people watch, and gather information on how folks interact, and particularly how they disagree, online. Hanna encourages me to save my energy for more important things than blog thread comment wars, and there are days when I completely agree with her. But I also feel like I do learn from them -- even when I'm not sure what, exactly I learn. So I keep coming back to re-engage.
In this particular case, the post in question was on differential desire vis a vis sexual activity in a long-term relationship (an opposite-sex marriage). The husband had written in to a discussion forum asking for advice on how to re-open communication with his wife over relational sex -- something they appear to have dramatically different levels of interest in. Emily, the blog author, pitched her response to the question of how the couple could work together to establish better channels of communication and discover where their common ground was in terms of making love. The post is a good one, and I recommend you hop on over if you want the full context of the conversation that followed.
See, the first comment out of the gate was by a man identifying himself as marriagecoach1 / John Wilder (warning: scary man profile!), in which he made the claim that "studies show that 60% of married women with children have their husbands on a starvation diet of sex once a week or less." Which is, of course, levels of wrong. As Emily pointed out in her response, gently suggesting that "people vary too much to use national statistics to illuminate an individual case." Girl Detective pointed out that "starvation diet" was a pretty loaded phrase. It implies a power differential in which the wife has power over the husband (the ability to put him on a diet) and also implies that sex "once a week or less" is a negative thing for all men, which -- since human beings' desire for relational sex varies widely by person and context -- is a fairly irresponsible assumption to make.
If the desired end result is more pleasurable, relational sex with his wife (what the husband with the original question seemed to desire), then surely the best avenue toward that goal is making the environment as conducive to more sex as possible. Approaching the lower-desire partner with an accusation that they're controlling their higher-desire partner with a "starvation diet" of sex: maybe not the best opening salvo. Just sayin'.
So, okay: combative commenter, a handful of measured responses. So far so good. Then Mr. Wilder returns further downthread to re-assert his position that "withholding" sex is a power grab.
You are violating marriage vows (well not if you are not married) but for marrieds, you vowed to satisfy the needs of your partner and it is considered unfaithful to those vows when you refuse.
Men get the bulk of their affectional needs met through sex with his wife. If she decides that she does not want to do that then she ought to file for divorce.
The old cliche about: "Behind every great man is a woman" implies that she keeps him centered and content by taking care of his sexual needs.
Ooooh boy. Issues just multiplied. So not only is this man approaching the question of differential desire by framing it as a question of gender (as becomes clear further downthread, he sees this as primarily a question of lower-desire women holding out on higher-desire men), he's also framing the question as an issue of violating a clause (the "sex clause" if you will) of the heterosexual marriage contract.
This is the point at which I jumped into the frey and posed the question I saw as central to the problem with this kind of advice-giving comment. "How exactly is characterizing the wife as a manipulative bitch who’s using sex as a weapon going to help this couple?" To which he responded
Women bash men because they are not forthcoming with their feelings and yet you acknowledge that this man is really trying for which he should be commended. The wife is refusing to talk to him about it ... It is frustrating to hear you women backing up the woman’s right to refuse the man like his wants and needs and desires have no concern. It is emotionally debilitating.
Since communication was Emily's key theme in the original post ... and all of the other commenters were backing her up on this point ... we're clearly having a reading comprehension issue. I also detect strong, strong whiffs of frustrated male privilege here: Mr. Wilder is pissed because he thinks he's giving in to the "women [who] bash men" (code for "feminist") by "really trying" to communicate, and instead of getting bountiful sex in return he's still being told that no person is obligated to meet another person's sexual needs.
He says "the woman's right" but all of us were clear on this being a gender-neutral proposition. I pointed this out ("I don’t think partners of any sexual orientation, sex or gender are well served when the conversation about relational sexuality revolves around what is owed/deserved and how withholding the expected amount/type of sex is a 'violation of marriage vows.'") which is when the shit really hit the fan
I agree that is not necessarily men against women or women against men but a violation of the covenant of marriage. Sex is an integral part of marriage and yes it is an obligation that you incur when you take marriage vows, I don’t apoogize for that. It might not be politically correct, but I don’t hold with very many politically correct notions. To me, it is a pass on someone’s disloyal behavior.
. . . For the record, I have never had a man demand his right to refuse sex to their women, that is singularly a woman’s notion.
So in a way, it is women against men. I am not dealing with homosexual sex as that is not my area and what they do is up to them.
Religiously-grounded sexism and homophobia for the win!
