‘Mismatched desire is the burning issue’

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Sydney - Bettina Arndt, psychologist and best-selling author of The Sex Diaries, has enraged some fellow Australians with her view that marriages might have been stronger before women gained the same rights not to have sex that men always had.

“Mismatched desire is the burning issue,” she said. “It's what's filling the waiting rooms of sex therapists all over the world. I've spent half my life hearing from sex-starved men and the women saying 'Oh, do I have to?'“

Question: In the 1960s you were in the forefront of the feminist movement and marriage was seen as good for men but bad for women. Is the opposite true now?

Arndt: Women often have a long shopping list of things they want from their husbands and it isn't easy for the men to meet those expectations. So most marital separations are now instigated by women - across the Western world - when men fail to come up to scratch.

Men are very aware that they stand to lose out if the marriage ends. They're often hit hard financially and lose their children. So many try hard to please their partners even though they might not be getting much in return. A lot of men are in marriages where they get very little sex.

Q: Would lower expectations of marriage help?

TheSexDiaries2 The Sex Diaries .

Arndt: I think it would help if women didn't expect their men to tick so many boxes. They want a soul-mate, a man who'll reveal all his feelings but still be prepared to rush into burning buildings and squash spiders and cockroaches. It's a big ask.

Once wives were happy to interpret men's behaviour from the way their husbands behaved. Now she wants to know what's going on inside his head. But many men aren't very good at regurgitating all their emotions.

Q: You say a big issue is lack of sex.

Arndt: Back in the 1950s sex was part of a wife's sexual duty. She felt some obligation to make love with her husband. Now many women seem to believe that if they don't feel like having sex it needn't happen.

In my research, where couples kept diaries about how they deal with differences in desire, there were men who had gone for 10, 20 years with no sex in their marriages. The problem is that many women spend years with no spontaneous desire, so unless they're willing to start making love without initial desire, their sex life grinds to a halt.

Q: You urge women to recognise a “very fragile, easily distracted libido” isn't a block to having sex and to just to get on with it.

Arndt: I'm talking here about new research by Canadian Rosemary Basson who has been conducting research on women who have no libido.

Basson found many of these women report that even if they have no initial desire, if they start making love and are with a man who knows how to please them, and can get their head in the right place to anticipate pleasure, they do go on and enjoy lovemaking - desire kicks in, they become aroused and reach orgasm. This is the 'just do it' idea.

Q: So both partners don't need to feel desire?

Arndt: I'm suggesting that the low desire partner - male or female -needs to think about the impact of constant rejection on their partner. So men who aren't interested in sex need also to “just do it” - to make love to their partners to make them feel wanted and loved. And men don't need desire, don't even need erections, to give a woman sexual pleasure.

Q: There doesn't seem to be a backlash from men unhappy with their marriages.

Arndt: Unfortunately much of the public debate about social and sexual issues is conducted entirely by women - at least that's true here in Australia. Men have dropped out of the cultural debate because they're silenced whenever they speak openly about their needs or how they're being treated by women. I receive constant criticism for being an apologist for men. Even to defend men means you receive a lot of abuse. - Sapa-dpa

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