Empowered women, emasculated men?

Sophie Herdman reports on our latest debate: Empowered Women, Emasculated Men?

The feminism revolution of the Sixties has improved our lives in many ways, but Psychologies' most recent debate, in conjunction with The Tavistock Centre For Couple Relationships, looked specifically at how feminism has changed our sex lives. As traditional gender roles become blurred, how do men and women navigate sexual relationships? Is equal sex better sex? Has the empowerment of women emasculated men?

On the panel, chaired by couples therapist Professor Brett Kahr, were feminist writer Natasha Walter, author of ‘Living Dolls: The Return of Sexism’; Rebecca Asher, former deputy editor of Radio 4’s Women’s Hour and author of ‘Shattered: Modern Motherhood And The Illusion of Equality’; and philosopher Robert Rowland Smith.

The debate started with a simple question: is there really equality in the bedroom? Walter believes we are nonchalant about the private sexist attitudes that exist, and the impact they have. She learned from speaking to girls in their late teens and early twenties that they feel pressure to measure up as a sexual object, and that an explicit sexual culture doesn’t mean an equal one. Asher agreed, saying that we flatter ourselves that equality is within our reach, but ideas such as Catherine Hakim’s theory of erotic capital, show that we're still a long way off.

Biology was a strong topic of the evening. ‘Men and woman are just different, there is no equality in desire,’ said Rowland Smith. Kahr said he had seen many couples in his clinic and no matter how progressive the woman was, she would never initiate sex and, if she did, the man felt emasculated. ‘But initiation presumes that it’s in the control of the initiator,' said Rowland-Smith. 'That’s not true. Sexual desire is more complicated than that.’

Walter was cautious: ‘We shouldn’t be enthralled by the idea that our behaviour is biologically determined. If we are, we will automatically fall into these roles.’ But there are differences that we can benefit from knowing, pointed out one audience member – men have sex to make them feel good, women need to feel good to have sex.

Susanna Abse, director of The Tavistock Centre For Couples Relationships, brought the debate back to its original question – empowered women, emasculated men? When she started training as a couples therapist, as a feminist, she was worried that she would be unsympathetic to men. ‘But I often feel sorry for them,’ she said. ‘Women can be frightening to men. Their sexuality can be powerful and overwhelming.’

‘We need to put intimacy back into a central place,’ said Walker. Intimacy can increase during parenthood, said Asher. ‘You simply don’t have time to tip toe around each other, so you just have to say what you want.’ Rowland-Smith questioned the words we use. ‘Having’ sex implies it is a consumerism thing, he said. ‘There is an appetite for people to talk about love, not sex. Sex has become decoupled from love.’