Decades after second-wave feminism and the sexual revolution collectively ushered in what was supposed to be a new era of equality and erotic freedom for women, young women are in some ways more sexually liberated than in generations past. But they’re still expected to do the good, old-fashioned women’s work of invisibly absorbing what should be shared responsibility and making men’s lives easier — including in the bedroom.
According to a new survey of 1,454 Millennials sampled through the social media accounts of Cosmopolitan.com and Esquire.com, young women are not only likelier to get tested for sexually transmitted infections (STIs), they are also much likelier than their male partners to initiate a conversation about STI status. It’s great that so many young women are taking control of their sexual health but troubling that men aren’t stepping up to do the same. More than a third of female survey respondents said they had been tested for STIs within the last six months, and another 22 percent said they had been tested more than six months ago but less than a year ago. Not so for their male peers: Just 20 percent of male respondents said they had been tested in the past six months, and just 13 percent said it’s been more than six months but less than a year. A full third of men said they’ve never been tested for STIs at all. Only about 1 in 10 women said the same.
Surely part of the reason more women are tested than men is that reproductive health care is a better-engrained part of women’s health care. For many of us, an annual gynecological exam has been a routine part of our lives since our teenage years and regular doctor’s visits are required to re-up our birth control prescriptions. Getting an STI screening while we’re also getting a Pap smear is easy enough. And women are simply likelier than men to seek out both mental and physical health care.
But part of it comes down to gender roles and expectations. In nearly every area of life, women are expected to be caretakers and to put others first. Girls are raised on a steady diet of dolls and playing house; their parents, intentionally or not, typically raise them to be more sensitive and nurturing. Perhaps as a result — or perhaps because men simply aren’t stepping in to help — women dedicate more hours of their day than men to care work, whether that’s tending to their children, cleaning a shared home, or making sure lunch gets ordered for everyone at the office meeting. Much of this labor is invisible, and much of it enables men, without even realizing it, to thrive personally and professionally — clean laundry magically materializes, dirty socks mysteriously disappear, the kids somehow get vaccinated, there’s a sandwich for you in the conference room. That this is actual labor that takes up brain space and hours of someone’s — usually a woman’s — day goes unrecognized.
The work women do to keep themselves and their partners sexually healthy and satisfied often is similarly invisible, with heterosexual women carrying a heavier load than men. The first birth control pill was approved by the FDA in 1960; almost 60 years later, there is still not a single medical contraceptive method for men — they’re still relying on condoms, which are a 180-year-old technology, or the pullout method, which is about as old as humankind. The invention of the pill revolutionized sex for women, making it easier than ever before to have sex for pleasure and pleasure alone. But it wasn’t created by accident or even by savvy pharmaceutical companies who saw the potential for profit; it was an intentional feminist effort, midwifed into existence by advocates for women’s health and the wealthy investors they persuaded. There has been no similar effort by men to invent highly effective male contraception. And why would there be, when women have taken on 100 percent of the responsibility?
That seems to have expanded to nearly everything sex-related. It’s not just contraception and STI testing where women do more work than men and men reap the benefits; it’s orgasms too. According to recent studies, among college-age men who have sex with women, 91 percent of them say they orgasm most or all of the time; just 39 percent of their female peers who have sex with men said the same. Notably, college-age women in committed relationships were more likely to orgasm regularly during sex than their single peers — likely because young men report putting more effort into pleasing their girlfriends than pleasing hookups, whose pleasure they’re less likely to prioritize. But even among college-age men and women in committed relationships, a 17-point orgasm gap persists.
This isn’t because women’s bodies are weird and orgasming is naturally hard for us. The proof? Lesbians have far more regular orgasms than straight women. But in too many heterosexual interactions — pop culture and pornography included — male sexual experience is the default. If men can come from vaginal penetrative sex alone, then that’s the main show, even if that’s not how most women orgasm. Sex that is just as pleasurable for women — which often means oral sex or other types of stimulation, and not penetration alone — is regularly treated as sexual benevolence or an aside, not a necessary and basic part of human sexual interaction. The sexual acts that make men come, then, aren’t just well attended to, but largely defined as the whole of sex itself, and men certainly feel entitled to orgasm when they have sex. The acts that tend to be more gratifying for women remain optional and women’s potential for full sexual gratification too often unfulfilled.
Girls also get the message that the attention and affection of boys is something to earn, and that they get it by being aesthetically appealing objects — not demanding harpies who rock the potential relationship boat. There is still a sense that men do the choosing when it comes to sex and romance, and women wait, or compete, to be chosen. In that kind of sexual economy, it’s no surprise that women don’t want to ask much of men. And men, relieved of most of the responsibility for taking care of even their own sexual health, never mind their partner’s, seem happy enough to enjoy disproportionate benefits of sex for pleasure.
Today’s advocates for gender equality increasingly extend a hand to men to be part of the solution. Men, today’s feminists implore, should lean in more at home, and do their fair share of housework, childcare, and emotional labor. What we’re less inclined to say is that men need to lean in in the bedroom too, taking their fair share of responsibility for their own sexual health, for planning the number and spacing of their children, looking out for their partner’s health, and making sure that sex is mutually enjoyable. Like other feminist goals, this one conveniently benefits men as well. STI tests aren’t much fun but they help keep men healthy; contraception allows men to enter fatherhood intentionally and only when they’re ready; and mutually pleasurable sex is, duh, better for everyone.
Which doesn’t mean women should lean out in the sexual health realm — keep getting your STI tests, ladies. Keep having conversations with your partners. But consider not sleeping with men who don’t even have the good sense to care for their own bodies. They aren’t doing their fair share to keep you both happy, healthy, and satisfied.
Jill Filipovic is the author of The H-Spot: The Feminist Pursuit of Happiness. Follow her on Twitter.
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