INTERVIEW: Dr Meagan Tyler on the way sex therapy reinforces compulsory heterosexuality and how we can push back

Meghan Murphy speaks with Meagan Tyler about the way sex therapy, sex advice, and self-help books for women normalize male-centered sex and porn culture.

Too often, when women aren’t interested in sex at the same levels their male partners are (or aren’t interested in sex at all), they are told there is something wrong with them. Women who don’t conform to meet male sexual desire or at least pretend to enjoy male-centered sex are accused of being “prudes” and told to engage in “maintenance sex” in order to keep their male partners happy. All this is reinforced not only by our friends, but in sex therapy, sex advice, and self-help books. Somehow, it is always women who are the problem, and the dominant narratives shaping our understand of sex and sexuality are rarely questioned.

To learn more about the ways sex therapy, sex advice, and sexology reinforce ideas that harm women and perpetuate rape culture, I spoke with Dr Meagan Tyler, a Senior Lecturer at RMIT University in Melbourne, Australia.

Meagan is the author of Selling Sex Short: The sexological and pornographic construction of women’s sexuality in the West and co-editor of Freedom Fallacy: The limits of liberal feminism. You can follow her @drmeagantyler.

This interview originally aired on the Feminist Current podcast.

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MEGHAN MURPHY: In your research on sex and relationship advice, self-help books for women, and sex therapy, what kinds of trends have you come across?

MEAGAN TYLER: The strongest trend I’ve come across in all the texts I read for this research is an underlying, constant pushing of women to accept whatever sexual demands a male partner wants of them. It often wasn’t said outright, but there is a constant pressure for women in heterosexual relationships. To be “good,” sexually, is to agree to whatever your male partner wants of you or find a way to pretend to enjoy it.

MM: I find it personally and politically troubling, as a feminist and just as an individual woman, that sex is taken for granted in relationships. We hear messages like, “If you aren’t having sex, that’s a sign of a bigger problem in your relationship,” for example. And of course, when we’re talking about sex, we’re talking about penetrative sex… We equate marriages that don’t include much or any penetrative sex to “loveless” marriages. We tell others or are told that if our partner isn’t engaging in sex with us, we should leave them or that we have the right to cheat. What’s at the root of all of this? Why are these messages so accepted in our culture?

MT: The existing literature would probably just say it’s the result of the male sex right. It would say that men’s sexual access to women is the cornerstone of heterosexuality, and that women and men exist under unequal conditions of power, so women not submitting to sex acts that they don’t find particularly enjoyable represents the downfall of the heterosexual construct.

It’s extremely threatening, although not consciously, to sex therapists and sexologists that that’s what all of this is founded on. As you say, it is about penetrative sex — they might talk about it in other ways, but they absolutely take sex to mean heterosexual sex and they take it as shorthand for coitus.

There are some fascinating case studies of couples coming to [sex therapists], perfectly happy not having penetrative sex. By their own criteria, if the couple doesn’t feel it’s a problem, the therapist shouldn’t treat it as a problem either. But in fact, these therapists were horrified and thought these people were very aberrant. I think it’s fascinating that this still exists — that the gloss we get of pop psychology around sex therapy is very, like, “Do what you want! Do what you feel comfortable doing!” But when you break it down just a little bit, what you really find is, like you say, the message that you should be in a relationship (because none of this advice is aimed for single people) and that sex is absolutely an expectation of relationships… But it has to be penetrative sex in a heterosexual relationship. It’s the gold standard.

There’s some great stuff by Jenny Kitzinger, probably about 20 years ago now, talking about how none of this advice makes sense in the context of lesbian sexual relationships. It just completely falls apart. It only makes sense in a heterosexual paradigm.

MM: You’re likely familiar with Dan Savage, the sex columnist… And of course his work isn’t just centred around heterosexual relationships — he’s gay and he writes a lot about queer sex. But he coined this idea: “good, giving and game,” which is basically the idea that if you’re in a relationship, that should be your approach to sex — that you should be open-minded and willing to consider anything, within reason, because you want to please your partner and you want your partner to be happy and that’s the deal or contract you enter into in intimate relationships. I wonder what you think about that idea?

MT: It’s interesting the way that it goes in cycles, and I imagine that [idea] gets touted as quite progressive in some circles — I’ve seen the way a lot of his advice is…  But it echoes advice from decades — if not centuries — ago in sex therapy and sexology before that. So you have things like the famous Joy of Sex handbook from the 1970s, which promotes similar ideas. Food, for example, is a constant analogy to sex in a lot of pop sex therapy. And it’s the same in the Joy of Sex as well, where you have everything broken down into appetizers and entrees and main courses and what have you and it’s very nauseating to read through it. One of the comparisons [the author] makes is: If you had a partner who liked Chinese food and you didn’t, you would eat it sometimes to make them happy, so [sex] is exactly the same.

