Sexual liberation? Who has been liberated?
Photo: Flickr/Recuerdo de Pandora (CC)

Sixty years ago Alfred Kinsey (1894–1956, USA) published Sexual Behavior in the Human Female (1953), the first study of its kind together with Sexual Behavior in the Human Male, published five years earlier (1948). Kinsey would have been 119 years old on 23 June, and although this date is not usually commemorated, it might prompt us to ask ourselves what has happened to men and women's sexual behaviour over the past decades. "Since the 1950s and 60s in our Western culture (with the exception of certain countries), sex has become a central and fundamental element of partner relationships. Today, couples are expected to provide each other with psychological wellbeing and emotional balance, in addition to a satisfying sexual relationship. Furthermore, we are gradually becoming indifferent to whether the relationship is homosexual or heterosexual in nature. Emotionalization of partner relationships and "deheterosexualization" are two intertwined and parallel processes that are produced. "Does this mean that the so-called 'sexual liberation' preached, for example, by W. Reich has released us from many bonds and increased our freedom? Has it had the same effect on men and women?" asked Francesc Nez, director of the UOC's Humanities programme and a researcher with the GRECS research group.

This issue has many facets, some of them with sharp edges, he said, referring to some of the unexpected and unwanted consequences: "It may well be that recreational sexuality and our choice of partner are linked to 'sociological' impulses that are opposite or incompatible between men and women, and that where these two playing fields overlap, the capital – and interests – might not be the same and may benefit some more than others," even if at first glance this may seem politically incorrect.

Begonya Enguix, anthropologist and lecturer at the UOC, said that "despite the appearance of greater equality between men and women, huge differences still remain in many areas of social life, as men continue to occupy most managerial positions and receive higher remuneration with equal conditions, while women are still in charge of everything related to care and procreation, for example. This dual power game of territory conquered and yet to be won can sometimes make it very difficult to label a behaviour or trend in a simple way. Therefore, on the sexual terrain, it is not clear whether women today enjoy more or less sexual and emotional freedom, whether this extends to all women and whether inequality has effectively been reduced." As Nez said, "Perhaps we can talk about great changes in partner and sexual relationships, but these continue to conceal important inequalities and forms of domination, just as many women continue to denounce."

Sex, a male status symbol

According to Enguix, sexual activity and potency have traditionally been, particularly in Mediterranean countries, fundamental pillars of masculinity. Male sexuality, as a field of competition and battle, aspires to the conquest of women who, supposedly liberated, enjoy the same conditions. In the end, women's most valuable erotic capital (as stated, for example, by the controversial sociologist Catherine Hakim) serves to attract men whose sexual needs are greater (given that according to Hakim men are in a permanent state of sexual deficit). Nevertheless, where women usually think of sex in relation to a series of romantic aspects that justify and legitimize it, men practice sex with emotional detachment and a lack of commitment. This, according to Nez, gives them a competitive advantage, at the same time as strengthening their individual autonomy. Furthermore, in some cases, women's reproductive strategy (which is not only, but also, a question of age) leads them to adopt more pronounced strategies of sexual exclusivity than men do and this makes them more capable of commitment. Men are not "obliged" to do this and this perceived freedom also provides a very important competitive advantage (that becomes dominance).

This leads to the idea of the cumulative sexuality preferred by men versus the female preference for emotional exclusivity, terms used by Eva Illouz in her recent book Why Love Hurts. In this situation, men have a clear advantage in the context of deregulated sexuality, in which accumulation is advantageous over exclusivity. With this in mind, Nez proposes reflection and discussion on the fact that "we find ourselves facing a situation of 'emotional domination', domination exerted when one side has a greater capacity to control the emotional interaction through greater detachment, and greater capacity to exert choice and to constrain the choice of the other."

Thus, Enguix and Nez perceive an asymmetrical model of gender relationships in which male domination is exerted on both a practical and discursive level. The fact is that even when women adopt a male cumulative strategy, this does not usually improve their position or put an end to domination. According to Enguix, this sexual strategy is interpreted as a tactic to find the right man, or else is condemned for being inappropriate for a woman. For Illouz, for example, the paradox is that middle-class heterosexual women have never had as much control over their own bodies and emotions as they do now and yet, at the same time, they are dominated by men in new and unprecedented ways. To address this paradox this author calls for sexuality to be transformed into a domain of conduct regulated by both freedom and ethics. The proposal put forward by Nez and Enguix involves changing the rules of the game, which are very deep-rooted. "The behaviours described by Kinsey have changed, but the challenges are still enormous", reflects Francesc Nez and Enguix adds, "Both men and women must face up to these challenges."

On 23 June, Alfred Kinsey would have been 119 years old

The study sought to objectively identify human sexual experience and behaviour.

Some of the results of the study shocked the public, as, according to the data analysed:

  • 37% of the sample had had a homosexual experience.
  • 62% of women had experiences of masturbation.
  • 70% of men had had some encounter with prostitutes.
  • 50% of married men had some extramarital experience.
  • 50% of women had had sexual relations before marriage.
  • 30% of women had never achieved sexual satisfaction.
  • 25% of married women had some extramarital experience.



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