Fire and Frigidity: Comparing the Sexual Desires of Men and Women

A recurring theme in our course readings appears to be the differences between male and female sexuality.  Some scholars argue that men have greater sexual desires than women, who are frigid and feel no physical pleasure from intercourse.  Others claim that women are more passionate than men, while some still believe (though this is discussed infrequently) that men and women are equal on the scales of sexuality.  Havelock Ellis, whose article “The Sexual Impulse in Women” discusses these three theories, tends to be a bit repetitive and leans heavily on scholarly quotes that have little background or context.  However, the article raises a few interesting points on the subject of male v. female sexuality.

The first point I found both interesting and confusing is what the article describes as a theory in Jewish culture: “The Jews attributed to women greater sexual desire than to men.  This is illustrated…by Genesis, chapter iii, v. 16″ (Ellis 196).  The article doesn’t produce this passage from Genesis, which demonstrates a problem I found with reading the article in that it assumes that either I have a Bible lying around or I know it by heart.  In any case, I went to the Internet machine and looked it up.  After Adam and Eve sinned in the Garden of Eden, this is what God said:

Genesis 3:16

New International Version (NIV)

16 To the woman he said, “I will make your pains in childbearing very severe; with painful labor you will give birth to children.  Your desire will be for your husband, and he will rule over you.”

What I was at first unsure of is what God meant by “desire,” which I bolded above.  Does the term “desire” have an exclusively sexual connotation in this context?  When I first read this verse, I originally assumed that, because this is God’s punishment for the couple, that Eve will love her husband fully, but that Adam will be in control of her.  Maybe that is taking the passage too literally, especially in the line “he will rule over you,” but if the Jewish scholars are arguing that women have a greater sexual desire, I didn’t necessarily see how this passage proves their point.  I interpreted the passage to mean that Eve is meant to be at Adam’s disposal, and if the goal is punishment, then it would make more sense if Eve wanted Adam sexually and was refused or rebuffed in favor of other women or nothing at all.

However, after reading more of Ellis’s article, it became clear what purpose this passage from Genesis serves.  It answers the question: “Why do women go through the pain of childbirth?”  Besides being punished by God with pain during birth, women are apparently cursed with a sexual appetite for which they are both blessed and punished.  They are blessed with children and punished with pain caused by the births of those children.

But aren’t children supposed to be a good thing?  In the Bible, Exodus 1:7 says: “But the children of Israel were fruitful and increased abundantly, multiplied and grew exceedingly mightily; and the land was filled with them.”  God promises many children to Abraham.  Children are legacies to these biblical families.  The Virgin Mary herself went through the pain of childbirth.  So why would God make punish Eve, and every woman after her, with painful childbirth and a sexual desire that causes pregnancy and birth, when children are meant to be a blessing?  I guess if painful childbirth had to be a punishment, I can understand why God would give women a strong sexual desire to keep the babies coming, in terms of incentive.

If we are bringing biblical passages into the discussion, like the one above, the theory that women have stronger sexual desire seems like a better argument in a religious sense than the theory that most women are frigid and have no sex drive at all.  One scholar noted that about 75% of married women were “afflicted” with sexual frigidity.  It was also noted that this excluded Jewish women.  As a side note, this reminded me of a quote from a book I read a while back, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith.  In the first chapter, the main character often sees pregnant Jewish women, who look proud to be pregnant compared to Irish women.  She suggests that this is because pregnant Jewish women believe that any child they produce could potentially be the Messiah.  If this holds any truth, this could explain why a Jewish woman, as noted in the article, may be less prone to sexual frigidity.

If we’re excluding Jewish women, as the article does, it does make sense that women would be frigid because of painful childbirth or unwanted pregnancy.  In a way, frigidity is the best method of birth control when a woman’s just not feelin’ it.  This theory would throw out Genesis 3:16 and mean that women are not afflicted with sexual desire that overcomes their fear of childbirth.  Rather, it suggests that some women would just prefer not to go through that kind of suffering.  So are the Christian theorists going by the Bible?  Or is the gendered hierarchy of sexual desire purely psychological or biological, and not at all religious?


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