And I think it’s really scary that all those notions that we have outside of regular sexual relationships of consent — of positive affirmation and enjoyment of sexuality — are supposed to go out the window in long-term heterosexual relationships. There’s huge pressure, as you say, to keep up a particular kind of sex… I think there’s probably more pressure to agree to certain sex acts than others, for example. Why does that concept of consent we claim to value irrelevant once you’re in a long-term relationship? It speaks volumes that we need this entire industry to cajole women into having forms of sex that they often don’t want to have.

MM: And why is that a bad analogy? What’s the difference between eating Chinese food and sex?

MT: Well, I guess forcing yourself to eat Chinese food you don’t love is not the same as being coerced into sex that can end up being rape.

It’s also this continuation of what Kathleen Barry talked about — prostitution sex — bleeding into everyday life. And having done some studies recently about men’s abuse of women in brothel prostitution, for example, it’s really interesting how that gets represented as “regular work,” but if you take consent away from it, it’s rape. And I think it’s the same kind of thing when you’re trying to run all these other analogies about sex in relationships: if you don’t acknowledge that if it goes wrong and there’s coercion, or if this is someone agreeing to sex they don’t want, then you are looking at coercive sex — you are looking at abuse. And that has really traumatic consequences for the people involved, that maybe eating something you don’t like doesn’t.

MM: And in your work on sex advice and sex therapy, you do use that feminist analysis of prostitution as a framework. I wonder if you can explain that a little more — what’s the connection between prostitution and the treatment of heterosexual relationships in sex advice, self-help books, and therapy?

MT: The most obvious one and the one that was kind of horrifying to me and meant that I was motivated to look into this, was the way in which porn stars and women in prostitution were being held up as the ultimate sex experts. Because the more sex you had, the better you must be at it and the more you must know about it. And there was no contextualizing of the fact that that is, at its most positive, faking sexual enjoyment for a camera.

Ariel Levy talks about this in Female Chauvinist Pigs — that sexual enjoyment then just becomes performing for someone else’s enjoyment, and that gets conflated.

That was probably one of the most obvious ways that this kind of notion of commodified sex in its most basic form was being touted as the model for all women to mimic in their everyday heterosexual relationships.

But then there was also the radical feminist analysis that has existed for decades, looking at the fact that maybe the defining elements of prostitution isn’t just the about economic exchange (which is what is seen as separating it from other forms of sexual interaction), but the sexual inequality between men and women and that — at its heart — one person’s sexual desires determine everything that happens, and that there is one person in that interaction who is not getting their interests or sexual desires or needs taken into consideration at all. They purely exist to meet the other person’s conception of what they want. And that model is prevalent in sex therapy, particularly in self-help books for women. Self-help books for men are markedly different, which is also quite interesting.

MM: Something you hear about fairly often these days is this notion of “maintenance sex.” In your research, how common have you found this practice and term to be, and what’s your perspective on it?

MT: In the literature I came across in my research — in the academic side of things — “unwanted sex” was probably the more common term, which then started bleeding into these less harmful sounding terms like “maintenance sex.” It’s this idea of doing it anyway, even when you don’t want to, and that this keeps the relationship going and keeps everyone happy. In fact, we saw that in the post that went viral about a mommy blogger talking about getting [sex with her husband] over and done with because that makes for an easy life. I think sexologists have really struggled to categorize that — they certainly wouldn’t say it’s a bad thing, generally, and they think high levels of sexual interaction is really important.

Again, I was shocked to read how many of them were counselling women who, even though they had three or four small children, were still having sex with their husbands three or four times a week, but he wasn’t happy with that amount, so something had to be done to help the woman have more sex. They wouldn’t say, “Hey, you know what? Actually there’s nothing wrong with you, and that actually sounds like quite a lot of sexual activity in a house where there’s a hell of a lot else going on.” So there’s definitely that constant treatment of women as aberrant — the benchmark is always his sexual desires.

So “maintenance sex” fits quite well into that. It’s not about what women want, and whether or not they want or get any physical enjoyment or connection out of that sexual activity. It’s is about maintaining heterosexuality at all costs and that the ultimate benchmark of good heterosexuality is meeting male sexual desires. So I think maintenance sex is a really harmful concept. It is absolutely normalizing the idea that women shouldn’t be connected or entitled to enjoy or want the sex that they participate in.

