(Today we talk to Dr Catherine Hakim, on the plight of the sex-starved British male. Dr Catherine Hakim is a pioneering British social scientist and author. Currently, she is Professorial Research Fellow at Civitas, the London think tank. From 1993 to 2012, she was Senior Research Fellow at the London School of Economics, then at the Centre for Policy Research in London and the WZB social science research institute in Berlin. She is also author of Honey Money as well as Key Issues in Women’s Work. Her new book New Rules, Economies of Desire is out now.)
Laura Perrins: Tell me about your new book, the New Rules: Economies of Desire?
Dr Catherine Hakim: The New Rules started out as a book about internet dating, and how that is changing relationships. Internet dating is the new normal for meeting people, at all ages. My focus was the new websites springing up to facilitate affairs between married people. They are just like all the other dating websites in terms of the process involved. I got interested in this small, well-defined, hidden, niche mating market because marriage is excluded as a potential destination. This makes these websites, and their users, distinctively different. But how exactly? That was the question.
The most striking difference is the imbalance in numbers, with 10 men to every woman on the English websites. The Ashley Maddison website hacking scandal in Canada revealed that this imbalance is routine everywhere. This gives women the edge, which is unusual. Some women realised it and exploited it fully – just as men invariably do when they get the chance, which is most of the time. The men typically said they were in a sex-starved or celibate marriage, but were devoted to their family and did not want to disrupt their primary relationship. The affairs websites make it much easier to remain discreet, by allowing people to search for like-minded partners well outside their own social circle.
The imbalance in numbers got me into checking out the facts on celibacy, and imbalances in sexual desire within marriage, through the national sex surveys. To my astonishment, there are dozens of these surveys, carried out all over the world. Britain has had three surveys so far, in 1990, 2000, and 2010. The world expert is Professor Osmo Kontula in Finland, who has run six surveys so far. All the sex survey reports emphasise how the sexual experience of men and women is becoming more similar, in terms of average numbers of partners. But my readings found that huge differences remain in terms of sexual attitudes, desire and motivation, solo sex, casual sex, sexual fantasies, what men are prepared to pay for sex compared to women.
There are also huge differences between men and women in reported celibacy, and in the desire for a more active sex life, even in married couples. A 2006 sex survey in Italy found that two-thirds of men and women are agreed that men have stronger sexual desires than women. People in France say the same thing. Age, class, education, and income make no difference – opinions are unanimous.
This new chapter on ‘economies of desire’ thus sheds new light on the motives and experiences of men and women embarking on affairs through the new dating websites.
LP: If I may take of the liberty of summarising your position, you are a feminist in the sense you believe in equality before the law, and equality of opportunity. But today, when feminists aim for equality of outcome or parity they are not taking into account female preferences, which you have discussed at length elsewhere?
CH: Yes indeed. In my book Key Issues in Women’s Work (and also in Work-lifestyles in the 21st Century: Preference Theory) I show that across all industrialised economies, women’s ideal lifestyle, and work orientations, differ from those of most men. Many women prefer part-time or flexible jobs, and/or they give priority to work-life balance, even if they earn a bit less. So the pay gap between men and women is inevitable, as they often choose different jobs. In Britain, there is no pay gap among people under 30, and the pay gap has now been fully explained by job choices. So we really are ahead of the game on equality, and should recognise it.
LP: Staying on feminism, it is true that they are very antagonistic to men and marriage?
CH: Radical feminism (rather than ‘vanilla’ feminism) remains the focus of university courses on gender studies. It presents an unremittingly negative view of heterosexual relationships – sleeping with the enemy. However young women today have a different perspective, take equality for granted, and quite like men!
What has not changed much, and may even be getting worse, is sexual harassment and everyday sexism. I think this could be a consequence of the male sexual deficit, which is growing over time, at least in Western Europe. Professor Kontula and I draw the same conclusion.
LP: One of the critical errors – what I think makes today’s feminists completely nuts (to use the technical term) is the idea that the men and women are very similar – almost the same. When it comes to sexual desire this is not found in either the research or indeed in everyday life. In fact, given the amount of testosterone running through the average male it is a testament to self-control that so many remain faithful in a lifelong marriage?
CH: As the Japanese demonstrate, overwork, a long hours culture, and a strong (Protestant) work ethic are the best prophylactics against a lively sex life. (Living with your in-laws is second best.) Even young people in Japan are choosing celibacy, to the consternation of the government worried about low birth rates. Capitalism seems to kill off the (traditional?) alternative of a life of libidinous indolence, with high birth rates.
LP: Are British men sex starved?
CH: Probably, most men are, especially over the age of 35. However Englishmen may have developed better methods of coping with it: cold showers, regular beatings with a cane at school or in religious retreats, and of course, the classic solution of homosexuality, where like minds meet and women become redundant. I forecast a rise in openly gay men across Europe, as a result of countries shifting from the historical surplus of women to the new numerical surplus of men throughout the world, according to the World Bank. This is the key downside of no World Wars – too many men! Of course there is the alternative French (or Latin) solution: affairs, treated as an art form, with seduction, courtship, flirting, compliments, and of course lots of wine and elegant outings. This seems a more constructive and creative solution.
LP: As such, should women be taking their ‘wifely duties’ more seriously?
CH: In many marriages, there is a fair exchange of unlimited sex (for him) and unlimited access to his income (for her). Today we have the bizarre situation of wives being able to refuse sex (with rape a crime) whereas husbands cannot legitimately refuse financial support for their wives, or even their ex-wives.
Most marriages start off with both partners earning, and a somewhat symmetrical relationship. This usually changes once children are born. Across Europe, even in Sweden and other Nordic countries, wives contribute a minority of household income, husbands provide the majority. This is the reality for most people.
The easiest way to get round an imbalance in sexual interest is for wives to identify the ‘treat’ they want in exchange for his sexual ‘treats’ – such as eating out somewhere nice every month. Fair exchange is no robbery, as economists point out.
LP: You certainly do not have socially conservative views when it comes to prostitution and extra-marital affairs. Do you believe the criminalisation of men who purchase sex is essentially criminalising the male heterosexual sex drive?
CH: The decriminalisation of the sex industry, globally, has been recommended by every organisation that has looked into it properly – Amnesty International, a United Nations Commission, and also the House of Commons Home Affairs Select Committee. Men and women who sell sexual entertainment and sexual services do not welcome regulation or interference, however well-meaning.
The Nordic model is currently politically fashionable, but offers a classic case of mauvaise foi. Criminalising the buyer simply pushes demand abroad into more liberal, enlightened countries. In Sweden, 80 per cent of men who have paid for sex did so in another country. Pushing the sex industry abroad is hardly an admirable solution!
(Image: Karla Ann Cote)