New research says that conservative men stop having sex sooner than liberal men. Lynn Beisner says that’s because most conservative men make sex all about them.
Last week we learned the results of a Harvard research study that tracked the lives of men who attended the university between 1939 and 1944. Many of the findings were predictable. They warned against excessive alcohol consumption, and showed that positive relationships with parents made a huge difference in the men’s lives, including their incomes.
But one finding that seems to have completely stumped the researchers was that while conservative men stopped having sex in their late 60’s, liberal men continued having active sex lives well into their 80’s. The lead researcher noted that he had “consulted urologists about the findings but they ‘have no idea why it might be so.’”
If I had to go out on a limb here, I would guess that urology might have been the wrong discipline to question about these findings. I would expect that psychologists, feminists, and sociologists might have a lot more insight on the subject.
It is hard to use the Harvard research data to make generalization about other men. Of course they were all white, and they were all elite enough to be spending time in Harvard as opposed to the battlefields of World War II.
Nevertheless, the study gives us interesting insight into the minds of elite older men. And while we cannot know for sure why the liberal men in this study continued having sex long after conservative men gave it up, I would venture it is because the two groups had very different understandings of sexuality, its purpose, and the function it serves in relationships.
Conservative men, particularly of that era, tend to see sex as a weapon or a tool. It is about dominating, procreating, or conquering. Sex is something that a wife owes as part of the marital contract.
An example of this sort of thinking showed up on Reddit last week and now is making the rounds of social networks. An unidentified man who was “frustrated” by how often his wife had sex with him kept a spreadsheet of the times that he had initiated sex and she had declined along with the reasons she had given for declining. He sent the spreadsheet to her while she was traveling to the airport for a 10-day business trip along with a sarcastic note about this being the reason why he would not miss her. When she tried to phone and text him, she discovered that he had cut off all communication with her.
One can make many arguments for the husband, including the very legitimate point that he had a reasonable expectation of privacy in a marital dispute. Of course, the argument can also be made that she had the reasonable expectation that he would not collect weeks worth of data on her as evidence of some sort of guilt. Who is wrong and who is right in the production of and dissemination of the spreadsheet is as complicated as the relationship that produced it.
But the spreadsheet points to a bottom-line assumption about sexuality that many conservative men hold: Sex is about them. It is something to which they are entitled in a relationship, and it pointedly ignores their heterosexual partner’s own sexuality. A man who produces a list of when his wife has denied him sex is the same sort of man who is unlikely to continue sex after it has stopped being about the conquest of hot women or about stroking his ego and after it has stopped being as enjoyable for him as it once was.
In general, liberal men see sex as something that is equally for both parties. It is not about “scoring” or entitlement. They take joy in partnering with their wives or girlfriends to create arousal, joy, relaxation and to use all of those to things to build the relationship.
This is why a liberal man who finds himself in a sexless marriage acts like my friend Jason. He checks in with his wife to see what they can do together to solve this mutual problem. He assumes that his wife is the same sexual person that she has always been, and that her avoidance of sex is a symptom of a problem with her emotionally or physically or that there is a serious problem in their relationship. He does not assume that she is “making excuses” to deprive him of something that is rightfully his. Instead of becoming defensive or offensive, he has remained curious and concerned.
It is why my husband and I continue to be sexual even though he is going through a low-libido time. Sex is not just about him or me. Sex is about us. It is about feeding that other entity—our relationship. It is about giving each other a space in which we can experience pleasure and relaxation. It can be an act of selflessness instead of selfishness.
Here is the sad truth about conservatism: It holds that our humanity is a bad thing, and that it is the nature of people to do good only when they must. That kind of cynicism makes us less attractive as partners as we age. And it forecloses on our potential for continuing development as we get older.
Sex is one of the greatest gifts of being human, and it has an incredible power to teach us about what it means to be a human. To feel swamped with desire is a quintessentially human experience. Being naked not only physically but emotionally with another person challenges us to find within ourselves the charity to see ourselves through our beloved’s eyes rather than being convinced that we have fooled them. Physical intimacy offers us a chance to truly let go, to live in the moment, to be utterly authentic.
We have the opportunity to learn from sex at each stage in our development as adults, from first love to geriatric hanky-panky. But for sex to be a life-long teacher, we must see it as such and want to learn from it. Some of the best lessons come long after our butts have sagged and cute young people are reflexively calling us sir or ma’am. Because for sex to be our teacher, we must divest ourselves of our ego and embrace our humanity.
Lynn Beisner writes about family, social justice issues, and the craziness of daily life. Her work can be found on Role Reboot, Alternet, and on her blog: Two Parts Smart-Ass; One Part Wisdom. You can find her on Facebook and Twitter.