We saw the pointy end of that in sexological literature after Viagra came out (which seems so normal now — when I talk to my undergraduate students, they can’t imagine a time before Viagra, when
men just had to put up with not getting erections), and seemingly solved erectile dysfunction, according to a lot of people in the sexology and sex therapy industry. There was this huge shift in attention to: How do we get women to now deal with the fact that there are a lot more erections going around? Often this was happening in with regard to older women in relationships, for example, who hadn’t had penetrative sex for a long time. One of the things that started to develop was this idea of receptivity — this idea that women didn’t just go around with active sexual desire, wanting sex, but that they had to be sort of awakened by men’s touch, and then get interested in sex. So they’re encouraging women to just agree to sex, first off, and then see how they felt about it, because maybe a few minutes in, they might find that it wasn’t so bad and they might end up enjoying it. That was their great idea for the leap forward of “women’s sexual therapy treatment” — that you encourage women to just give it a go for a while and see what happens.

It is extraordinary that we’re saying that this is the way forward, when in actual fact it was like the “sleeping beauty” model of women’s sexuality that has existed for centuries — that women don’t have any sexual desires of their own, they only exist in relation to men.

MM: Speaking of Viagra, in recent years there’s been this push to find a “female Viagra.” And in order to justify this push to come up with something that will increase women’s libidos, there’s also been a lot of talk about “sexual dysfunction” in women — the idea that if a woman doesn’t desire sex, she’s dysfunctional in some way, and that’s a problem that can or should be treated. Have you studied that phenomenon at all?

MT: Not directly, but kind of doing the analyses of the literature that deals with sexual dysfunction. Again, as someone outside the field, studying it as a political scientist and a sociologist, it’s astounding, some of the claims that get made.

One of the spikes after the interest in Viagra and the interest in finding a female Viagra, was this widespread claim that came out of the journal of the American Medical Association — a highly regarded medical journal —  that most women were sexually dysfunctional. So there was obviously a huge rush for marketers to find a pharmaceutical product for this, but no one ever questioned that assumption that most women were sexually dysfunctional. What does “dysfunctional” actually mean, anyway, if you’re talking about a majority of women?

It’s funny seeing how often these things reoccur. It made me think of the Hite Report from the 80s, finding that a majority of women almost never
orgasm when having penetrative sex with men, and that is still classified as a disorder, even though it actually represents a lot of women’s experiences. That is really unchanged. It’s the bedrock of not wanting to question what we think sex is — penetrative heterosexual sex, focusing on male pleasure — and then telling women they’re dysfunctional for not liking that, rather than saying maybe this whole setup that we’ve got is not about women’s pleasure, so it’s not surprising that women aren’t gagging to do it… Well, certainly not all women, anyway!

MM: I wonder there’s anything to this idea of sexual empowerment. It’s something that we hear about so much as far as third wave feminism goes and the sex positive movement that has really taken off in the last couple decades. Is it possible, do you think, for women to be or to feel empowered through sex, or do you think that’s a bunk concept?

MT: I suppose it’s trying to separate out what sex is under patriarchy and what it might be. And I think, just like adopting anything as is, whether in terms of beauty practices or in terms of other patriarchal standards of femininity, it is difficult to find them empowering under patriarchy or believe that at a rational and analytical level they can actually be empowering. That doesn’t mean some women don’t enjoy those things, but I think the difference with sexuality is that if you’re looking at it on a global scale and an anthropological level, this is seen as such a fundamental part of our lives as human beings. Sexuality doesn’t have to take the form of the “gold standard” of heterosexual penetrative sex, though it is the West. So I wouldn’t want to throw sexuality out, like a baby with the bath water kind of scenario.

There have been some great feminist activists, Women Against Sex in the 1970s being a really good example, saying that women should just withdraw from sex and sexuality altogether. But for me, I’ve got to keep some level of optimism about what we might be able to achieve under different circumstances.

I often go to Andrea Dworkin on that; so thinking there’s some kind of underground resistance in women — thinking that there might be a humane sensuality that we can achieve outside of the patriarchal structures of sexuality that, come the revolution, could be a strong source of power and enjoyment for women.

MM: When I was younger, and before I become more radical in my feminism, I did think that sex was really central to our existence and to our lives. Ironically, when I did think that, I wasn’t having orgasms yet [laughs]… But today, I’m in my late thirties and my perspective is that sex is overemphasized, so I have definitely started to push back against the narrative that sex is what makes the relationship good and that we’re obligated to have sex with our partners. But because of that people will often just try to dismiss me as a “prude.” And it’s not just men pushing that narrative. I can’t actually think of a man in my personal life who has used that word to describe me — more often, it’s women. I have more than one female friend who has accused me of prudery because I challenge these male-centered norms about sex and what a healthy relationship or “sex life” looks like. I wonder why you think women do this to one another? Why do women accuse one another of being prudes or of being bad partners, for challenging our cultural expectations of sex or our understanding of sexual relationships with men?

MT: I suppose there’s the old concept of horizontal violence — that women, or any oppressed group, will often keep other members of that group in line, more overtly than a more powerful group. I do think that sexuality is one of the big battlezones for patriarchal norms… [The idea that patriarchal, heterosexual sex is “natural” and biological] is so interwoven with our understanding of sexuality that people get very threatened when you talk about sexuality as being culturally constructed.