How to respond to this sort of comment, gentle readers? Of course (as Hanna so often reminds me!) option one is always simply not to engage. This guy has clearly made the decision to show up on a feminist-friendly, queer-friendly, sex-positive blog and promote ideas about heterosexual marriage with an authoritative air of moral righteousness. He persists on seeing the issue as a power struggle between women and men in which men (as supposedly higher-libido beings) are at the mercy of women. The posturing over not being "politically correct" signals to me that he realizes the other commenters on this blog won't agree with him, and rather than simply persuasively advocating for his position he hides behind the pre-emptive accusation that anyone who dislikes what he has to say is being "politically correct" (a phrase that invokes, in the popular consciousness, all manner of negative imagery concerning the "thought police" and liberals elites who have the power to force people to self-censor their ideas and expressions for fear of social opprobrium).
He goes on to write
The only ones I hear demanding the right to deny their partners are feminists and so yes, I have a real problem with feminists. I believe in equality but by demanding your right to say no, you are not advocating equality but absolute dominance which makes feminists who espouse such notions rank hyypocrites.
Again: the basic argument this guy has is what I'll call the Lysistrata gambit, the theory that differential desire in long-term sexual relationships is not a gender-neutral phenomenon with myriad causes and possible solutions, but rather that it is a systematic plot by women to gain power over men by withholding sex. Yeah, sure, once I bring it up he tosses a few sops to the queer community and admits that women may be the hornier member of a hetero couple occasionally (who still couldn't win Mr. Wilder's respect since they "complained louder and longer than most men"). But the through-line is clear: women have all the power and men are at their mercy -- especially married men whose wives are using a bait-and-switch tactic of luring them into marriage and then changing the rules by deciding they're no longer interested in relational sex.
In Mr. Wilder's universe, there is no room for human beings to change, grow, or experience ups and downs in their sexual desires as in all other aspects of their lives. "Many people start out equally with sex but often the woman changes the deal after the fact. That is disnegnious." To Mr. Wilder, this is sort of like reverse-rape.
For feminists to demand their right to deny it is as offensive to me as me suggesting that a man force a woman to have sex against her will. After all are you not forcing a man not to have sex against his will?
Because "forcing" someone not to touch you or not experience your touch is just the same as violating someone else's bodily integrity by sexually assaulting them.
What I finally wrote in response was this
Look, John. Here’s the thing.
You keep writing things like "you still have the obligation" like it’s a universal truth but you’re grounding it in Biblical scripture which is something not everyone in the world chooses as an authoritative text (and which not everyone interprets as you do).
If you don’t want to be in a partnership with someone who believes that partners retain the right, even within marriage, to negotiate sexual intimacy — how, when, with whom, how often, etc. — then awesome! Make that clear to your prospective partners and have that be a deal-breaker. And if your partner decides that’s not the kind of relationship they want, then you have the option of either rethinking your own position (perhaps reaching a compromise between the two of you) or walking away.
NO ONE IS FORCING YOU to be in relationship with people who don’t share your views on human sexuality, marriage, etc. What I object to is your instructional, combative tone and the way in which you are clearly laying out one set of (Biblically-based) rules for everyone.
You can read the full exchange over at ::sex nerd::.
Here's the thing, o readers ... I feel obscurely as if I've failed. And I know it's not my responsibility (nor is it possible) to get this one, clearly rigidly-opinionated person in the blogosphere to suddenly go "aha! I get it! sexual relationships are complicated and there is no one-size-fits-all solution!" just because of some comment I've thrown into the mix.
But I find this sort of exchange extremely frustrating because I feel like I offer up these big fluffy eiderdown pillows of inclusion -- no one's saying you can't live your life your own way! just acknowledge the glorious diversity in the world! -- and this other person (Mr. Wilder is but one example of so many!) keeps coming back with what is essentially the same argument: "I will only feel good about life and safe in the world if everyone else conforms to my expectations for correct human behavior!"
Sometimes I just want to be like "grow up already!!"
Not to mention how sad it makes me that people who think this way must not find pleasure in discovering new ways of seeing the world like I do. So much of what I love about my research and about my blogging is the chance I have to experience what the world looks like from new perspectives. To greet those new perspectives not with a feeling of joy at the boundless possibilities of human existence but rather with the intense desire to change all people into replica-yous must be so limiting a life!
Anyway, this is all a very long-winded request for your own stories and tips for engaging in online conversation with people who hold rigid, conservative views. Is it even worth it? If it is, what strategies do you recommend? How do you pick your battles? When do you bow out? What mistakes have you learned from? I'd love to hear from you in comments!