In response to my last posting, “Sex Lives, Male and Female,” reader Clare wrote this thoughtful comment:
“I’m curious what you make of the ethnographic accounts from cultures where widows are considered to be insatiable sex fiends? Is this how fear of women expresses itself, that they become more interested in sex than is considered usual? Or is there some truth to the folklore? Is there any evidence that sexual interest waxes and wanes (so to speak) over the life course of men and women?”
I thought it well worth answering at length:Dear Clare,
Thank you for these very good questions. Clearly, the generalization at the top of the post (“Sex is something that women have and men want”) is a bit of a caricature, although it holds a big piece of the truth. Among the things left out are sexual changes over the life course.
Male sex drive and capacity peaks in the late teens, women’s in the mid-to-late-thirties (at least in US studies), an age at which some women experience their first orgasms. When I lecture on this, I sometimes draw two graphs and show them crossing somewhere in between (“…so men and women are perfectly matched for about five minutes around age 30. Not necessarily something to shout ‘Vive la difference!’ about.”)
I think the belief you cite about widows is an extension of the facts, which as I understand them suggest that the basic desire for and love of sex involves learning for women much more than it does for men (although as women are learning to like sex more men are learning to control their drives better, and, one hopes, to become more skilled in satisfying women). Many women learn to love sex within the context of a close relationship.
Therefore the situation of a widow (especially a young widow, as was far more common in most cultures throughout history than in ours now) presented to the community a woman with mature sexual drive, skill, and experience, who no longer had any obvious legitimate way to satisfy her needs. The contrast between such women and their younger, inexperienced, never-married counterparts was and is striking, especially in cultures that value virginity. I might hazard a guess that virginity-obsessed cultures would be most likely to believe in the insatiable widow, but I have no data to support that.
Nevertheless the idea of insatiable widows also reflects (as you suggest) fear of women. Patriarchal cultures often seem to fear women, although what men really fear is the feelings women provoke in them and the power women have as those feelings are aroused.
For example, the Talmud depicts great rabbis with sex drives as impressive as their minds and tells numerous stories about sages led into temptation. (My recent book,The Jewish Body, goes into this in more detail.) Laws governing how often one should have sex seem to obligate men to satisfy their needy wives, although the tales of rabbinical lust suggest that male drives are far greater. Interestingly, scholars (being less physically tired) are supposed to do it more often than laborers, so the rabbis had to “satisfy” their wives very frequently.
The more ancient Hebrew culture of biblical times recognized the gender difference in sex drive in part by allowing one man to marry several women at once (as did 80 percent of all traditional cultures, compared with less than one percent allowing the reverse). Interestingly, it also provided an institutionalized destiny for a widow—the levirate, according to which the dead husband’s nearest male relative was supposed to marry her.
Not ideal for either, no doubt, but probably better than some other solutions—permanent celibacy for widows, for instance, as was decreed by some cultures, or suttee, the old custom in some parts of India of burning widows on their husbands’ funeral pyres.
According to an editorial in today’s New York Times, Pakistan has been tolerant of extreme oppression of women in the now-Taliban-ruled Swat Valley; a video widely viewed shows a woman being flogged and begging for mercy, reportedly because she rejected a marriage proposal from a Taliban commander. In the same editorial, the Times quotes a new Afghan law affecting Shiite women, stating that unless she is ill, “a wife is obliged to fulfill the sexual desires of her husband.” As understood and applied in present-day Afghanistan, this law condones marital rape.
Such practices, along with the widespread northern African practice of removing the clitoris of young girls, show that men in many cultures have been obsessed with controlling women’s sexuality and in some cases exaggerating or widening the natural gender gap in sex drive. Almost invariably, they enhance men’s control over women’s sexuality.
But if culture and learning can depress or enhance women’s enthusiasm for sex, then surely modernization and education for women will tend to enhance it—no doubt part of the reason patriarchal cultures oppose it. Also, we know that educating girls and women enhances their ability to resist male manipulation of their sexual lives and freedom. Their sexuality, however expressed, becomes more their own.
This may result in some interesting paradoxes. Many years ago, the Kinsey report showed that the likelihood of a woman ever having masturbated not only increased steadily with age into the late thirties, it was also highly correlated with years of education. So we men have to come to terms with the possibility that as women become more educated, and thus more comfortable with and more in control of their own sexuality, their quest for satisfaction may not necessarily involve us.