I heard Gail Dines talk at a conference once, and she said exactly what you did — that the older she gets, the more she thinks we have a culture obsessed with [sex] for no good reason. She said it’s like teenage boys are running the culture. So I think it is threatening on some level when you stop doing that, in the same way women who stop shaving their underarm hair sometimes get looks and stares and comments from other women — because there is something threatening about saying, “Actually you can step outside these norms.” I think it’s easier to believe that it’s not possible or that it’s biologically determined. And when you see women making those other decisions, then you see it can be done, which can be quite threatening to the conceptions that you have been carrying around.

Certainly that’s what lesbian feminists have been arguing for decades — that the idea of lesbian feminism is so threatening to the whole system that they’re often not taken seriously, or it’s not seen as a central idea: that you could overthrow heterosexuality just by women withdrawing their energy out of it at a very basic level.

MM: And how you respond to those accusations — of being called a “prude” or being called “sex negative”?

MT: I once made badges that said “prude,” just to get it over and done with, so there’s no confusion. I had “prude” on one side and “frigid” on the other.

I’ve come to more laugh at it or embrace it. I don’t know that that is necessarily a politically useful way of going about it, but personally very useful, that you can just say, “Yeah, all right, what of it? You think I’m a prude? I don’t really care.” I suppose at a day-to-day level that was useful to me — I really did get to the point where I just don’t care any more. But I suppose the anti-sex thing irritates me for the same reason it irritates so many feminists — when you are trying to reclaim this as something that could be potentially positive in women’s lives and saying that women should be entitled to want and desire and access sexual pleasure in ways that they find fulfilling, and we’ve lost that as an option because we’re presented with either “do it the way the dominant construction has been presented to you via popular culture” or “withdraw from it altogether.”

I think when you even threaten the edges of dominant construction of heterosexuality, you’re labelled a prude. There is no concept of the fact that we could restructure it or remake it… Not that I have some great hope for that, but in terms of our personal lives, just trying to buy out of it a bit while still being heterosexual (for example, in my case) is seen as prudish. Anything that isn’t full-on in agreement with dominant heterosexuality is seen as anti-sex. And, again, I think it suggests how fundamental the dominant construction of heterosexuality is to the patriarchy — that people think that even just fraying out at the edges might just bring the whole system down, so we desperately have to stop or shun people who say that this might not be the way that it has to be.

MM: And finally, what do you wish would change? What do you think a feminist approach to relationships or sex therapy would look like, for example? What could change in terms of sex advice or relationship advice to centre women and empower women in an actually feminist way?

MT: That’s such a tough question, really, and I have changed my opinion back and forth over the years as to whether a feminist sex therapy is truly possible. I know some great women who have tried, but obviously the system of sex therapy is so founded on really harmful concepts to women that it is difficult to work within that framework in a positive way. At the same time, I think there are a lot of women who do better sex therapy, and the more feminists you can get in there who don’t say things like, “You absolutely have to be okay with your partner watching violent pornography” the better. I think the more women who can find therapists who say, “Actually you can say no to that — that’s fine,” is an important interim measure — that women can go for help and be reassured.

I guess my ultimate aim was that women should be allowed to say “no” — years ago, that’s what I kept thinking. That what needed to underlie the support for women: that it was okay to say “no” to all of these things, including sex altogether and any kind of sexual interaction you might have with another person. And I still think that’s really true and fundamental, because we can’t ignore the context in which we exist. There is such widespread sexual harassment and sexual violence against women that it’s kind of extraordinary that women would ever seek heterosexual relationships under those conditions at all. And sex therapy, generally, as a discipline, ignores that context altogether. It doesn’t understand the constant threat of sexual violence that women live in; it doesn’t understand the unequal relations between men and women.

It was actually my thesis supervisor who challenged me on that, and said: That’s all good for the moment, that you just want “no” as your absolute baseline and that all women need to eventually be in positions where they can say “no” to anything they don’t want to do, but that’s not a great utopian vision. For her, that’s where lesbian feminism came in and thinking about what kind of power could women have if they develop those sexual bonds together or if there was room for women to develop those bonds together. What might sexual enjoyment look like under those conditions instead? And maybe we do need a utopia where we can imagine being outside of this system, as well as the interim tools to deal with the kind of oppressions that we experience now.

Meghan Murphy
Meghan Murphy

Founder & Editor

Meghan Murphy is a freelance writer and journalist. She has been podcasting and writing about feminism since 2010 and has published work in numerous national and international publications, including The Spectator, UnHerd, the CBC, New Statesman, Vice, Al Jazeera, The Globe and Mail, and more. Meghan completed a Masters degree in the department of Gender, Sexuality and Women’s Studies at Simon Fraser University in 2012 and lives in Vancouver, B.C. with her dog.

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