It’s a classic scene that we’ve seen time and time again in sitcoms. The long-suffering wife turns down her bumbling husband’s PG propositions of sex to the delight of the canned laugh track in the background. “Not tonight, honey,” she says, “I plan on having a headache.”
The joke is, of course, that women will do anything to get out of the ever-annoying act of making love with their partner. The true hilarity of the situation is that this stereotype used to apply to men.
Throughout history, there are multiple instances in which women were seen to have the higher libido. One particularly memorable example is found in ancient Greek mythology, where Zeus and Hera argue about whether men or women enjoy sex more. They decide to settle the debate once and for all by asking the prophet Tiresias, whom Hera had transformed from a man into a woman and would thus know both sides of the proverbial coin. Tiresias answered that “if sexual pleasure were divided into ten parts, only one part would go to the man, and nine parts to the woman.”
This belief held strong throughout the years and was actually used to help the perpetuation of the human species. It was deduced that the pain of childbirth would hardly be worthwhile for women if the pleasure they derived from sex was not far greater than that of men’s. Cue nods of agreement from every mother.
But slowly the stereotype began to shift. In 1891, H. Fehling tried to debunk the idea that women enjoyed sex more than men by stating that “it is an altogether false idea that a young woman has just as strong an impulse to the opposite sex as a young man…. The appearance of the sexual side in the love of a young girl is pathological.” In 1896, Bernhard Windscheid, a member of the pandectist school of law, decided that “in the normal woman, especially of the higher social classes, the sexual instinct is acquired, not inborn; when it is inborn, or awakes by itself, there is abnormality. Since women do not know this instinct before marriage, they do not miss it when they have no occasion in life to learn it.” The long-suffering wife trope was born.
So why the change from ravenous vixen to prim prude? Historians believe that at this time the Protestant church congregation was dominated by the fairer sex, and the ladies might not have taken kindly to hearing the negative stories of how being lustful made them unholy beings who led to the destruction of Eden. So, rather than making Eve and Mary Magdalene the norm, the clergy decided to turn them into the exception. Women welcomed the change, positioning themselves as naturally chaste and virtuous, seeing it as the key to standing as equals with the men of the time.
Of course, as you can see from our own popular culture, this plan backfired slightly. Rather than being seen as equals, the role of the hound dog male would become exalted while the frigid female would be chastised for holding back while simultaneously being told to guard themselves against men like an eagle over her nest.
Of course, you might wonder why this should matter in your bedroom. After all, your female partner was raised in this convention of women not liking sex. What difference does it make to your sex life if you recognize the historical inaccuracy?
Well, besides the fun of watching TV in a new light, you can approach your bedroom antics with a whole new perspective. If your partner doesn’t want to have sex, it might not be because of a gender-induced death of libido. How often your partner wishes to have sex is dependent on a multitude of factors, including personal preference, fetishes, turn-ons, and life experiences. Then, add in the stressors of our daily lives mixed with the factors of what he or she has put in his or her body that day, be it medication or certain foods or drinks, and you have a cornucopia of reasons that he or she might be in the mood.
So, our advice? Take your partner as a whole person rather than a representation. Celebrate your partner’s sex drive rather than rolling your eyes over the moments when the mood isn’t right. And if your libidos aren’t lining up, sit down and talk it out rather than blaming biology or our cultural heritage. Take ownership of your sex life and love loving each other.1