Entry from November 2, 2010

Talk about putting the cat among the pigeons! They do talk about it in the UK, you know, which is where the popular entertainer Stephen Fry, described by one of his critics as “everyone”s favourite gay uncle,” has recently, according to The Sunday Telegraph “enraged feminists with a bizarre outburst in which he claimed that women are incapable of enjoying sex.” Bizarre outburst? My guess is that he thought he was being funny. Here’s what he said:

If women liked sex as much as men, there would be straight cruising areas in the way there are gay cruising areas. Women would go and hang around in churchyards thinking: ‘God, I’ve got to get my f——- rocks off’, or they”d go to Hampstead Heath and meet strangers to shag behind a bush. “It doesn”t happen. Why? Because the only women you can have sex with like that wish to be paid for it. . . I feel sorry for straight men. The only reason women will have sex with them is that sex is the price they are willing to pay for a relationship with a man, which is what they want. Of course, a lot of women will deny this and say, “Oh no, but I love sex, I love it!” But do they go around having it the way that gay men do?

Only on Sex and the City. But in one sense, at least, he is right. For “sex” in the sense he is using it here is a quite recent usage which only became possible when sex became culturally dissevered from those “relationships” (called marriage) apart from which it was not supposed to happen at all and which used to be the norm, in the official culture anyway, for both sexes.

But the feminists didn’t see it that way. “Don”t tell me what I feel about sex, Mr Fry,” sniffed Hephzibah Anderson in The Observer. This, by the way, is the woman who recently shot to fame as the author of the memoir Chastened: The Unexpected Story of My Year Without Sex, so you can understand how she might be outraged by the suggestion that women only use sex as a means to getting something else that they want. But you can’t help thinking that Bryony Gordon in the Daily Telegraph misses the point when she writes: “Has it not occurred to Fry that when you have sex with someone, it is often because you like them, and have possibly entertained the idea of having a relationship with them? That relationships are born out of sex and vice versa? And isn’t this all a bit insulting to the straight men he feels so sorry for? It presumes that they are all too stupid or led by their genitals, to have a clue what is going on.” The answer is, yes it has occurred to him, and that is just what horrifies him about heterosexual sex. It doesn’t quite presume that straight men are stupid and led by their genitals but, well, let’s not kid ourselves into thinking they aren’t, lots of times. Gay men too, I imagine. No point in being insulted by the truth.

What interests me is why it is an insult? Why are women shocked and outraged to be told they don’t like “sex”? The emotion of their reaction is not proportional to the ostensible cause if all it means is that they think he’s wrong — and they ought to be in a better position to know than he is, after all. No, I think it’s to do with the fact that Mr Fry has, perhaps inadvertently, echoed an ancient masculine trope whose denial is one of the foundations of the movement for women’s equality. “Feminists across the internet have defended themselves against the wearisome patriarchal charge of frigidity,” writes Laurie Penny as she joins them in The Guardian. But of course it’s not wearisome at all, if she gets so excited about it — so much so, indeed, that she ironically cites “Fry”s spectacular ability to entirely dismiss the culture of shame, sexual threat and social stigma associated with female sexuality” when he has done nothing of the kind. If anything, rather than dismissing this “culture” he has affirmed it. Shame, sexual threat and social stigma are what “sex” means to women, in his view. No wonder he thinks they don’t like it!

I think what she and the other hopping mad feminists mind is the implication that if men enjoy “sex” and women don’t, then they’re not equal — indeed, identical, at least in their sexual desires. Worse than that, it means that women are cast in the role of permanent victims of male lust, since the only way out of that role is to admit that Mr Fry is right and that “sex” is the price they are willing to pay for a “relationship” — i.e. marriage and kids, which is what they really want. Or don’t, if you’re a feminist. And can’t. And mustn’t. The social construction of gender roles was once based on just this implicit bargain; now it is based on the denial that there is or can be or should be such a bargain, even though we all know that it still is made routinely by ordinary men and women.

Meanwhile, in the Independent, Steve Connor gingerly takes up the socio-biological point of view of the subject and concludes that Mr Fry, “may have a point, but only if the long view of human sexuality is taken into account.” Well, why wouldn’t you take it into account, I wonder? But Mr Fry is now in headlong retreat from his own opinion, which he says was “taken out of context.” This seems doubtful, as he has said similar things many times before. He knows he must apologize for and disclaim his own views because he has outraged politically correct opinion. He knows that what shocks us today is the opposite of what shocked our grandparents, but for us as for them it is the truth that must never be acknowledged in public. Then, it was that women might like “sex” for its own sake; now it is that they might not like it.

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