Monday, 1 November 2010

Sympathy for Stephen

My heart goes out to Stephen Fry, now sheltering from the rage of feminists of every generation - everyone from Germaine Greer, the sisterhood's Dowager Duchess, to that earnest young Laurie Penny. Penny is depressed by the thought that her favourite gay uncle has dissed her generation's struggle against slut-shaming and stereotypes. Greer thinks Fry has "delusions of grandeur" (and she, one might unkindly suggest, ought to know). And what's this? Yasmin Alibhai-Brown objecting to Fry's imagined claim that women are "sexual flops" by accusing him of having "odd and unhealthy feelings about the body and its needs" and even of "heterophobia - the real, visceral repulsion felt by some gay men when they imagine what men and women do in bed." Which is a bit over the top, even by her remarkable standards.

Anyone would think Fry had claimed that all women were frigid. But he said nothing of the kind. All he said was this:


If women liked sex as much as men, there would be straight cruising areas in the way there are gay cruising areas. Women would go and hang around in churchyards thinking: 'God, I've got to get my fucking rocks off', or they'd go to Hampstead Heath and meet strangers to shag behind a bush.

It doesn't happen. Why? Because the only women you can have sex with like that wish to be paid for it. I feel sorry for straight men. The only reason women will have sex with them is that sex is the price they are willing to pay for a relationship with a man, which is what they want. Of course, a lot of women will deny this and say, 'Oh no, but I love sex, I love it!' But do they go around having it the way that gay men do?


And for this they will bully the poor chap off Twitter?

That there's something amiss here, I wouldn't deny. Fry's error would appear to lie in a remarkably reductive definition of "liking sex", as a bonobo-like compulsion to be constantly and randomly at it. This seems a little strange in a man who was celibate for sixteen years; one can only conclude, perhaps not wholly inaccurately, that Stephen Fry himself has a womanish horror of the sexual act. Without wishing to psychoanalyse him, it seems to me that there's more than a little self-disgust - for himself as a man, and as a gay man - contained in those words. In any event I cannot interpret his depiction of cruising as some sort of approval. He makes it sound so sordid and depressing. But perhaps that just means I don't like sex much either.

It seems unfair, though, that Fry's sociological observation should have left him accused of misogyny. Old-fashioned it may have been, but it was kindly meant. His target was not the women who "don't like sex" - on the contrary, he seems to envy them - but the men who do. If anything was truly offensive in what he said, it was not his dismissal of female lustfulness, but the deeply unflattering picture he painted of animalistic, unthinking, phallus-driven male sexuality. Is there any truth in it?

Let's start with the Darwinian imperative. Men have lots of sperm, and the best reproductive strategy for the male is to spread it around as much as possible, which means, ideally, sticking his membrum virile in any passing vagina. Women have a limited supply of eggs, as well as the time-consuming business of pregnancy and lactation to deal with, so their best strategy is to find a high quality mate and persuade him to hang around and help her bring up the kids. In other words, marriage. (There's also a second-best strategy, which involves the woman getting herself impregnated by a superior quality male while remaining with a second-rate but loyal partner; birds go in for this a lot, human beings somewhat less; but I don't want to complicate the story overmuch.)

This is all horribly reductionist, of course, and a gross simplification. I'm not a biological determinist, any more than I'm a cultural determinist. I regard it as deeply unfortunate that we live in a media world where an experiment on rats can be reported as proving that "men brought up by women are less sexy." I do though believe that biology and culture together (and it's often impossible to separate where one ends and the other begins) can nudge people in certain directions. And indeed what we might expect from biology is what we tend to find in society, most especially in the stories that society tells about itself. Men are expected to be promiscuous, their sexuality focused in those few inches of erectile tissue, as satisfied with a random shag as they would be with a deep and meaningful relationship. Women are supposed to want their sex sugared with love, or at least with a halfway plausible simulacrum of love - even in a one-night stand situation.

Of course, women are free to denounce these assumptions as patriarchal, "slut-shaming", stereotypical, demeaning and all the rest of it. They are certainly simplistic. It's not just that there are many women who seek out - and may even occasionally find - satisfaction in random encounters (though rarely on Hampstead Heath); and men who pine for true love as much as any Mills and Boon heroine. It's not just that most men do. It is, of course, that there's a little of each in all of us; that sometimes, at some points in most of our lives, we're gagging for it and at others would prefer a nice cup of tea. And yet.

And yet, on balance, on average, all over things being (as they never are) equal, the concordance of evolutionary theory with immemorial wisdom has something going for it. Men do tend to think with their dicks. Women do tend to put a greater value on deferred gratification where sex is concerned. It may be biology, it may be conformity with social expectations, it's probably both. But it's not as though Stephen Fry was saying anything new.

Germaine Greer may have affected disagreement with him, but her way of denouncing his comments sounds to me awfully like agreement:

Well, if he thinks that women are not interested in genital encounters with total strangers then he is absolutely right. But to conclude that we are therefore uninterested in sex is madness. It is true that men have an interest in a kind of sex which women find infinitely depressing, and it’s true that women really don’t want to hang around toilets hoping that someone will come along and play with their bits. That is not what passion is about for us and we would be placing ourselves in mortal danger if it was. ... What women yearn for is intimacy.


Or you could try Camille Paglia, who writes in Sexual Personae:

That nature acts upon the sexes differently is proved by the test case of modern male and female homosexuality, illustrating how the sexes function separately outside social convention. The result, according to statistics of sexual frequency: male satyriasis and female nesting. The male homosexual has sex more often than his heterosexual counterpart; the female homosexual less often than hers, a radical polarization of the sexes along a single continuum of shared sexual nonconformity....


She even, controversially, brings up AIDS:

The first medical reports on the disease killing male homosexuals indicated men most at risk were those with a thousand partners over their lifetime. Incredulity. Who could such people be? Why, it turned out, everyone one knew. Serious, kind, literate men, not bums or thugs. What an abyss divides the sexes! Let us abandon the pretense of sexual sameness and admit the terrible duality of gender.


It may be that, as a lesbian, Camille Paglia is (like Fry) supremely conscious of the "duality of gender". In reality, of course, heterosexual men and women get along together far better than talk of sexual abysses (of Venus and Mars) would suggest. In reality, of course, men and women want more or less the same thing - which for the majority means both great sex and great relationships. (Which is why Russell Brand is not, after all, so surprising a convert to the joys of monogamy.) And in reality, of course, both men and women are capable of enjoying casual sex - up to a point. The sexes are not different species; the psychological differences between them are ones of degree.

Which is why the proper response to Fry's ruminations is not to point out all the women who are into casual pickups, group sex or dogging and say, "Look, women can like sex too." Rather, it's to respond along these lines:

If men liked sex as much as women, there would be male trashy romance novels in the same way there are female trashy romance novels. Men would watch Richard Curtis films thinking "God, this stuff is HOT, or they'd join book groups and meet intelligent women to have long, meaningful conversations with, followed by deep, sensual lovemaking sessions. It doesn't happen. Why? Because the only men you can have sex with like that want to marry you. I feel sorry for gay men. Other men will only have sex with them is if it's a shallow and pleasureless screw in the bushes. Of course, a lot of men will deny this and say, 'Oh no, but I love sex, I love it!' But do they go around having it the way that women do?


And then see how ridiculous it sounds. Or on the other hand, not.