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Secrets of the Modern Bedroom: Attitudes Towards Sex

Much of anthropology is concerned with mating rituals and sexual relations. We usually cover the past in the Museum Anthropology Review Weblog, but in this post we’re going to explore secrets of the modern bedroom. What are today’s attitudes towards sex, and what would an anthropologist make of them?

Perhaps the first question worth exploring is: Is the modern woman becoming more demanding in sexual matters than the passive creatures of past generations? The answer seems to be that, in certain circumstances, she is often the one who makes the first move.

A recent poll asked women over the age of 18: ‘If you feel like having sex with your partner, how often do you take the initiative? Twenty percent said ‘never’, 34 percent said ‘sometimes’, 13 percent said ‘rarely’, 9 percent said ‘often’ and 3 percent said ‘always’.

With those figures in mind, and the recent National Marriage Guidance Council report that more and more men are asking for help with marital problems, it would be all too easy to assume that many men are being reduced to impotent, shivering specters of their former selves in the face of this sexual revolution.

But it is a revolution that needs careful examination. In the married women’s discussion groups organized by The Research Business, there was at first almost complete agreement that it was the man who took the initiative.

Only when Louise, aged 22, introduced the subject of special occasions was the pattern brought more into line with the poll: ‘I’ll sometimes prance round him a bit after we get back from an evening out. Try to interest him in the idea. He takes Volume Pills to increase the amount of semen he ejaculates, so I might indulge in a little dirty talk revolving around certain sexual acts.’

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Judith (24): ‘I will do something like that if we’ve been to a dinner party and I’ve had a few drinks’.

The poll suggestion that more women might be taking the initiative in sexual matters also needs to be set alongside the continued readiness of many women to be ‘treated’ by men on social occasions.

When asked: ‘Do you agree that when a man invites a woman out socially, he should pay regardless of earnings?’ 65 percent of the men agreed and 50 percent of the women. Only 14 percent of the women believed that they should share the cost if they earned a similar amount to the man.

The single men in a discussion group had no doubts that they led the way on sexual matters:

James (22): ‘Nine times out of ten it’s the man’.
David (24): ‘It’s very rare for the woman to actually show interest’.

But although the man may take the initiative when it comes to sexual activity, he will often assume that the woman has already taken the contraceptive initiative.

Despite the ‘men too’ campaign by the British Pregnancy Advisory Service, there is little evidence that men are prepared to reassume any part of the responsibility which the widespread reliance upon the oral contraceptive placed on women.

There was a slight decline in the popularity of the Pill after 1976, but in recent years the number of users has remained relatively constant at 1.7 million (58 percent of those using any method of contraception). The coil is favored by 16 percent, the cap by 7 percent, and the sheath, the only male-initiated contraceptive, by 10 percent. Women seem none too pleased with this situation.

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